Do Sports Spoil Catholic Education?

What role do sports play in Catholic education? As important, and perhaps more important, what role should they play? Such questions have been tackled by some of the best Catholic colleges, those that merit inclusion in The Newman Guide, in positive and faith-affirming ways. There is the excellent work being done, for instance, at Belmont Abbey College and at Mount St. Mary’s University on sport and virtue. At the high school level, the Catholic Athletes for Christ has had a great impact. And yet there is also the very serious question about how much damage is done to the Catholic educational enterprise—and the focus on Catholic identity and student behavior—at some Catholic colleges that put priority on sports to the ultimate detriment of the school’s mission.

At what price do Catholic schools and colleges strive to win? Are we too focused on having champion teams instead of forming all comers who want to play a sport?

Such questions will once again come to the fore following the publication of a new Vatican document on Sport and the Human Person.

In my own experience of engagement with Newman Guide colleges and Newman Society Honor Roll schools, I have seen the full spectrum of approaches to this thorny and yet crucial question. On what might be called the minimalist end of the spectrum, some schools provide no competitive sports programs, whereas others might opt out of playing competitive sports but will enable students to organize intra-mural sports or perhaps will actively facilitate and promote such intra-mural recreational activities. Toward the middle of the spectrum, some schools and colleges incorporate competitive sports programs, combined with an approach which retains the Catholic educational focus. Take Belmont Abbey College, for instance, which is preparing to launch its Sport Virtue Institute in the next academic year. BAC’s President, Dr. William K. Thierfelder, has championed this approach, believing that virtue-oriented sports programs can positively impact the culture and that world-class athletic performance and virtue are not mutually exclusive.

At what might be called the maximalist end of the spectrum, some schools seem to operate in such a manner that all focus on Catholic identity is laid aside with respect to their sports programs. It’s as though sports are considered exempt from the integrated approach to the mission of Catholic education, being a law unto themselves. Such schools model themselves on secular institutions with regard to sports, even while endeavouring to provide an alternative to such institutions in other respects.

At one university at which I’ve taught, the spiritual climate and educational culture was changed radically with the introduction of a maximalist approach to competitive sports. Almost overnight, or at least at the beginning of the new academic year, it was as though the Catholic identity of the institution had been severely compromised by its commitment to competitive sports. In one year, I was teaching classes comprised almost entirely of Catholic students, most of whom were engaged with their faith as well as with the academics; in the following year, one third of my freshman class was athletes—basketball players to be precise—who were apparently not Catholics and who were, for the most part, not in the least interested in the liberal arts education being offered. The average grades of my students plummeted, egregious instances of plagiarism increased dramatically, and the very spirit of the classroom was altered drastically and indubitably for the worse.

And the problem does not apply solely to college-level sports. At an independent Catholic high school, which will also remain nameless, the priest who served as the school’s chaplain resigned when plans to build the school chapel were abandoned so that financial resources could be diverted to a new custom-built gym.

None of the foregoing should suggest that I am opposed to competitive sports, nor that I believe that sports have no place in good Catholic schools and colleges. I have personally followed a lifestyle rooted in what I call the healthy trinity of spiritual, intellectual and physical fitness, in which I try to keep all three aspects of a healthy lifestyle in permanent if not always perfect balance. This includes trying to go to the gym five times a week. It is, therefore, not a question of denigrating the importance of sports but of keeping it in healthy balance with the spiritual and intellectual health of the school or college. If an unbalanced approach to sports is harming the Catholic mission, it’s time for a radical rethink of the place of sports in the scheme of things.

JOSEPH PEARCE is a senior fellow at The Cardinal Newman Society and editor of its journal. He is a senior contributor at The Imaginative Conservative and senior editor at the Augustine Institute. His books include biographical works on C.S. Lewis, Shakespeare, Tolkien, Chesterton, Solzhenitsyn and Belloc.

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