Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Black History Month: A Case for Serena Williams

Today, Fat Tuesday reminds me that as one season ends another begins. My students in San Francisco, California were unaware that Mardi Gras is much more than a singular day of bead throwing debauchery for gluttons masqueraded in green, gold and purple. No, the Mardi Gras season begins with the Feast of the Epiphany, also known as little Christmas, and concludes the day before Ash Wednesday. This day, Shrove Tuesday, reminds us of the human ritual to feast before the famine. Tomorrow, Lent begins and with that holy season Christians are called to pray, fast and give alms. As I prepared my students to enter into Lent, I couldn't help but realize we were exiting from Black History month—a time that should never go unappreciated in the world of sports and spirituality. 
As written on History.com
Black History Month, or National African American History Month, is an annual celebration of achievements by black Americans and a time for recognizing the central role of African Americans in U.S. history. The event grew out of “Negro History Week,” the brainchild of noted historian Carter G. Woodson and other prominent African Americans. Since 1976, every U.S. president has officially designated the month of February as Black History Month. Other countries around the world, including Canada and the United Kingdom, also devote a month to celebrating black history.
At St. Ignatius College Prep where I teach, students lead morning prayer over the school PA. During Black history month, this ritual integrates prayer with information and story telling. We pray for a more just society. We aim to give voice to those who were voiceless for too long. We give thanks to those African Americans who have extended their gifts and talents for all the world to enjoy and each day, we promote their contributions to music, the arts, literature, science and sports, politics and religion. 


If you walk around our school, you will see posters featuring a photo of a student of color holding a picture of an African American they admire and a personal statement explaining why. Students are the teachers; I learned about Guy Bluford, the first African American astronaut. I was touched to see the late Nina Simone and it should go without saying thrilled to see my favorite female athlete, Serena Williams.

The young woman holding a dynamic photo of Williams is one of my athletes. I can't wait to ask her how Williams inspires her own sport—golf. I want to know what she values in Serena as a competitor... Williams, a champion.... Serena Williams the 2015 Sportsperson of the Year.

In light of Black History month, I sincerely appreciate that Williams calls on the other black female tennis players who paved her way. She wants the world to know that long before Serena and Venus, there was Althea Gibson and Zina Garrison. She has named and thanked them from the winner's circle. She insists that her success cannot be separated from theirs. With her older sister, she has worked to extend tennis to the inner-city and other low income areas, for all children. She has spoken out against the racism she has endured (Indian Wells) and used her voice for the advancement of women, people of color and the game itself. 

I am not convinced that her peer, Tiger Woods who met equal success in another sport traditionally underrepresented by people of color has used his voice in the way she has. I do not believe that his fans would know that long before Tiger Woods, there was Calvin Peete or Lee Elder. Granted many people might not know the women that Serena has named but that is not because she has kept silent.  
Serena Williams is indeed is a worthy hero of this historic month. Not only is she (one of the) winningest female tennis players of all time, completing the Serena slam and bringing home four gold medals for the United States (one in singles and three with Venus in doubles) but Miss Williams is also a whole lot of fun. If you haven't seen it yet, the video is worth watching. That's Serena Williams: champion, one of the greatest of all time ready to surprise two amateurs on a week night with a fun and friendly round. I believe Black History month can celebrate that too. If only I still played tennis...

I hope tonight she is celebrating both Mardi Gras and the role she has played in Black History month. I'll keep my eyes peeled for you Serena in and around the city by the bay. Congratulations on your engagement. As they say in New Orleans, Laissez les bon temps rouler!

Photos Credits
Serena

Althea Gibson

Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Restorative Power of Nature...in Sports

Every runner knows that are runners you can run with and those you enjoy running with. My favorite running partners were those who shared a similar pace and cadence. Time spent running with these people was comfortable and yet it could be challenging—literally and metaphorically. On some days I wanted to be pushed to run harder. On others, I sought a dynamic exchange of ideas. The conversation fueled me. I sincerely miss some of my running buddies. Fortunately, golf is another sport an athlete can undertake with others or by your lonesome. However in the time I have played this cruel game, I have found true friends and companions who have helped me discover something I didn't expect. No it's not attention to detail, or the power of rules. It's an awareness and appreciation for what I consider to be an invaluable spiritual discipline. I could have practiced this very same religious ritual as a runner, but I never really did. It's not difficult and it requires little time and no money: it's the appreciation of nature.
Perhaps it is the very pace of golf that lends itself to taking in the beauty of one's natural surroundings or maybe it's the fact I spend money to play in beautiful venues, but golf almost inherently....lovingly and reverently invites me to ponder the majesty of God's creation. Because of my ardent concern for pace of play, I would be lying if I said that I make a point of truly appreciating and savoring my natural surroundings. Thanks be to God, my friends do.

One friend, a fellow JV girls' golf coach and I had the pleasure of playing on the Ocean Course at the Half Moon Ritz Carlton. Our 1:00 p.m. tee time meant that we were on the 17th tee box as the sun was setting. Though the majority of hotel guests were walking the grounds to take in the view—an infinite horizon against the Pacific Ocean, I easily could have kept my sights on finishing our round in a timely manner. Not Charlie. He told me that he wanted to take in what his eyes could behold. He paused, looked from north to south at the western sky and kept silent. He let the sunset speak for itself. 
I was humbled by my very place in the world at that moment: outdoors, standing on a cliff with the ocean crashing beneath me. To see that sight is human, to delight in it is divine.  I have played golf with Charlie but a few times and coached with him many others, but I know he has a habit of noticing and appreciating the sky, the rain, the trees, the vistas and the backdrops that a golf course affords. His discipline is a spiritual one. I've made a point to slow down and take in what I see because of his example.

I have always told my friend Paul one of the many reasons I enjoy playing golf with him is because of the narrative he imparts over 18 holes. Nature is one of his favorite subjects—and stories. In what was a typical day at the Olympic Club, Paul drew my attention to the fact that the coyotes were howling from their hidden dens. I suppose the frequency I was tuned in to was the sound of our golf balls off the iron (good...or not good), but once he called my attention to their cries, it was wild to imagine. Where were they living? How many were in the den? Paul often points out many of unique birds that frequent the property. The cover story of the club's magazine, The Olympian reported that "The official count by Audubon volunteers took place at Lakeside on Dec. 27, 2016. They counted 47 species (of birds)." Paul probably notices half of them. 

Due to the heavy winds and rains, I haven't played as much golf in 2017 as I have in the drought laden winters of the past 3 years. So, playing with Paul on Wednesday was something other than merely a fun round of play. We were witnesses to the storm's damage. I was shocked and saddened to see, nearly 10 to 15 magnificent, tall, and beautiful trees had fallen on the Lakeside course alone. One tree fell uphill; we didn't know that could happen. On another hole, twin trees fell together. Paul poignantly remarked that seeing these trees was like losing a friend you didn't know you had. What poetry. 

I carried the loss with me as I made a point that day of walking the fairways with me eyes raised toward those beautiful trees that still stand. I couldn't help but think of life and of death, seasons, growth, loss and change...the Creator and the created. We are one.

My Catholic faith offers me an abundant variety of spiritual disciplines. At my parish alone I can attend daily mass, go to reconciliation regularly, participate in novenas throughout the year, pray the rosary with young adults on Wednesday and much more. But the Catholic faith is a both/and tradition. Spiritual discipline is in no way limited to what transpires in the Church. Catholicism is both bible study and taking in the beauty at Half Moon Bay. It is is participating in the sacraments and finding the sacraments in the trees. 
In his article "Good Sports," Martin Seigel states "When participating in or watching sports, people are experiencing the essential harmony of great art that is hidden behind its diverse expressions. Nature (or the created world) is the most extensive manifestation of the Creator that humans can experience." I feel richly blessed that what I love to do puts me in touch with this manifestation on a regular basis and that I have friends that draw me into an awareness of its power—restorative, magnificent, healing and holy. That's a pretty good Church and a wonderful way to understand my community of faith. Blessed be.

Coaches: I invite you to consider in what ways you can get your athletes to practice the spiritual discipline of appreciating nature. Consider how your sport interacts with God's creation in a unique way. Take the time to delight in its beauty. Invite your athletes to raise their eyes to look out and around, instruct them to listen for the sounds of what surrounds all of us...including the voice of God. Amen.

Photo Credits

Monday, February 20, 2017

The Beauty of Senior Night: What's Visible and Invisible

Always a fan of senior night, I attended the final regular season home game of the boys' varsity basketball team at St. Ignatius College Prep on Saturday, February 18, 2017. I've probably attended this celebratory evening 10 of the 14 years I have taught at SI and yet, I continue to see anew that which is visible and invisible.
Athletes know the prestige associated with being named as a starter; basketball showcases this honor like few other sports do. Teammates and coaches form a line perpendicular to the bench while the player sits until his or her name, position and number is called out for fans to hear and cheer. Last night, the coach made a point to let that name be the four seniors on the varsity squad. Their teammates and the student body loved watching these four-year athletes play for the first few minutes of the game. 

Before the game, these same athletes were honored with their families on Drucker Court. It's special to see brothers and sisters, parents and grandparents accompany the seniors in a treasured moment. Their presence reminds me that we never achieve anything totally on our own. Our families make sacrifices to help us achieve our dreams. They support us in ways the larger public will never know. The seniors present their mothers with flowers and the entire senior class of athletes come together as one with their families at half court for a group photo. 

As I looked at this group—one that I hold such affection for, I was happy to see one of my beloved students was standing proudly with his mom and siblings. Yet I also saw that someone wasn't there. His father, who also played basketball, died seven years ago. Other athletes may have parents who are divorced or some years, family demands elsewhere have prevented both parents from attending. Moments like these are bittersweet. On one hand, it's an honor to be there, period. I know my own brother would have given his left one to play varsity basketball. On the other hand, peak moments are when we miss those we love the most. Because I believe in the communion of saints, I hope and pray—in some small way—that my student felt or saw some part of his dad's presence that evening. I hope the invisible was made visible, if only in his heart. And for the others, I hope the joy of the moment transcends some of the difficulties life too often affords.

Half way through the season as both teams hosted a league record of 6-0, many believed (and hoped) this contest would decide the WCAL championship. As sports fans know, every season brings unexpected twists and turns, wins....and losses. Bellarmine College Prep of San Jose traveled 45 miles north up the WCAL with the hope that they would post perfect league record of 14-0. With four minutes left, the odds didn't look good. The Wildcats were up by 5 points, maintaining possession of the ball. Junior shooting guard Brandon Beckman was clearly in the zone. As my Sports and Spirituality students know, Beckman was in the "flow channel" as he nailed one three-point shot after another. The Bells responded with good defense, ignited an offense that took advantage of the fact that the 'Cats were in the bonus; BCP capitalized by not missing any free throws. They pulled away to win 51-45 

After the game, the players lined up to shake hands as they always do. In that moment, I saw a spirited and genuine exchange between Beckman and the player who was guarding him for much of the night. That moment manifested what the word "competition" really means—to strive together. Both young men extended their gifts and talents to the best of their ability. Competition also means that there will be a winner and a loser. Though SI lost, in their brief word and handshake, I could see a mutual respect and admiration for what each person did to help their side win. 
I no longer take for granted that a ritual like this one will even happen. Quite often, opponents do not respect one another. Rivalries get heated and players get chippy, even dirty with their tactics to win. In other cases, as I saw in the game prior to this one, the last minute victory was so dramatic, the student body flooded the floor and the team. I watched as our team headed to the locker room having to swallow defeat. No wonder we refer to it as bitter. Not one of our players was given the chance to regroup to extend a congratulations. None of our athletes were tasked with putting aside the sting of defeat for an additional 3 minutes in order to say "good game."  To me, that's unfortunate. Why? I believe moments like those prepare us for so many more in years to come. Sure, all hail to the victor! but where does that leave those with whom they have strived. Could it be different? Should it?

Saturday night's game affirmed what I believe is true. It's not easy to see the final home game end in a loss. It's tough to see a crew other than your own delighting in the W, hugging one another for reaching that moment: a great season has come to a close, and their story is different than ours. But, looking at those athletes—at their seniors and at their coach who hasn't had a league title since 2001, knowing how they played the game on this night and so many before, I had nothing but respect and admiration for that team. I know that they can say to one another "we did this." I applaud each and every one of you.

At a dinner party I attended on Friday night, each guest was asked to share their super power. At first, we were confused? Super power? I came to learn the hostess wanted us to name something that we are very good at doing. My answer was easy. I shared that I can find beauty in sports, all sports. For those who might seek beauty in sports...for those who want that super power, I suppose it all starts with seeing what's visible....and then look for what's invisible. Catholicism asks us to believe in both. Amen.

Photo Credits
Visible and invisible

Communion of Saints

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Beauty and Competition: Thoughts on the 2017 Pebble Beach Pro-Am

Last year, I had the wonderful opportunity to attend the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am in Monterey, California. Upon the conclusion of a weekend of great golf, outstanding weather, and wonderful companionship I said that I didn't think I could go back. I wasn't convinced that anything could top the experience I had. With my eyes nearly glued to CBS sports today, I realized I how wrong I could be.

The competition 
Jordan Spieth returned to the winner's circle with an impressive finish of 19 under par. The man refused to miss greens in regulation and he one-putted 8 of his final 9 holes on Saturday. 

Spieth who became the number one player in the world in 2015 by winning the Masters and US Open (Chambers Bay) and posted impressive finishes in the British Open and PGA championship struggled throughout much of 2016. Though he did win two tournaments, his collapse at Augusta National left the golf world with short term memory of why he is a beloved player on the tour. Today was no flashback. Watching Jordan Spieth play golf is a delight. He executes, he makes the game look appropriately challenging and yet easy. His team philosophy—we—is palpable. His caddy, Michael Greller kept telling him to keep playing boring golf. It worked. ESPN reported Spieth's reply; "played a lot of boring golf today, which is exactly what we needed."

The 2016 winner, Vaughn Taylor, made for good talk at the water cooler for all of five minutes last year, but to suggest that his play made last year's tourney memorable is a stretch. 

I loved seeing Dustin Johnson execute 4 birdies on the back nine for a third place finish, but I enjoyed seeing Spieth holding a trophy once again (the ninth time in his career) even more.

Beauty
Today, I held an internal debate: What do I enjoy more: watching professional golf or playing the game? When a tournament is at a place like Pebble Beach, I am afraid that my answer may lean to the former. 
After weeks of rain, the skies finally—FINALLY—cleared. The wet winter paid its dividends as the Monterey Peninsula offered as many shades of green as Ireland's 40. Pebble Beach which sits along the California coast, offered surreal vistas. At times the ocean's spray rose up, serving as a majestic backdrop to this cruel game. At one point, the camera caught an aerial view of a humpback whale, cresting to the surface.

Humanity can and never will tire of beauty. It is both pleasing to the eye and the mind. To gaze at such beauty, even from a 48" screen humbled and sustained me. I felt energized by the sights and made a vow to return next year.

Listen
I attended a seminar for teachers today and the pedagogical tools I learned were as valuable as the content of the sessions. One activity asked students to "Listen" to the photo. I've never thought about doing that before....but I love the invitation to include an additional sense into the exercise of learning. 

With the task in mind, I have two striking images that reflect the beauty of the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro Am. I sincerely believe the golf adds to the aesthetic. You can ask these questions of any images in this posting.

  • Tell the story of this photo
  • What do you think is happening?
  • What questions do you have?
  • What's the image about?
  • What strikes you about the image?

Ralph Waldo Emerson has written "Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not." Indeed I carry the memories of Pebble Beach Pro-Am 2016 with me, but I'm pretty sure I know where to find it again.

Photo Credits
Fog
Jordan
Beauty

Friday, February 10, 2017

It's Not What We Lose, but What We Gain from Sports....

With the increased specialization and competition in youth sports, I hear a lot of discussion (and disgust) about what student athletes lose. For starters, as a teacher I am acutely aware of how much class time gets lost for travel to competitions both in the league or with club teams. I know that many families miss out on other obligations and opportunities as pursuing a sport becomes a top priority for not just the athlete but the parents who make it possible  to play. Too many of today's athletes lose out on learning from different coaches and developing other skills that relate to a second, third of fifth sport. But, a recent conversation between two notable Notre Dame alumni with sports announcer Ted Robinson reminded me of what we gain from athletics.

On February 7, 2017 with approximately 200 other Irish alumni, I attended the Notre Dame Northern California Initiative launch party. The Golden Dome has been seeking to extend its education, efforts, ministry and mission west, and more specifically into the heart of Silicon Valley. To commemorate the opening of this campus west, and in efforts to welcome the current undergraduate students enrolled in the program this semester, the University asked the Dean of Students: Patrick Flynn, as well as two prominent alumni to speak. If you know football, and many of the Notre Dame faithful do, their names are not unfamiliar.  Jed York '05, the owner of the San Francisco 49ers and Joe Schmidt '14, captain of the 2015 football team added a special dimension to a celebratory evening. 
Sports announcer Ted Robinson, as always, did a wonderful job emceeing the event. He easily could have talked about his impressive career; I would have gladly listened. The voice of the 49ers, he has broadcast at numerous Olympic games and been the lead at Wimbledon. One friend in the audience named that you don't become the voice of a major world sporting event unless you're supremely talented. That's Ted Robinson. Instead, he said little about himself, and more about meeting his wife at Notre Dame and what is has meant to have his children attend his alma mater. 

No stranger to the media, it was obvious that both Joe Schmidt and Jed York felt especially at ease with Ted Robinson. All three speak with proficiency my favorite languages: sport, spirituality and Notre Dame football. I was excited to hear their message and what I would learn. What struck me most wasn't Jed York telling the public—once again—that he's not afraid to fail...we know Jed, the 49er Faithful know....it was actually something that Joe Schmidt did not say.

Joe Schmidt's personal story might be one of the more under-appreciated tales in all of sports. A walk-on out of Mater Dei high school, Schmidt who played linebacker, was named the 2014 MVP of the team. Schmidt earned the distinction over several other athletes who have already met notable success in the league— Jaylon Smith, CJ Prosise and Will Fuller are but a few. I have heard the defensive woes of this year's team can be attributed in small part because of the void left by the fifth year captain Joe Schmidt. Team leadership should never be underestimated.
Today, Schmidt works in venture capital. He joked about graduating with a degree from the Mendoza College of Business with a major that no longer exists: management-entrepreneurship. Robinson laughed and responded by asking, "What classes in particular prepared you for what you are doing today?" Schmidt paused, and though he gave an answer, I wasn't convinced it was one to his satisfaction.

Sure, our classes and academic offerings sharpen our mind and train us to succeed in a specialized area. Even 20 years after graduation from ND, I know this is true; I can point to a few specific examples as evidence. But I also know that my greatest preparation has been from the experiences I have had as a member of the Notre Dame family. For me, my participation in the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE program ) shaped all that I am as a Catholic educator and coach. For Joe Schmidt, his experience as a D-1 athlete at the University of Notre Dame must translate into his qualification and preparation for his work today.

As a star of "A Season with Notre Dame Football," fans got special insight into how Schmidt might answer that. As seen on the Showtime series, the 6'0" athlete out of Orange CA spent countless hours doing much more than working out. Schmidt analyzed game tape, learned plays, counseled teammates, talked to the media and worked with the coaching staff. He balanced a schedule and succeeded in managing priorities. I think he could talk to Ted Robinson for quite some time about much more. I'm not sure how that experience couldn't prepare you for a demanding career. 

We want to believe that sports prepares us for much more than just a 12-0 season. I want to know that though I may lose some things in committing to a sport, what I gain proves to be that much more. It's time to reframe the questions and rethink our vision. 

Give thanks to God for the experience that a person gains as a student an an athlete. Our passions are never limited to just one domain. We are that much richer when we can see how one can influence another. Thank you Joe and Ted, and the University of Notre Dame for the family that you are and the experiences you extend beyond the Dome. Go Irish.

Photo Credits
ND CA
Jed and Ted

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Super Bowl Sunday: A Great American Feast Day

In "Faith and Football" I refer to the Super Bowl as an unofficial American holiday. Given the fact that after Thanksgiving Day, Americans eat more on Super Bowl Sunday than they do all year, I suppose it's more fitting to refer today as a great American feast day. Feast days in the Catholic church are days of celebration. 
As written by New Advent,
Feast Days, or Holy Days, are days which are celebrated in commemoration of the sacred mysteries and events recorded in the history of our redemption, in memory of the Virgin Mother of Christ, or of His apostlesmartyrs, and saints, by special services and rest from work. A feast not only commemorates an event or person, but also serves to excite the spiritual life by reminding us of the event it commemorates. At certain hours Jesus Christ invites us to His vineyard (Matthew 20:1-15); He is born in our hearts at Christmas; on Good Friday we nail ourselves to the cross with Him; at Easter we rise from the tomb of sin; and at Pentecost we receive the gifts of the Holy Ghost. Every religion has its feasts, but none has such a rich and judiciously constructed system of festive seasons as the Catholic Church. The succession of these seasons form the ecclesiastical year, in which the feasts of Our Lord form the ground and framework, the feasts of the Blessed Virgin and the Saints the ornamental tracery.
Many Catholics might be unfamiliar with the rich tradition of feast days in the Church. One could point to the fact that today's society has grown increasingly more secular—which it has—but I would also like to note that unless we teach one another about traditions, low and high culture and celebrate it—religious or not—we lose something more. 

For example, on Thursday February 2, I walked into class, my students half asleep. In a small attempt to wake them up and get things rolling, I said "Happy Groundhog Day." A few students did, well, what a groundhog does. They bobbed their heads and looked up. Some asked "What is Groundhog Day?" Others quipped "Did he see his shadow? And what does that mean?" A few knew that Punxsutawney, PA is Ground Zero on this day. Another student pulled up weather.com's website and we made time to watch the annual celebration. Students smiled as they saw that the honorary rodent—Phil— is no light weight. One student commented "there's a really good movie called Groundhog Day." Suddenly we were off and running. One furry friend, one quizzical tradition—that may have had more meaning in the past but today, it breaks up the winter blues. Cost my crew but a few minutes time; required nothing more than an ounce of curiosity.

Feast days and holidays should not be taken for granted. They connect us in conversation, they can bring people together. I'd like to think the notion of a feast day brings delight and helps us enjoy life a little more. If we don't stop to recognize them and teach one another a little bit about their history, significance and purpose, they could, like too many feast days in the Catholic Church, be a thing of the past. Not all are lost; I hope the Church will continue to do its part to teach the faithful about the many and varied feast days it holds dear. One question might be how. My recommendation: use what is familiar to teach what might be unfamiliar.

I purposely went to 8:00 a.m. mass this morning, as I knew my afternoon would be preoccupied with eating, drinking and celebrating Super Bowl LI. Though there is, most likely a limited connection or interest to either team for those who live in San Francisco, I was surprised that the pastor did not even mention the significance of this day. At the very least, I thought he could have said "Rise Up Atlanta" after the closing blessing or wished people well with their squares. Father Ken did however welcome people for fellowship of donuts and coffee after mass. His announcement could have easily been combined with teasing the congregation about all the other *healthy* food we find ourselves eating on this day. The hospitality committee could have had some Super Bowl signage or football regalia. I found nothing. 
I think the Church ought to bring people in to its own traditions by recognizing those all Americans share. Whether or not one is a football fan, today means gathering at the homes of friends and families to share your allegiance, utter your bias, eat your heart out, gamble on the spread, over/under, or just pick a square with a magic number. Give half of the earnings to a good cause. The Church need only give a nod to days like today; I honestly believe a little can go a long way. For example, give a shout out to Boston College fans—one of their own, quarterback Matt Ryan is leading the Falcons to victory?! Or call to light that every year, a Catholic priest is invited to offer a pre-game mass for those players who want to attend religious services. In the recognition of the low feast days that make American life, unique...that abate the daily grind...that get many out of bed in the morning, we can open our hearts and minds to the others—the high holy days, the new ones: the Feast Day of St. Teresa of Calcutta (September 4), those that may border on superstition: the Feast of St. Blaise and much more. There's too much to celebrate—and at stake—not to.  Enjoy the game. Thanks be to God.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Faith and Football

While sharing the single story of Delanie Walker, I found myself describing Super Bowl Sunday as an unofficial American holiday. Thinking of the origin of the word "holiday" Old English for holy day, I realized that my descriptor wasn't inaccurate. Originally, the word meant "a consecrated day or a religious festival," and if you pay attention to the rituals that accompany the Super Bowl in addition to the way we celebrate it—holy day and holiday remain connected.

Millions of Americans will attend religious services tomorrow, as Sunday is the Christian sabbath. But even more will turn on their television—to Fox Sports to watch the 51st football contest between the NFC and AFC Championship teams: the Atlanta Falcons and New England Patriots. The game will be broadcast in seven foreign countries and in ten different languages. 


In light of this sports feast day, I created a new assignment for my students called "Faith and Football." The idea was born thanks to a co-worker who shared the article "Sacred Sport."  My colleagues's son (a former student) is enrolled in ASU's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Not only do they offer a Bachelor of Arts in Sports Journalism, they have an on-line course, REL 394: Religion and Sport. Sun Devil Life reports:

As the debate continues to wage over the relationship between race and sports today, ASU graduate student Terry Shoemaker is asking students to consider another, just as socially significant relationship — that between sports and religion. 
“Contemporary trends place religion as declining in the United States, as well as in most developed countries,” said Shoemaker, instructor of the recently introduced online course REL 394: Religion and Sports. 
“Some scholars have argued that as religion declines, sport offers a space for replacing what is lost with vanishing religious commitments such as ritual, community, mystery, superstition, etc.” 
As an entry point to the discussion, Shoemaker created a Fantasy Football league for his students to play, of which he is also a participant. After drafting teams, students research five of their starters’ religious affiliations and how that has or has not affected the athletes’ lives and careers.
As much as I know many of my students would love to manage a fantasy football team for homework, the nature and timing of my course is a little different. The invitation to research the faith lives of the athletes however did intrigue me, so I created "Faith and Football" to research the following: 
In light of the ethical and cultural critiques of the NFL as well as the excess and cultural dysfunctions associated with football, what—if anything—is the religious and spiritual significance to the experience of playing football or being a fan?  Are the critiques of the NFL—perpetuated by the media—in vain?
For the purpose: to thoughtfully and critically examine this question… debate and discuss
As a starting point, they had to begin with those who make the game possible: the athletes. With Shoemaker's assignment in mind they had to 
  • Choose six players to profile.  What should we know about them beyond their position, height and weight? What is interesting about them as an athlete and a person? Maybe you have met him…have a personal anecdote about that experience.
  • For four of these players you are tasked with finding out more about their faith life.  They need to be religious (though not necessarily Christian). How do they practice their faith? How do they speak about it? What are their core values/beliefs? How is this evident in the game? to teammates? To the public? If you cannot find much about their religious faith, what can you discern about spirituality?
Today's blog posting will feature a little of what they found.

The New England Patriots



Matt Slater: Wide Receiver
  • Played at UCLA, never started a game during his college career
  • Taken in the 5th round of the 2008 Draft
  • He's a 6x Pro Bowler on special teams
  • Won the Bart Starr Man of the Year Award this season, an award that his father won years ago with the Rams

Faith:
  • He describes the moment he was drafted as a miracle, and the moment he truly realized God was in his life
  • Leads his teammates in weekly Bible studies and discusses Christian perspectives on social issues with the team.
  • Slater explained how he expresses his faith through football, saying “I feel like if I don’t compete as hard as I can and play as fast and physical as I can, I’m doing a disservice to the Lord, who’s given me the opportunity and the talents to play this game.”
Malcolm Butler: Cornerback/Safety
  • 26 years old
  • Grew up in Mississippi and played football at the University of West Alabama
  • Undrafted and picked up as a free agent by New England
  • He is most well known for his interception in Super Bowl 49
  • His current annual salary is $510,000

Faith: 
  • “I believe in God and I'm truly blessed.”
  • Describing himself as “blessed” indicated that he is Christian
  • Butler “had a vision” that he was going to make a big play
  • Believing in a higher power, he is a spiritual person
Rob Gronkowski: Tight End
  • 27 years old
  • Born in Amherst, New York
  • Attended the University of Arizona
  • Accolades and records in college
  • Drafted by New England Patriots in 2010
Faith: 
  • Has not publicly stated his religious affiliation
  • Gronkowski’s faith does not play a major role in his day to day actions (as far as the public knows)
The Atlanta Falcons
Matt Ryan: Quarterback
  • Nickname: Matty Ice
  • 6’5”
  • 224 lbs
  • Right Handed
  • 31 years old

Fun Fact:
 
threw a touchdown for 1st professional football career pass

Spirituality:
  • Boston College
  • Roman Catholic
  • Spoke at Fellowship for Christian Athletes fundraiser at a Baptist Church in Douglasville, Georgia
  • “You find a balance between preparing for football and finding time to rest and take care of the things you need to lead a normal life.’’

Mohamed Sanu: Wide Receiver

  • Age: 27
  • Height: 6’2”
  • Weight: 210
  • Hometown: Sayreville, NJ
  • College: Rutgers University
  • First freshman to start at wide receiver for Rutgers
  • new to the team -- played for Cincinnati Bengals from 2012-2015

Faith
  • born to a Muslim family
  • mother escaped to America from Sierra Leone
  • on the 15th anniversary of 9/11, he wore these shoes 
  • Instagram bio: "God, family, football"
  • Has a son: Mohamed Sanu Jr. and is engaged
Devonta Freeman: Running Back
  • 2x Pro Bowler
  • 5 ft 8 in
  • 206 lbs
  • 24 years old
  • 2,383 career rushing yards
  • 1,265 career receiving yards
  • 29 total touchdowns
Faith:
  • From surviving the streets of Miami to ignoring skeptics who wondered if he was big enough to make it on the gridiron, Freeman has spent most of his 23 years overcoming the odds. Freeman says that his Christian faith is another factor towards being thankful for the blessings he’s had in life, as he’s tried to make it to the NFL. He’s felt like Atlanta has been home from the beginning. Now trying to make the Atlanta Falcons seems to be a lot easier than some of the other things he endured growing up in the Miami-area.
I hope that in learning a little more about the athletes who play on this American holiday—that my students and you may watch this great game a with a new perspective...a broadened vision, one that Sports and Spirituality embraces. Spirituality is, after all.... "about seeing. It's not about earning or achieving. It's about relationship rather than results or requirements. Once you see, the rest follows." —Richard Rohr, OFM


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