Monday, November 21, 2011

What Kind of School of Virtue Are We Running?

The Blessed John Paul II said, “Sports are a real school of true human virtue.” It seems that recent events in the wide world of sports have challenged this maxim. The greed of the NBA lockout, the misguided sense of loyalty in the Penn State scandal and at the high school cross country state meet in Natchitoches, Louisiana a feat that many describe as “inspiring” have left me wondering: What kind of school are we running? Are our students, or in this case our athletes failing or thriving? And ultimately without true human virtue, what is at stake?

It’s unfortunate that for the second year in a row the only press for a sport as demanding as cross-country features a runner collapsing at the state meet finish line. Last year, Holland Reynolds, University High School’s number two runner crawled across the finish line on her hands and knees to complete her race. In doing so, she helped her team clinch the California state championship. This year Christian Bergeron of Covington, LA shares that story.Due to extreme dehydration on-set by unseasonable heat and humidity – the senior collapsed four times in the final 25-yards of the race. With the heat index above 80 degrees (weather is nearly 20 degrees cooler by this point in the season), it’s no surprise that the St. Paul’s varsity runner’s legs buckled and body crumbled.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune described his feat by reporting “Of all the inspiring moments of determination you see in the remaining months of 2011, it's unlikely any can top the heroics turned in by one high school senior” on Monday November 14, 2011. The local news channel commented on the power of the human will and how "moments like this make a parent proud even though they may be ones a parent would rather forget."

I watched Christian’s feat and I was horrified. I heard words like “inspiring” and “perseverance” and I looked around me. What school of virtue is athletics teaching? Is my moral compass off? Is the media’s?

This young man nearly died. He could not even see the finish line. The officials did not help him to or through the finish line. I won’t go so far as to say they were bystanders but there is much more at stake to me than finishing a race or earning a title.

The word “inspire” stems from what else—spirit—to breathe. To be inspired is to be filled with the breath (of God). The only inspiration I find in this story is that Bergeron is sharing his story to illustrate the importance of having of an EMT and ambulance on site for big athletic competitions. His mother, a nurse, was aware that he needed immediate medical attention.

In the Newsweek article “What is Virtue?” Ken Woodward states "cultivation of virtue makes individuals happy, wise, courageous, competent. The result is a good person, a responsible citizen and parent, a trust- leader, possibly even a saint. Without a virtuous people, according to this tradition, society cannot function well. And without a virtuous society, individuals cannot realize either their own or the common good."

I hope we can recognize as heroic as Christian Bergeron’s feat may appear, we take his story as another example among many to determine what true human virtue may be. The stakes in our society are too high not to…

Photo Credits
Sports Illustrated Cover
State Meet Finals

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Spirituailty of the Start Line

It is rare that a cross-country runner ever competes on a “true” cross-country course. Most competitions take place at parks or on school campuses, where with enough loops, hills, twists and turns a runner can cover 3 miles. But the final league meet for the WCAL always takes place at Crystal Springs Cross Country Park. The course is incredibly demanding—it is often hot and dusty, mile two includes “cardiac hill,” there is absolutely no shade… and yet, it is powerfully spiritual. The starting line of the race is as intense at it gets. At Crystal, the runner sees the first mile before their eyes. The starting box (cross country doesn’t use blocks or a waterfall start like in track) is fixed at the top of a hill; a hill runners must descend before they ascend it into mile two. Every competitor knows what he or she must do, as well as what the person on their right and their left must do. They share one common fate, to beat the clock, to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible, to run their own race.

Each team is expected to arrive to the line 10 minutes prior to the start of the race. As coaches accompany their team to the line, they remind runners to stay loose and stretch, to complete a few striders, and reconsider the race plan. At SI, we remind our team of what we have done that has prepared us for the given race, we restate our strategy, and gather for a team prayer. With the varsity girls, we now take steps back from the start to let them speak with one another and pronounce their own cheer.
At that moment, I transition from coach to witness. I see the spirit of seven girls who have trained hard not alone—but together. I feel the bond that they share as four runners go to the front of the line and three girls take a few steps back. And at the very moment the race official calls their attention to the start, everything falls silent. It is as if a moment is frozen in time. I look at the varsity girls I have come to know, respect, admire and adore and I see not only are they are holding their position, they are holding their breath! The intensity of that very moment is so palpable. And yet, let me say it again, it is so spiritual.

In his article “I’m Spiritual, Who Needs Religion?” Tim Muldoon writes the word “spirituality” comes from the Latin term spiritus, which has the meanings of “spirit,” “ghost,” or even “breath.” It entered English through reference to Biblical ideas-specifically, as a way to render even more ancient terms from Hebrew and Greek. The bottom line is that the word “spirituality” was originally a word that referred to the Biblical notion of God giving us life by breathing into us, as depicted in the book of Genesis.

When the gun goes off, all runners release their breath. Indeed God has given them life and God has given them talent—speed, determination, and strength. Every breath is necessary to complete the 2.95 mile journey; and their spirituality will allow them to do more that complete the physical task of running the race. The spirituality of running and runners animates the challenge of the race; it makes running rewarding and more than worth the pain.

Olympic runner Eric Liddell said I believe God made me for a purpose. He made me fast and when I run I feel His pleasure. I highly doubt that my runners are feeling God’s pleasure as they ascend cardiac hill at Crystal Springs or the final turn up the hill to the finish. But as their coach, to see what God has made—the beauty of that park, the sanctity that one team can possess and even what these girls are capable of from the start to the finish, how can I not take a deep breath? As I inhale and then exhale, I feel God’s pleasure…the life..the spirit He has given me.

Photo Credits
All photos taken by the author on November 2, 2011

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Personal Inventory: Sports & Spirituality

The prayer of St. Ignatius calls us to “give and not to count the cost.” This beautiful prayer of generosity is challenging for most people, but I believe most especially for sports fans. Why? Sports fans love counting. It would be hard to find a single Pittsburgh Steeler fan today who isn’t counting the cost of yards, carries, personal fouls, turnovers, in this loss to the Baltimore Ravens. At the very least we know both teams knew how “to fight and not to heed the wounds.” What a great game!We sports fans are no strangers to numbers and how they add up—from rankings, magic numbers, AP polls, betting lines, numbers on jerseys, retired numbers, seeds in tourneys, numbers of championships, titles and more, numbers are more than a marking in a win or loss column. To say that numbers can be sacred in sports is not an overstatement. And, so the symbiosis begins.

"Sports and Spirituality" is most successful when one can draw from our own experiences as an athlete or a sports fan to think more concretely about our spiritual life. And in the same way that not all athletic disciplines need be tedious, challenging or painful, nor should those in the spiritual life.Hence I created a “personal inventory” to help you take stock of the experiences in both domains that stand out, that have shaped you as the person you are and are proven highlights in your life. I hope this “light” discipline will reveal some insight of the Lord’s coaching, leading and guiding along the way. Besides we already know God doesn’t play favorites on football Saturdays…but His Mother does.

Personal Inventory: Sports

  1. My favorite sport to watch is….
  2. My favorite sport to play is…
  3. My favorite athlete is….
  4. My least favorite athlete is….
  5. My favorite sports team is…
  6. A sport I know very little about but would like to learn more is….
  7. The most memorable sports event I have attended is…
  8. I have read a great book about sports. It is…
  9. I have seen a great movie about sports. It is….
  10. The best athlete in all of sports is….
Personal Inventory: Spirituality
  1. A good parish/faith community I am familiar with…
  2. My favorite prayer is…
  3. My favorite Saint/saint is….
  4. My favorite spiritual discipline is…
  5. A faith tradition I know very little about but would like to learn more is….
  6. The most liturgical event I have attended is…
  7. I have read a great book about spirituality….
  8. I have seen a great movie about spirituality….
  9. An interesting religious studies/theology course I have taken is…
  10. A religious leader I admire greatly is…
If you have your own question that would like to share, please post e.g. "The hardest thing about being a sports fan for me is?" For the Eagles' fan who wrote that, other Eagles' fans probably know the answer.

Photo credits

USC vs. ND
Spiritual Discipline