Monday, March 28, 2011

Triple Threat or Triple Bind? A Reality for Female Athletes

Not only did tonight’s win for the Lady Irish put them in the Final Four, it ended a 20 game win streak by the Lady Vols of Tennessee. I watched the game hoping for an Irish win, I still have fond memories of the 2001 national championship team, but in all honesty, I wanted to get a better look at Skylar Diggins. A friend who an excellent, skilled basketball player, mentioned Diggins, the sophomore point guard just yesterday. She said “ND’s point guard is good AND she’s pretty.” To my female friends who are athletes, especially those of you who are basketball players, I hope you are offended by this comment. And, I hope that you are like me--you know exactly what she meant. All too often it seems that one is at the cost of the other. It’s not always true, but quite often…..

I’m not (really) a feminist, but I’m not convinced the conversation would play out in this way were we to describe male athletes. I love talking about the talented Ben Hansbrough or Tim Abromaitis, and I have mentioned more than once how handsome they are, but never once have I done so (about them or any other male athlete) with a tone of surprise. Simply put, it's not an "either/or" proposition.

I would like to make the claim that something other than a double standard exists between male and female athletes. It’s one dimension of a study by psychologist Stephen Hinshaw known as the “Triple Bind.”

Be pretty, sweet and nice
Be athletic, competitive, and get straight A’s
Be impossibly perfect

It claims “In many ways, today is the best time in history to be a girl. Opportunities for a girl’s success are as unlimited as her dreams. Yet an alarm is sounding, revealing a disturbing portrait of the stresses affecting girls of all ages. Societal expectations, cultural trends, and conflicting messages are creating what psychologist Stephen Hinshaw calls “the Triple Bind.” Girls are now expected to excel at “girl skills,” achieve “boy goals,” and be models of female perfection, 100 percent of the time. The Triple Bind is putting more and more girls at risk for aggression, eating disorders, depression, and even suicide.”

Directly and indirectly I have given this idea a lot of thought. A friend once asked me if I was planning to raise a daughter or an athlete. I looked at him incredulous; I hope my face revealed the disgust and sadness I felt in my heart. Is one truly at the expense of the other?

A number of friends have expressed their athletic hopes and dreams for their children. As fun and interesting as it is to think of what their kids will pursue in 7-10 years time, I have noticed that most do not want their sons to play a certain sport for safety reasons whereas the concern for their daughters is for social ones—“it’s not a sport a girl should play.” I may be oversimplifying things, but I hear very little about social stigma as a concern for male athletes. The triple bind is real, and I know my thoughts and actions have contributed to its persistence.

My experience as a fan of men’s and women’s basketball at Notre Dame revealed this hard truth; I honestly don’t know how to let go a mindset I myself hold. It is more than a triple bind—it is a triple threat.
In basketball, a talented player has command of the “triple threat.” She or he can dribble, pass or shoot the ball with confidence. My inability to dribble too often put me in a precarious position on offense; consequently, I overcompensate or inevitably, I lose possession. The triple threat, however for most women is in no way confined to the hardwood. We want to be a triple threat: smart, athletic and beautiful. Such expectations actually put women into a triple bind. When we cannot master all three, we tend to overcompensate in two areas, or just check out of the game.

In no way would I ask any member of the Lady Irish to check out of the game. Their passion, teamwork and talent as evident in tonight's game was beautiful. These twelve players have overcompensated for one another’s weaknesses all season, because that’s what teammates do—they help one another out. And when that happens, the binding isn’t suffocating or debilitating—it’s connection.

I think it's important to ask ourselves--What are we bound to? and what bind us? Is it building a connection that suffocates or is life giving? Is it leading us to check out or to victory? Believe it or not, the root of "religion" is ligare which means "to bind." My Catholic faith affirms and helps me understand what I am bound to. I hope that in some small way, basketball does too.

Photo Credits
Skylar Diggins
Triple Bind

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Why I Love the BYU Honor Code

As we bid farewell to Jimmer Ferdette, chin bandage and all, one could not help but wonder how BYU would have fared if Brandon Davies, the Wildcats’ 6'9" center had been in the line-up. Davies, the third-leading scorer for the Brigham Young men's basketball team, did not play the remainder of the season for violating the school's honor code.Davies had consensual sex with his girlfriend. In a sport where paternity suits abound (the May 4, 1998 Sports Illustrated feature story Paternity Ward reported how common out-of-wedlock children have become, especially among NBA players), in a country with lax views on sexual morality and in a world where sexual violence against women is far too common, his offense is slight; it's minor. This honor code seems antiquated and stifling, out of touch and out of date. And I love it.

I’ll admit it, I primarily love the BYU honor code for self-centered reasons. A school that holds its student body to be honest, live a chaste and virtuous life, obey the law and all campus policies, use clean language, respect others, abstain from alcoholic beverages, tobacco, tea, coffee and substance abuse, participate regularly in church services and observe a dress and grooming standard is setting the bar very high. My selfish side thinks, any standard we set won’t be as demanding. BYU’s honor code makes any other seem a lot more do-able!

Most people look at the honor code and raise one if not two eyebrows. Although I believe one can and should ask “is the bar set too high?” I also believe we need to consider how often we set the bar too low; I think there is danger in doing that. I’ve worked with young people long enough that they will, all too often, do the (very) least of what is required of them…and I’m not just talking about homework.

The BYU honor code on the other hand sets a high standard that is in line with its faith tradition. I do not claim to know all the nuances of why for example, Mormons oppose caffeine (but I can most likely guess) and I am uncertain how they might enforce a determined dress and grooming standard. But the very fact that they are so forthright in what they hold one another to and have such noble expectations is appealing to me. They do not apologize for their beliefs, or for who and what they are. All students know what they agree to honor. The choice is theirs. And I believe in making that choice, those students have a better sense of who and what they are called to be.

Davies made a choice that resulted in his suspension for the remainder of the season. Whether or not he will be allowed to play on the team next year is still to be determined, but I hope he will. His story is also an important reminder that one person’s decision, like so many others, has implications on others. Davies’ teammates had to find a way to succeed without their leading rebounder. And they did. They made it to the 2011 Sweet Sixteen and perhaps more importantly, he accompanied them to the Mountain West Tournament.

A friend always says “water seeks to rise to its own level.” Indeed it does. Set it high and most will rise....and when they don't, let's help them get there.

Story Credit: special thanks to my good friend Kevin Dowling for the lead on this story!
Photo Credits
Jimmer Fredette
BYU Seal
Brandon Davies

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

An Important Question for Sports Fans: Why Do I Care?

I have been walking around in a bit of a daze all day. A general malaise has colored my worldview. And why? Because the Notre Dame men’s basketball team—who just weeks ago were ranked as high as 4 in the country lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament. An exciting season that turned many heads came to a halt as we were defeated by Florida State. As I read the break down and analysis of the game followed by one Facebook comment after another, I kept asking myself an important question. I hope it’s one you have asked of yourself before. Why do I care?

Basketball isn’t a matter of life or death; this match up wasn’t good vs. evil. No lives were at stake, no conflict created, no wars or derision, just disappointment to the “n”th degree. Again, why do I care?

I care because I am passionate about Notre Dame. I love my alma mater in the same way that I love the Catholic Church and the United States. I know its underbelly, its foibles and follies. But I also know its mission, its tradition and purpose. I love its community that is a family, it commitment to excellence and how it formed my mind and my heart.

I care because without being overly trite or simplistic--this 2011 team was special. I found myself believing in them and eventually defending them to those who think our success is limited to (past tense) football. They are a passionate bunch. Spend just a few minutes watching them play and you will understand what I mean. Seeing is believing.

All too often we forget that the root of the word “passion” is pathos—which means "to suffer." My mood today reflects the truth in the semantics. For the vast majority of the regular season however, the Irish and their fans didn’t suffer too much.
I delighted in the their first conference win over a #2 Pitt at the Petersen Events Center in Pittsburgh. I appreciated what they were able to do without a true big man this season. I must have shared New York Times article For Notre Dame's Hansbrough, Competitiveness Is a Family Trait with every person that inquired if Ben was related to Tyler. I loved his hustle, leadership and intensity. As an athlete, he is all that I am not. And Tim Abromaitis’ performance from behind the arc was majestic. I thanked him for continually following up on his rebounds.

The decorations these men earned are well deserved. Ben Hansborough was named Big East Player of the Year and Tim Abromaitis earned the Scholar-athlete award for the second straight year. When Sports Illustrated recognized Mike Brey as the National coach of the year, I knew this team was legit.

I reached out to my former students who are now studying at Notre Dame. I wanted to know about the mood on campus. In what creative ways was the student body backing this team? How difficult is it to get tickets? Were there pep rallies? I didn’t want my M-TV; no I wanted the beat on campus.

I also wanted a Big East Title. I was hopeful for a good run in the NCAA. I admit it, visions of the Final Four in Houston danced in my head. My desire for this team and its glory—putting Notre Dame men’s basketball back on the map—was very strong. My passion for the Irish had its focus; my desire for victory was palpable. And once I realized that, I suddenly began to understand why I care.

As stated by Ron Rolheiser in The Holy Longing
Desire gives no exemptions. It does however admit of different moods and faces. Sometimes it hits us as pain - dissatisfaction, frustration, and aching. At other times its grip is not felt as painful at all, but as a deep energy, as something beautiful, as an inexorable pull, more important than anything else inside us, toward love, beauty, creativity, and a future beyond our limited present. Desire can show itself as aching pain or delicious hope.

The delicious hope was obvious. They don’t call the NCAA Basketball Tournament “the big dance” for naught. Some all called and few are chosen. The road to the final four is always full of surprises and all too soon, the Irish and their fans were confronted with aching pain.I am dissatisfied with how a good team played on Sunday night. I remain frustrated by our inability to get past the second round of the tournament. But more than those responses, what aches inside me today is that this particular group will not return to the hardwood again. Seniors will graduate, others will move on. A fine group of young athletes had their season. I am a fan, but I am also a witness.

What I saw, who I cheered for, why I care are because this team is precisely what we claim to be—the Fightin’ Irish.

Thank you to Mike Brey and the team for carrying my desire to Chicago. I hope you met a student body at the Main Circle today that despite the loss, greeted you with a whole lot of passion—aching pain aside. Delicious hope for 2012.

Photo Credits

Irish Exit
Beating Pitt
Coach Brey
Round 2 NCAA tourney

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

In the Vibrant Action of Athletics, Death Hath No Victory

Not in the loneliness of sleep, but in the vibrant action of athletics; not in the midst of strangers but surrounded by family, friends, schoolmates and teammates; not in the performance of some meaningless act, but in the striving for a common cause…

These words, which adorn a memorial in the foyer between the old and new gyms—at St. Ignatius College Prep, are strikingly apropos as I reflect upon the short life of Wes Leonard, the 16-year-old basketball player from Fennville Michigan who died on March 3. I suppose they should be, for Dennis Carter died the same way on December 21, 1963 .Carter, a senior starter for the Wildcats, collapsed during a preseason game against Bishop O’Dowd. Students in the stands were ushered out of the gym. SI teacher and alum, Mike Silverstri said “we gathered to pray the rosary. An ambulance led Dennis to St. Mary’s hospital. I don’t know when he was officially pronounced dead.”

In his memory, SI boys’ basketball honors one player with the Dennis Carter award. This athlete is not the most valuable or most improved player. It goes to he who is the most inspirational player and teammate. And in case the award itself doesn’t capture the spirit and significance of the life it honors, former SI principal, current teacher and alum, Charlie Dullea presents it at the team banquet. Charlie played on the same team as Dennis; he was with him when he died.

Memorializing a fallen teammate is absolutely necessary. It helps a team to recognize what has occurred, allows each athlete to honor the dead, and sets the grieving process in a necessary context. And the unique ways that we do is our gift to the dead--their memory, their legacy…their life. For example Loyola Marymount basketball star Bo Kimble, shot his first free throw in every game with his left hand to commemorate his teammate Hank Gathers. Kimble’s gesture was simple, but powerful. It invited in a story about his fallen friend. Gathers wasn’t even a lefty. He was such a low percentage shooter at the foul line, he decided to shoot with his left.

It’s interesting; Gathers & Leonard share a common fate. They both collapsed and died because of an enlarged heart. Perhaps it is all the more fitting that Kimble’s generosity and thoughtfulness wasn’t limited to his teammate; he flew to Michigan to attend Fennville’s next game.

I have always believed the Rite of Christian burial is more for those who live in the wake of death, than the one who has died. As we hear the readings, prayers and blessings we remember Jesus’ personal sacrifice and ultimately, that death hath no victory.

And nothing was more apparent than on the hardwood Monday night in the district quarterfinals as only four players on the Fennville high school varsity boys’ basketball team took the court. Their fifth starter, Wes Leonard died in the vibrant action of athletics. 3500 people took a moment of silence to remember his short life. His parents clapped in the stands as an emotional team hugged and cried after they defeated Lawrence high school. Both teams wore shirts that read “Never Forgotten.”

And that is not in the performance of some meaningless act, but rather their striving for a common cause is learning to live and love in a new way. St Therese of Lisieux said “I am not dying; I am entering life.” Only through death can we pass into the fullness of God’s kingdom. Some people are called much too soon. Let us pray for them, yes. But let them—Dennis,Wes, Hank et al pray for us.

Photo Credits
Fennville Team
Dennis Carter award--Thanks Sean!
Bo Kimble
Leonard Shirt
Also, thanks to Paul "All things Michigan" Bourke for his additional info & research on Bo Kimble

Saturday, March 5, 2011

To an Athlete Dying Young: Wes Leonard

and when you cannot stand it, God will bury you in His arms.
My coworker, Paul—a man who loves all things Michigan, was the first of 50 people who asked me on Friday if I had heard the story of the high school basketball player, Wes Leonard, who collapsed on the court and later died after making a game-winning lay-up in overtime. Paul directed me to the front page of the Detroit Free Press where I learned the 16-year old athlete died of cardiac arrest brought on by dilated cardiomyopathy, a condition the athlete may not have known he had. I looked at his smiling face in the photo and the caption: Teammates hoist Wes Leonard up after he hit the game-winning basket Thursday night March 3, 2011 as the Fennville (Mich.) Blackhawks celebrate their victory against the Bridgman Bees, bringing their record to 20-0. Leonard collapsed on the court shortly afterward and died hours later at Holland Hospital. It was too much to handle----the final shot, the perfect season, the overtime win only to conclude in utter tragedy.

I turned to Paul and said “I simply cannot imagine how awful that must have been. To lose a student like that—I don’t know what our school would do. We could not stand it.” As I continued to wrap my head around the drama, his death and the finality of it all, the words of St. Francis de Sales came to mind--and when you cannot stand it, God will bury you in His arms. I kept repeating that prayer to myself. I knew I needed to look at the complete prayer. I longed to know the full context of its message.

Before I could get to the book where I kept that prayer, a list of perspectives related to this tragedy started to form in my mind—parents, friends, his teammates, coaches and fans.

As a teacher, I have always believed the classroom is sacred space. We are privy to conversations with young people about their hopes and dreams, their struggles and doubts. To lose a student midyear is particularly difficult for Wes’ vacant seat is a daily reminder of his death. I said a prayer for his teachers and his classmates.

As a coach, I know the impact so many of my athletes have had on my life, let alone their teammates. A team is a community within a community and Wes’ sudden death will leave them in shock for months to come. His absence will be profoundly acute as his surviving teammates are asked to play again this week.

I thought of his friends. As much as we claim kids grow up too quickly these days, teenagers are still so young and so impressionable. To lose a friend at their age, or any age for that matter is exceedingly difficult.

I am sure every parent emphathized with his parents. The idea of losing a son or daughter, so vibrant and so young is utterly devastating. How does one recover?

I even thought of the fans who witnessed an exciting game, only to have it end in this way. I go to a lot of high school basketball games. I delight in seeing my own students partake in their passions. And even among the players I do not know—home team or away, certain athletes catch my attention. I am amazed at their talent—any and everything, from their vertical leap, to their grit, hustle, soft touch…even their ability to work the referee. I wondered what I would have noticed...and missed in Wes.

I found the unnamed prayer of St. Francis de Sales and I thought, this prayer is for his parents, his coaches, teachers, teammates, friends and all those who have heard his story. Wes, I see your face, as you are held up by your teammates, smiling in their arms. For those who are left behind, even though we know you are with God, we stand now in need of being buried in God’s arms. Help us to be at peace, O Lord.

Be at peace --
Do not fear the changes of life --rather look to them with full hope as they arise.
God, whose very own you are, will deliver you from out of them.
He has kept you hitherto, and He will lead you safely through all things; and when you cannot stand it, God will bury you in His arms.
Do not be afraid of what may happen tomorrow; the same everlasting Father who cares for you today will take care of you then and every day.
He will either shield you from suffering, or will give you unfailing strength to bear it.
Be at peace --and put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginations.

--St. Francis de Sales

Photo Credits
Wes with his team
Wes Lay-up
Fans Mourn this loss

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Senior Night: We Never Stand Alone

Three different weeks, three different games, three different teams, one common theme: Senior Night.

· On February 12, I walked into McCullough Gym at St. Ignatius to find larger than life sized posters of each senior in action. Six young men were honored.

· On February 19, I sat at Memorial Gym at the University of San Francisco as I watched hundreds of fans wearing “Moose” headgear to honor the one senior on the squad.

· And just last night, I watched with fellow Notre Dame alums as many of the seniors--honored in a pregame ceremony-- secured and defended the #8 ranking of the Fightin’ Irish.

I love the tradition of concluding a school team's regular season with senior night. The purpose is self-explanatory. The student body and fans are able recognize athletes who have worn their school’s colors for the past four years, who have been leaders on and off the court, who have dedicated their time and talent to their sport. But what I love best isn’t the focus on the individual athlete. Senior night, paradoxically, highlights those who helped the young athlete get there—parents, siblings, even the fans. And in that sense, it’s deeply Christian.

God gave each of us our own unique set of talents and abilities. What we do with out gifts, how they are cultivated, strengthened and shared is up to us and those who support us, who raise us, who see something in us, who challenge us to work harder, dig deeper and learn from our mistakes. The Key Principles of Catholic Social Teaching states "In a culture driven by excessive individualism, our tradition proclaims that the person is not only sacred, but also social." The rituals of senior night, as I was recently privy to, make this evident.

At SI, before the official line-ups are called, each senior accompanies his family—nuclear and extended to half court. When the announcer introduced the WCAL league leader in points scored--Johnny Mrlik, he welcomed Johnny's parents and younger brother Matty, also known as “Shrew.” Upon hearing Matty’s nickname, the student body collectively yelled out “Shrew!” and the Wildcat Nation invited him to sit with them. Matty had been to nearly every one of his brother’s games. Yet Johnny says that Matty is the best athlete in their family. The SI community waits in anticipation for his future!

At USF, Moustapha "Moose" Diarra was the lone senior to be honored. Diarra is from Marseille, France; understandably, his family was not able to attend. At first glance, you would have seen the 6’10” senior center standing mid-court alone. But when his name was announced, Moose met a standing ovation from fans wearing green styrofoam moose headgear. A Christian community means we never stand alone.

Back at my home away from home, seniors Tim Abromaitis and Ben Hansbrough came out of the gate running with 16 3-point shots in the first half. The television camera kept focusing on the Hansbrough family as perhaps it should have. Ben’s older brother Tyler was an outstanding college basketball player, who stayed at UNC all four years and now plays with the Indiana Pacers. A recent article by the New York Times revealed what we already knew: For Notre Dame’s Hansbrough, Competitiveness Is a Family Trait. That drive, cultivated in the Hansbrough home at an early age has met success. A victory for Ben is a victory for the Irish, for Ben’s two brothers, his parents and childhood friends.

I must confess, as much as I enjoy senior night, it is bittersweet. Every team has its own personality and character; each senior contributes in his or her own special way. To watch student athletes over the course of four years, you know how far they have come and what they have overcome. Their presence has an impact; they will be missed.

Perhaps I have overused the image at this point, but I find the LeBron James Nike advertisement “We are all witnesses” fitting. To witness senior night is a privilege but even more to see and meet the people who got them to that night is an honor and a gift.
Photo Credits
Varsity Boys Basketball & Varsity Girls Soccer Senior Night/Day: Fran Steigeler
Moustapha Diarra Mug
Hansbrough Senior Night