Why we need to take the spiritual aspect of sports more seriously

Understanding what’s truly important in sports, by getting guidance beyond wins and losses, is what can give sports power beyond the fields of play.

Britain's Andy Murray celebrates after winning against Italy's Fabio Fognini after their men's singles match on day five at the Wimbledon Tennis Championships in London on July 7, 2017. Photo by Alastair Grant/AP

(RNS) — Many people tend to write off sports as a waste of time, only for “jocks,” not worthy of serious consideration from an academic or even a religious perspective.

As a scholar who teaches a course on “Sport and Spirituality,” in a Roman Catholic school, I often run up against common cliches that get in the way:

Sports inherently build character

They can build character, but there is no guarantee they will.

Unfortunately, there are plenty of examples of how they do not automatically help one morally, including steroid use, issues related to concussions, recruiting scandals and gambling problems.

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It has been said that sports create character or reveal character. In a society that is obsessed with winning, we must focus on the character-building of athletic achievement as opposed to just the outcome of who came in first.

Sports are connected with spirituality, faith or religion

Athletes are often seen pointing to the heavens after crossing home plate following a home run or thanking God in postgame interviews.

However, the connection between sports and God (or the gods) actually goes back to the ancient Greeks, if not earlier. In the fifth century B.C., the Olympic games were always played to placate or to praise the gods. In a context where there is so much “me-first thinking,” going beyond oneself to the transcendent can move a person beyond the self and perhaps even prompt better performance.

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Our culture takes sports too seriously

If anything, we do not take sports seriously enough.

Sports can teach spirituality if we are aware of how to look at them. I like to refer to ministry through sports as a “spirituality by stealth.” We can sneak in significant life lessons or virtues through a popular experience.

Michigan Wolverines guard Derrick Walton Jr. (10) kneels

Michigan Wolverines guard Derrick Walton Jr. kneels on the court at the conclusion of the Wolverines’ game against the Wisconsin Badgers during the Big Ten Conference Tournament championship game March 12, 2017, at Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. Photo by Geoff Burke/USA Today Sports

In 2016, the Vatican launched an initiative titled “Sport at the Service of Humanity,” during which Pope Francis said: “Challenge yourself in faith as you challenge yourself in sports.” That conference identified six virtues that can be taught through sports: joy, compassion, respect, love, balance and enlightenment.

The Rev. Thomas Keating, a well-known Trappist order spiritual writer, said, “Every human pleasure is meant to be a stepping-stone to knowing God better or to discovering some new aspect of God. Only when that stepping-stone becomes an end in itself — that is, when we over-identify with it — does it distort the divine intention. Everything in the universe is meant to be a reminder of God’s presence.”

Sports are a human pleasure and can be a way to get to know God better, as long as we do not get overly attached to the wins and losses, the glitter and the fame.

Another well-known Trappist writer, Thomas Merton, is known to have used sports analogies when he was teaching novices. Merton knew, as did the Apostle Paul, that his charges would be familiar with sports and they might be able to better understand his teachings if he connected them with something they were familiar with.

The Second Vatican Council urged the body of Christ to read the signs of the times and to engage with culture.

Pope Francis has promoted the kind of ministry that meets the people where they are. One of the places where people gather and connect in community is sporting events.

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My university, Villanova, hosted a follow-up conference to the Vatican’s last month. We focused on the needs of intercollegiate sports, specifically the needs of the student-athlete. College sports are an important area of focus, particularly since 18- to 21-year-olds will use athletics as a steppingstone in life, since the vast majority will stop playing competitively when they graduate.

In his opening words to welcome the conference participants, the Rev. Peter Donohue, president of Villanova, referenced Brian Hainline, chief medical officer of the NCAA, who stated that “the contemporary college athlete is on a cliff” and in need of help.

Much of what we spoke about at this conference was about how we can attend to the needs of student-athletes who are at risk because of the pressures of expectations, the need to win, the threat of being exploited and the desire for a balanced, healthy way of living.

Often much pressure for the welfare of the student-athlete is placed primarily upon coaches. Is this too much to ask of the coaches who, for the most part, have not been trained to look at a student-athlete holistically?

Many college coaches have been part of a “training system” that frequently acts like an apprenticeship, where one learns on the job by following a respected mentor. This is all well and good, but the needs of the whole person — especially the spiritual needs — get overlooked. Whether it’s more focused training for coaches and/or better collaboration from the support systems around the institutions, the athlete on the cliff needs more attention.

Perhaps what we discussed as important for college sports is applicable for athletes of all ages. Understanding what’s truly important in sports, by getting guidance beyond wins and losses, is what can give sports power beyond the fields of play.

Sports and the welfare of those who play them are worthy of deeper consideration and study. Conferences such as the one at the Vatican and its follow-up at Villanova University are providing much-needed hope for one of our favorite pastimes.

(Edward Hastings is an assistant professor in the department of theology and religious studies at Villanova University, where he teaches a course on “Sport and Spirituality”)

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