Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Spirituality of Play: Notre Dame Football and Frisbee

I have always enjoyed comparing and contrasting college campuses. Working for three years at the National Catholic Education Association (NCEA) whose headquarters were then nestled in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC—not far from the Foggy Bottom Metro Stop—afforded me with two opportunities to do so. Though I passed George Washington University every day, I was more intrigued by the first Catholic university in the country—its history, distinct urban setting and hilltop vista over our nation's capital. Georgetown looks and feels like a school founded in the Jesuit tradition. While it shares many traditions, a rich spirituality and lexicon with other academic institutions, those who attend Georgetown undoubtedly have a unique experience, one that I will never be able to fully capture in words. It was not my experience, and so I will leave it to those alumni who once "toiled and did not seek for rest" in the gray brick buildings not far from the Potomac River. But my experiences on their campus revealed to me what I love about Notre Dame and the spirituality of the Fightin' Irish. Thank you Hoyas.
Flashback: Heading over to the student union center, I saw something that caught my eye: two male students throwing a frisbee. One threw it beyond the reach of his friend, who made a dramatic leap to catch it. He fell short, landed in some bushes and came up after an acrobatic somersault of some sort—frisbee in hand. It was hard not to smile and applaud these college students.
In that moment of enjoyment, I turned to my friend and said "I've never seen that before." 
"What someone making a good catch in frisbee?" she queried. 
"No, a student having fun at Georgetown," I said.
Sounds like a dig doesn't it. And for those Hoya Saxas I know and love, it's not meant to be. Georgetown doesn't have a whole lot of free space, and Notre Dame has tons of it. Quite often, people wonder what it's like going to school in South Bend. It's true, there is no distraction from a city or all that urban life affords. It means that getting to campus can be more than challenging...but negatives often yield positives. It also means that student life is centered around...well...each other.

A robust number of Notre Dame students are athletes or athletically minded...and core to athletics is the notion of play. I suppose I took for granted how often my friends and classmates engaged in play—I didn't know any better, but when the weather was right, both north and south quad (the dominant ones during my time at ND) were peppered with students throwing footballs and frisbees. The Friday before game day was particularly vibrant. Students would blast music from their dorm rooms, occasionally bring couches outside (that just sounds weird) and the new season of fall served as a wonderful backdrop. Throughout the year, intramural athletics thrived through interhall athletics. The doldrums of winter allowed for a number of guys (and now girls) to train for and compete in the ND version of Fight Night, known as Bengal Bouts. Every spring, campus awoke from hibernation for Bookstore Basketball, the largest 5-on-5 basketball tourney in the world.

As Notre Dame has become increasingly more academically minded and focused, I hope its students haven't lost their willingness to play. To play is make time for it, especially as an adult isn't a given. Or, at least not in ways that may refresh the mind, body, and spirit. I know many college kids translate play to an activity linked with alcohol e.g. drinking games, keg stands, boat races, beer pong (insert your favorite here). However, the play of which I write has a spiritual dimension that we ought to consider.

In the article "March Madness," Dr. Michael Tino reminds us
Finally, sports can teach us how to have fun. And the business of fun—of play, of laughter, of lightness—is important spiritual stuff. 
Jesuit scholar Hugo Rahner is quoted as having written: “To play is to yield oneself to a kind of magic … to enter a world where different laws apply, to be relieved of all the weights that bear it down, to be free, kingly, unfettered and divine”  
Too often, in “growing up,” our society forces us to lose our inclinations to just let loose, our innate sense of fun, our ability to yield to the magic that is play. Too often, our society asks our children to let go of these things long before they should.
For varsity athletes, the demands of their sport may challenge the notion of play and having fun. This year's football, Team 128, with a record of 2-4 has not met the expectations of its Top 10 ranking at the start of the season. The media, public scrutiny, the physical and mental toil may suck the spirituality of play very dry. But the video that they created—playing Frisbee—reminded how important it is for a team to yield itself to this kind of magic. 
I watched this video in amazement at some of the sheer athleticism of the Fightin' Irish. I love the way that different personalities are revealed through the simple act of throwing a frisbee. They jump, laugh, sit cool, walk tall, stand tough, this video clip shows it, laughter, and lightness. What could be more important than this spiritual stuff? Ok....stringing it together on Saturdays true....but as these men continue to grow up, I hope they don't lose their love for the game, their teammates and the power of play. Go, Irish.

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