Thursday, May 27, 2010

Faith, Set, Match: Sports & Spirituality

I will now be writing bi-monthly for the online edition of Catholic San Francisco. I hope it will go into printed circulation—150,000 strong—by summer. Any Catholic who has registered in a parish in the Archdiocese of San Francisco receives a copy of Northern California’s Weekly Catholic Newspaper in their mailbox at home. There’s no “Sporting Green” (one of the Chron’s few saving graces) but I’ll see what I can do. The first piece, The Sound of Sports was inspired by all the talk of the 2010 Masters, what I heard at the St. Ignatius vs. Bellarmine varsity boys’ volleyball game and an intriguing response from A’s prospect, now seminarian Grant Desme.

My column, entitled “Faith, Set, Match: Sports & Spirituality” will feature pieces similar to what you read on this blog. I think it has a good ring to it and like many sports, the lexicon of tennis easily applies to life lessons, relationships and more. Although it wasn’t my first *sports love* (I think that goes to swimming), tennis captured the imagination of my teenage years. I met some of my best friends playing tennis and played for 3 years on Carondelet’s varsity team. I was a ball girl for many professional players, I subscribed to not one but two tennis magazines: US Tennis and Tennis, I babysat so I could pay to go to additional tennis camps and when I got my driver’s license, you better believe my first key chain featured a neon yellow mini tennis ball! Although I probably haven’t picked up a racket in three years, I still love the game. Last year, I read Andre Agassi’s “Open,” I attended BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells as well as the Bank of the West Classic and I will spend my first week of summer vacation watching the French Open. Allez! Someday soon, I hope to go to the US Open. Preferably, I will see a match of epic proportions (of course!) in at least 85 degree heat with high humidity, under the lights. Can I request to see a talented American player too?

Thanks for sharing your love of sports with me. And, I am curious to know:
What was your first sports love?
What sports captured your imagination as a child? A teen? Today?

I am grateful to the many people have raised challenging questions of faith and athletics since this journey began. This is a marathon, not a sprint. We’ll see where it goes.

Monday, May 24, 2010

We Are All Witnesses

LeBron James appeared as “The Chosen One” on the cover of Sports Illustrated February 18, 2002. He was 17 years old. From the start, biblical language and imagery has been used to describe “King James.” Nike only capitalized on this with its “We are witnesses” advertising campaign. Like it or not, we are. We have been.

LeBron was not the first to make the leap from high school hoops to “The Association,” yet the hype around him was unprecedented. As a high school teacher and coach, occasionally I have a student or two who during their junior year already looks like a D-1 athlete. This student-athlete however is exceptional (as LeBron was! A burning question I hold is: Just how good was he as a high school football wide receiver?! Can I get a witness?). Regardless, Division-1 collegiate athletics is a far cry professional sports. I can’t imagine being his teacher and reading “High school junior LeBron James would be an NBA lottery pick right now” on the most popular weekly sporting magazine, only to grade his papers an hour later. Since the fateful day LeBron was chosen as the number one draft choice, we all have served as witnesses to his promise and potential. I would like to think we rejoice in such God-given talent and abilities.

Being a witness however has implications; it requires a great many things. From the “Witness Protection Program” to the famous rock ‘n’ roll diddy that asks: Can I get a witness? we understand that responsibility and truth go hand-in-hand with the act and call to bear witness.

In terms of our faith, it was on this day, Pentecost, that Peter said God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses.—Act 2. Jesus kept his promise—he sent the Holy Spirit. John 14: 16-17 says I will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth. The disciples no longer merely had the potential to preach the good news. Once the Spirit came to them, they were not afraid. They saw the life of Jesus in a new light; they could say with confidence “Jesus is Lord.” I rejoice in that realization. It is something I work every day to understand and like the Nike campaign says to “believe.”

What have you witnessed? Isn’t this why we go to live sporting events? When have you served as a witness? Isn’t this why we follow certain players and teams—so we can testify to the truth that they are what all the hype is (or is not) proclaiming. And what has being a witness led you to proclaim?

Photo Credits
LeBron: We are Witnesses

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Most Likely to Succeed: LeBron James

The 2009-2010 season may be complete for the Cleveland Cavaliers, but one thing isn’t—talk and more talk about their star, LeBron James. The media and basketball fans alike want to know if “the King will leave his Kingdom.” I cannot complete my morning commute and not hear Colin Cowherd of ESPN radio talk about: LeBron and the new/limited/proposed CBA (Collecting Bargaining Agreement), LeBron and the Knicks, LeBron and the Cavs….LeBron and Chicago? Listeners call in to claim: LeBron brings the game to another level; he looks and often performs like a Superhero. Standing 6’8" the fact that he is listed as a “small forward” is THE misnomer of the NBA. One can only deduce that LeBron is not the exception to the rule, but to many rules. Is he?

Curious for a more complete portrait of “King James,” I watched his “60 Minutes” interview from 2009. It flashed back to LeBron on his graduation day, accompanied by four of his high school and AAU teammates who now serve as his business advisers. He was named “Most Likely to Succeed” by the 2003 graduating class from St. Vincent-St. Mary High School of Akron, OH, and with good reason. LeBron was drafted into the NBA out of high school. At just 18 years of age, he was selected with the number one pick by the Cleveland Cavaliers. Before his graduation day, he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated—a magazine largely unfamiliar to him.

Today, he reigns as the NBA’s Most Valuable Player for back-to-back seasons. In addition to winning an NBA Championship, LeBron hopes to be the first $1 billion dollar athlete. With his $100 million Nike contract, as well as the $83 million contract he is currently still under with Cleveland, it is safe to say—if LeBron has his way, he will be. However, he will have to leave his quasi-hometown for New York in order to do so.

I should not have been surprised when I learned LeBron earned “most likely to succeed” but I was. I wouldn’t say I had a knee-jerk reaction, but I did pull my head back as I realized—I must have a different notion of success. Perhaps recent conversations with my seniors about vocation have caused me to think “success” is something other, even something more.
In her “Reflections on Vocation” Edith Stein wrote “The word vocation retains little of its original connotation—to be called. Instead, when you people are about to graduate, one wonders what occupation they should pursue, and the term vocation does not convey much more than gainful employment.” John Paul II declared, “Everyone has a vocation, a calling. Everyone has something to do for God…” Yet what does to be called mean? And, what does God ask of me? In his article, “The Discovery of Vocation” Mick McCarthy provides an answer. “Vocation, suggests a quality of discernment and reflection on the mystery of our lives before God that career fails to capture.” Mother Teresa said, “We are all called to make something beautiful for God.”

When I see LeBron’s athletic feats, I see beauty. And in the larger framework of vocation, without a doubt, LeBron is unique. Graduation from high school meant full-time employment. At a young age he was put on a career path that no young person would need to discern; playing in the NBA is a dream come true. For most young people, however, the path is not so determined. It is safe to say, however, that success is something they desire. 

Fortunately, many religious schools and faith communities are inviting students to consider what they may be called to in a unique way and what success may really mean. McCarthy adds, “at their best, Jesuit schools (such as SI) comprise such communities, where we are pushed to live and think within wider horizons, where human flourishing does not simply defer to the nearest available definition of success but is modeled on the unique dispositions of Jesus, after whom St. Ignatius of Loyola named his Society. In such a context we may discover vocations that surprise us, derail us, make us reconsider our conceptions of excellence and happiness, and lead us finally to a joy we wouldn’t otherwise have imagined if our sights had been narrowly set on a career path.”
In the “60 Minutes” interview, LeBron said, “God gave me a gift to do other things besides play basketball.” I wonder for LeBron what that will mean, once the CBA is determined and settled. In his article “The Chosen Path” William Spohn said “Without the light of faith and honest awareness that we have been gifted by God, the world’s needs can seem an overwhelming burden. Without knowledge of the actual conditions of the world, our talents and aspirations can be wasted, sadly, on mere success.” I can only hope that what LeBron’s classmates conferred on him at graduation seven years ago, will not be limited to success in basketball. I hope he will realize that what the world needs maybe isn’t the first $1 billion dollar athlete, but someone to use those others gifts to build the Kingdom of God here, today, and now.

Photo Credits
We Are All Witnesses 1
Sports Illustrated: The Chosen One
Sports Illustrated: Power of LeBron
Graduation Day 2008: Bus Leonard, Winner of the "Ignatian Award"
Vocation: Michael Noyes
We Are All Witnesses 2

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Can Anything Good Come Out of Citizen’s Park?

Philadelphia: for a brief period of time, the City of Brotherly Love, the home of Benjamin Franklin, Rocky, and the greatest sandwich in America, also served as our nation’s capital. Those who know and love it realize their National League Champion baseball team is getting a lot of attention, not for how they are performing, but how their fans are. On April 15, a 21-year-old fan allegedly vomited intentionally on the 11-year-old daughter of an off-duty cop, Easton Police Capt. Michael Vangelo. Less than one month later, 17-year-old Steven Consalvi ran on the field and was tasered by a cop. The Chicago Breaking News article Tasered teenager, family apologize to Phillies reports that “Consalvi’s zapping has been viewed more than 300,000 times on YouTube, and it’s been a big talker with fans at ballparks far and wide in the past few days. Few have offered their sympathies.” My guess is by now, that number has doubled, if not tripled.

What strikes me in the video clip isn’t the impetuous yet (somewhat) likely decision of a teenage boy or the questionable use of the taser gun, but the reaction of Phillies’ first baseman, Ryan Howard. Behind the glove or not, clearly, he’s laughing. Some players are shaking their heads, others hold looks of amusement but Howard and many fans are cracking up. And, I found myself laughing with them and because of them. 

Said incidents have raised two questions for me 
  1.  What qualifies as appropriate humor? 
  2.  Can anything good come out of Citizen’s Park? 
I hope you read the humor in that! In his article Laughing with the Saints: Joy, Humor, and Laughter in the Spiritual Life James Martin, SJ writes "Jesus himself embraces people with a sense of humor or even sarcasm. You'll remember the story of Nathaniel, sitting under the fig tree when he is told by his friends that the Messiah is from Nazareth. Nathaniel says, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Which is a joke about how backwards the city was. That doesn't bother Jesus one bit. In fact, it seems to delight him."There is an Israelite without guile!,"

Philadelphia has always been known for having tough crowds—the Vet had a jail inside the stadium to deal with unruly Eagles fans. I’m not truly worried about Philly aka "Filthy" and its sports fans. They too are without guile. I am however a little uncomfortable about my reaction to both events. I’m sorry, but I can’t read the response from Vangelo “it was the most vile, disgusting thing I've ever seen and I've been a cop for 20 years." and not start laughing. As Martin points out, Ecclesiastes 3:4 said there is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every affair under the heavens…. A time to weep, and a time to laugh. I think it’s okay to ask ourselves is this an appropriate time to laugh? The choices of sports fans on the field and in the stands will continue to provide us with instances by which to determine “yes or no.” 

Perhaps better answers to my first question are the answer to the second. And if not, Philadelphia natives will be quick to point out, the boorish fan who threw up on the cop and his daughter is not from Philly, but south Jersey.

Photo credits
Phillies Incident
Eagles Fan

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Sandra Day O'Connor: Offensive Linewoman of the Judiciary System?

Before they heard retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor speak, I don’t know if the 1400 students of St. Ignatius College Preparatory were able to grasp the significance of the speaker and guest we had on campus today. Perhaps that is because “Only 1 in 7 Americans knows that John Roberts is chief justice of the Supreme Court, but two-thirds can name at least one judge of ‘American Idol,’ ” she said. An optimistic colleague remarked “maybe that statistic is true because Supreme Court justices are so busy getting the work done. They are reading and writing; they have no time for the lime light.” We nodded in tacit agreement.

About this time last year, I took a personal interest in Justice John Roberts and was surprised to find there were limited biographical resources about the Chief Justice. A book fit for a middle school student was my only option on Another co-worker added “they are the offensive linemen of our political system.” I grew up in a home undivided in its love for the San Francisco 49ers. In my youth, I knew back-to-back Superbowl Championships (and others!) and yet Bubba Paris and Harris Barton are the only two O-linemen I can name from that era. Both former 49ers have been out of the NFL for many years. Just last month, the longest-serving current justice by more than a decade, Justice John Paul Stevens announced his retirement. Will Americans remember him for his majority opinions that limited the use of the death penalty and expanded the rights of prisoners held at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba or his bow tie?

O’Connor’s presence and example made me pause to consider several questions. I would like to think it is much more that 1 in 7, but how many Catholics know that Peter was the first Pope? How many Christians can name the 12 Apostles? They too were chosen and called to serve a term for life. O’Connor told us that she did not want to accept the nomination to the Supreme Court by President Ronald Reagan in 1981 but did so at the urging of her husband John, a 1947 graduate of St. Ignatius. She felt bound to the opportunity to serve the United States. In his article, "I'm Spiritual. Who Needs Religion" Tim Muldoon notes that "The word “religion” comes from the Latin root which means “to bind,” and connotes obligation (which uses the same root)." In hearing her words, I asked my students “What do you feel “bound” to? Who in your life calls you to uphold that binding?” One's religion/religious tradition can help him/her understand they too are bound to something--that something is God and God's love for us. A living faith calls us to remain bound to love, truth and justice. So often we think we choose God, we choose our religion, we choose what we do in this life. Have we ever thought maybe it is God that has chosen us?

O’Connor encouraged all Americans to go to the Supreme Court to see the highest court of federal law at work. I am ashamed to admit it, but I lived all but two blocks from highest judicial body in the United States and never attended a session. I think it’s fair to say this is akin to a Bronx native missing out on Yankee Stadium or a Notre Dame student never setting foot in the Grotto. The good news however that is it’s not too late, the Supreme Court of the United States is open. There is no on or off season!

Photo Credits
Sandra Day O'Connor: Ross D. Franklin/AP
Chief Justice Roberts
Bubba Paris
President Reagan & Justice O'Connor