When Sports Displace Catholic Education

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When I started writing this, the Notre Dame football team was ranked so high in the national polls that many people thought it would play in the national championship playoffs. A certain type of Catholic was standing a little taller in those days, sometimes sporting Fighting Irish gear even at Mass. Now, those same people have instead a Lenten-like look, for Our Lady’s team has lost and is out of the running for this season’s championship.

On the rare occasions when Notre Dame loses, those of us allied with other Catholic schools like to tease the “Domers” – a mask for our envy, of course. For we are all secretly jealous of Notre Dame’s athletic success. Our unconscious envy only reveals what everybody somehow already knows but does not reflect upon: Catholic schools in the United States, both on the collegiate and high school level, are now thoroughly attached to and reliant upon sports programs.

To be sure, like all young people, Catholic students have always loved ballgames; but even the most cursory glance at the history of Christian education reveals that what most clearly distinguishes today’s American Catholic educational institutions from their historical antecedents is the prominent position now commanded by sports teams. I have begun to refer to this phenomenon as the rise of the “American Catholic Sports Academies” (ACSAs).

I write from the Pacific Northwest, where the most visible of the ACSAs is Gonzaga University. This school, which has just announced plans for an expensive new “Center for Athletic Achievement,” is much more famous for its basketball teams than its philosophy department, wherein I teach.

In the Northwest, however, ACSAs are more common on the high school level. The just-completed football season was particularly kind to them: Idaho’s only diocesan Catholic high school won the championship for its division; in Oregon, a Catholic high school won the championship for the largest-sized schools; and in Washington state, the largest two divisions went to Catholic schools.

Some of these Northwest ACSAs have conducted marketing surveys that ask parent/supporters why they send their children to Catholic high school. Among the top items on the list is always “activity programs,” at the bottom is always “faith formation.”

Of course, every philosopher knows that human beings reveal more about themselves through expressing anger than they do through answering marketing surveys. A single sad – if comical – incident will have to suffice to illustrate the point. At one Northwest ACSA, a principal and athletic director recently discovered that major athletic recruiting violations had occurred at their high school. In the spirit of Catholic confession (not to mention league rules), they reported the infractions to conference officials. This resulted in a penance for the school: the forfeiture of games and trophies.

Female athletes depicted in 4th-century A.D. mosaics (Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily)
Female athletes depicted in 4th-century A.D. mosaics (Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily)

But this, in turn, led to the formation of an angry mob of athletic boosters, who demanded the firing of the whistleblowers for donning sackcloth. Weak-kneed archdiocesan administrators ran into their offices, from whence it seemed the only way to emerge in safety was to place lesser sanctions on the whistleblowers and ask for an independent investigation of the whole affair. But, alas, the independent investigation vindicated the whistleblowers completely, and with painful precision; the archdiocesan officials are thus left trying to break the bad news to the angry boosters delicately, and with indirection.

In the Confessions, St. Augustine admits that, as a child, he cheated at ballgames and became angry when he was found out; the ACSA parents of Seattle do such as adults.

There is no real parallel to the modern ACSA in the whole history of Catholic education. To find a true analogue, you would have to turn to the ancient “gymnastic” of Greece and Rome – to the Homeric and Olympic games honoring the pagan deities. With the advent of Christianity, however, Greco-Roman athleticism was transformed into asceticism. The two are not completely dissimilar, but the former aimed at comeliness of body, as well as proportion, muscle, and military virtue. The latter aimed only at improvement of soul – even if it meant with some damage to the body, if necessary.

The striking return of gymnastic to American educational institutions, and especially to Catholic ones, ought not be accepted unreflectively, for even the more thoughtful Greeks knew that an education based solely on gymnastic will produce souls as stunted as those of the Spartans.

Plato suggested that gymnastic could be useful within a sort of “bait and switch” educational scheme. You should introduce gymnastic early in the curriculum, he suggested, using it to develop the soul’s nascent spiritedness into love of victory, honor, and courage. The “switch” part comes next: you have to elevate the soul’s spiritedness away from gymnastic and toward a love of truth, wisdom, and the higher virtues. Such a redirection of the soul, in Plato’s view, was to be initiated through musical education, and then, later, through mathematics and liberal education generally. It culminated, of course, in philosophia, the love of wisdom.

The ACSAs seem to have mastered the “bait” part of Plato’s educational scheme. We use gymnastic to instill the desire for achievement in the souls of our students; in the best instances we also instill camaraderie and teamwork, and even courage, which, if it is not the most sublime of virtues, is still among the most foundational. What we don’t do well is the “switch” part. In the Catholic context, this would mean embracing Augustine’s educational plan, according to which Plato’s curriculum is used a stepping stone into the love of God.

Our ACSAs probably don’t have the resources necessary for such a task anymore, but as Augustine himself pointed out, you never know what God might have in mind.

Douglas Kries is a professor of philosophy at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington. He is the co-author, with colleague and friend Brian Clayton, of Two Wings: Integrating Faith and Reason and author as well of The Problem of Natural Law. He is currently working on a book on Robert Bellarmine’s political thought..