Friday, June 29, 2012

Unmatched: Why Chris Evert is a Role Model for Women's Sports

I went to purchase a pair of heels for work.  As I was browsing, I found a pair I liked. I held them up to show my friend who said in reply, “they’re nice, but I want a pair of shoes that are “sexy.”  I put them down and wondered, “when did feminine get replaced by sexy.” 

The sexualization of young girls and women is not a new topic.  Plunging necklines, shorter skirts, higher heels than I once thought possible are the norm.  When my co-worker found a padded push-up bra for sale in the girls’ section of a department store, I confronted a new low.  It was marketed for an 8-year old girl. Again, I asked where is a pretty dress? Or is hot the only way to go?  Is there a woman out there who models feminine and pretty instead of hot and sexy?  I would love some answers. 

It seems I found a few in ESPN’s 30 for 30 "Unmatched," a documentary that spotlights two tennis greats Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert from their teenage years on.

As I watched “Unmatched” I was struck by a number of things: the magnitude of their rivalry, the depth of the friendship and just how feminine America’s sweetheart, Chris Evert was.  She was not a sex symbol, although I wonder in today’s world if she would be.  No she was distinctly, innately and tremendously feminine.  And for this very reason, I think Chris Evert is a great role model for women’s sports.
Chris Evert won 90% of her matches, including 125 straight on clay, the longest winning streak on any single surface. “For 12 years from 1975-1986 only Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova was the top-ranked player of the year.”  She won 18 Grand Slam championship titles and reached more Grand Slam singles finals than any player, man or woman, in the history of professional tennis.  I love that she was Sports Illustrated’s 1976 Sportswoman of the Year.

Evert was a dominant tennis player, but “played like a woman.”  She was a master from the baseline.  Her strength was her ability to draw a player to the net so she could launch her lethal passing shot.  Her serve was incredibly consistent and she was always fit.  I love Serena Williams’ style of play because she is so tremendously athletic.  But to be honest, she plays like a man.  She hits for power.  Her serve is killer.  She is very aggressive.  I don’t mean to say that women cannot play like Serena, but many can’t and they don’t.  I believe Evert presents a style that many females can identify with—she played a calculated game with her strength; strength that played to her build and her feminine nature.

Her look was tremendously fresh and feminine.  I looked with fascination at the many hairstyles she featured for 17 years in the spotlight.  From the classic ponytail with a ribbon, to a bun, a perm in the 1980s or a feathered hairdo held in place by a braided headband, Chrissie could have been one of my fashion plates. Her tennis dresses were pretty yet fashionable.  From the lace one piece to her matching yellow dress as Martina’s doubles partner in the Wimbledon finals to the later years with her colorful Ellese skirts, she was always dressed to kill.  Not one outfit was inappropriate or even borderline un-classy.  Chris was an example of how women are beautiful.

But as we know, looks aren’t everything.  And Chrissie is a worthy example for more than her physical self.  Many women have been discriminated against because they are too emotional.  Chris Evert however was anything but emotional.  She was cool and could always keep a straight face. In “Unmatched,” Martina said, “Chris was so strong and so tough mentally.  She didn’t look the part, but my God, she was as tough as they get.  She was one of the greatest competitors ever.  She motivated me to play stronger.” Evert’s a wonderful example that female athletes need not let their emotions get the best of them.

As mentally tough as she was, Evert had a soft side that speaks to the caring nature of women. In the 1976 Wimbledon finals, Martina was losing big time in the first two sets.  In fact, she completely whiffed an overhead.   Shortly thereafter, standing at the net, Martina guessed wrong that Evert was going to hit her shot cross-court.   The ball hit Martina, which doesn’t happen often in singles tennis.  Martina said, “I was mortified once again.”  Chris immediately pet Martina lovingly on the head and asked if she was okay.  The two laughed about it.  It was a very tender moment.  Martina also thanked Chris for totally accepting her for who she was.  She said, “Chris was gay friendly before it was okay to be gay friendly.  She was always supportive of me.”
“Unmatched” deepened my respect for both women in different ways.  I was saddened by the reality of many challenges Martina faced, one of which is contrary to the point of this posting.  Martina was anything but feminine. But in her own way, she too is a wonderful role model for women in sports (another blog posting?). 

In spite of it all, Chris Evert remained true to who she was in a simple basic way. She was a great female athlete. She was feminine and fierce, pretty and poetic on the court, unemotional and yet caring. She reminds me that as a female, you need not be a sex symbol. You just need to be yourself, no padded push-up bra required.

Photo Credits
CE and MN serve

Lace Dress

Sunday, June 24, 2012

I Wish I Liked Soccer....

With the European Cup well underway, I am reminded again—I wish I liked watching or playing soccer. It seems I am unlike other sports fans worldwide.  Sports Illustrated writer Grant Wahl reports, “Even mainstream US sports fan are noticing the fervent followings at Euro 2012.  Through eight games, ESPN which is broadcasting every match live, was averaging 1.26 million English-language viewers, up 183% from Euro 2008.” 183%!  Spontaneous songs and chants, spirited, colorful nationalism on display at the Euro and World Cups are but a few reasons—athletic feats aside—that any sports fan can and should be drawn to this international game.  So what gives? Honestly, I don’t know.

I wish I liked soccer in the way I wish I liked seafood or the music of Bob Dylan.  Seafood is so good for you.  Low in calories, high in protein, it is a nutrient dense food.  It is loaded with Omega-3 fatty acids for brain function.  Insult to injury, I have lived in places with access to fresh fish: Baton Rouge, Washington DC (with its Maryland crab) and San Francisco.  Seafood can be social, especially for Catholics.  From Crab Feeds to Fish Frys, what parish or Catholic school hasn’t hosted a fishy fundraiser? And in south Louisiana, the crawfish boil is a regular excuse for families and friends to come together.
The music of Bob Dylan has directly and indirectly shaped my entire life. People I love and respect are tremendously devoted to the musical genius. Most Americans cite him as the real voice of this country, long before Bruce Springsteen unofficially took the honor! In fact, Dylan was recently awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom the nation’s highest civilian honor, for having made “especially meritorious contributions to cultural endeavors of this country.” But his voice and the rhythm his music….I can’t even put it into writing.  My Uncle Mark once told me I was treading on sacred ground….
Soccer is no different.  Indirectly, Pope Benedict XVI spoke of the way the soccer field can be sacred ground as he sent a message to athletes, fans and tournament organizers in the European Cup soccer tournament. He said 
Team sports such as soccer can educate participants and spectators in important values, including self-sacrifice and respect for one’s adversaries. Group sporting events, he said, are “an important school for educating one in the meaning of respect for others – including the opposing team– the spirit of personal sacrifice for the good of the whole group,” and in the importance of recognizing the talents and skills of each person on a team. 
In other words, the pope said, team sports help people “overcome the logic of individualism and selfishness, which often characterize human relations, in order to make room for the logic of brotherhood and love, the only things that can lead to promoting the common good on every level.”
Like seafood, soccer is good for you! It is physically and mentally demanding. Soccer requires critical thinking on behalf of the athlete and teammates (brain power!).  I think soccer players are some of the greatest athletes in the world.  My father, who coached my brother’s soccer team for 5 years, conceded they ARE the best athletes—bar none.

I grew up in an area where soccer programs were well developed for boys and girls of all ages.  It is social and I love it for the fact that its social boundaries are lacking.  I have played on fields in El Salvador with kids who had no shoes, in Mexico with the children of migrant farm workers and in East LA with former gang members.  Race, age, gender or class and even language prevented no one from playing.

Like Dylan’s music, people I love and respect revere the game.  Some coach their child’s team, some are still playing (and can’t turn off the competitive gene—you know who you are) and others travel to watch games—from the pub, to the Italian Athletic Club to the host site of the World Cup.

I know the merits and understand their mass appeal of soccer, seafood and Dylan.  I hope the remainder of the Euro Cup is comprised of exciting games and athletic feats.  I will however order something else or turn down the volume. I wish it were different...

Photo Credits

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Why Play For My School? Look to Beau Hossler (A) for the answer

Beau Hossler hopes to be the first three-time amateur golfer to play in the United States Open.  A first time qualifier (Congressional, 2011) at the age of sixteen, the future Texas Longhorn took sole possession of the lead for a brief time on Friday June 15, 2012.  Had he won, Forbes magazine reports the USGA’s “Rules of Amateur Status” would rob him of his rightfully-earned winnings. The tournament winner took home a $1.4 million paycheck, but that money would be redistributed among the professional golfers’ payouts if an amateur were to win. Last place is good for a meager $16,500, but Hossler won’t see a penny of that, either.” Hossler tied for eighth overall at three strokes over par.  He left the 112th US Open, his second, with no prize money and no immediate contract for product endorsements.  But what did he gain? 

According to Chris Smith, the obvious answers include: "invaluable experience and exposure on a national scale. He brushed shoulders with some of the game’s all-time greats;" the memories will last a lifetime.  The less obvious answer however relates to that (A) that followed his name on the leader board; the (A) on the television screen and the scorecard.  (A) is for amateur.  And for Hossler to remain one means he can play his senior year at Santa Margarita High School and the year after at the University of Texas. 
In many ways, Beau Hossler is no different than many high school athletes today. He has braces, he is confident and self-assured and I’m sure playing at a “big time” university like Texas a dream come true.  And whether we know it or not, he too was confronted with the question that so many student athletes today face—Why play for my school? 

Many schools have limited resources and cannot guarantee a high level of competition.  Soccer, volleyball and basketball players increased pressure to play for their club teams to the exclusion not only of playing other sports, but the same sport at their school. These teams travel, these teams are comprised of the very best athletes; athletes of a similar passion and skill level.  These club teams provide an athlete with exposure to games where a number of college coaches can get a good look at them.  Athletes can choose a coach that fits their style and temperament and may even find better technical training.
I think we know why we know people still and will always play for their high school or college.  There really is something to be said for putting on a jersey that says “De La Salle” “Notre Dame” or “Texas.”  It reminds the individual that he or she is part of something much larger than him/herself.  As opposed to wearing a club jersey like “Rebels,” when my athletes wear “St. Ignatius” they know they represent something that has stood in San Francisco for over 155 years. 

And we wear these jerseys in good times and in bad times.  I have often wondered what it’s like for athletes who suit up against Columbine High School. To see the word “Columbine” is to know the story of a school-wide massacre and tragedy in 1999.  I hope because of student athletes today, we see a community that is defined by so much more.

Wearing a school jersey is a reminder that athletics is just one part of life.  True, many athletes only go to certain schools to play their sport, but I actually think the most compelling reason to play  for one's school is because of the unique way athletics builds community, inculcates values and promotes sportsmanship.  And the benefits of that is in no way limited to just the athlete.  It can and does reach fans, parents and siblings alike.

I was reminded of this truth at De La Salle High School’s Hall of Fame event.  My classmate Joe McLean was inducted for his success as a 3-year starter on the varsity basketball team.  Upon receiving his award, he shared with family, friends, former teammates, coaches and teachers why his mother in particular chose DLS for her son.  She knew that this community could give Joe something she couldn’t.  And Joe read from Proverbs 17:17 to reveal what it was:  He who is a friend is always a friend, and a brother is born for the time of stress.

 What Joe encountered on the hardwood at De La Salle, my runners have gained pounding the pavement for hundreds of miles.  Their classmates become teammates.  Teammates become friends and some of these friends become brothers and sisters.  The nature of athletics through teamwork, winning and losing, striving and enduring stress has the potential to build young men and women into something greater.

The mission statement of De La Salle athletic department names this.  It recognizes and fosters the development of commitment, brotherhood and sportsmanship, and instills in all student-athletes a sense of pride and achievement. The Athletic Department seeks to create an environment in which all student-athletes develop a sense of self-esteem and dignity in a Christian setting that is both moral and caring.
The first sentence of this mission statement includes what Proverbs celebrates—brotherhood…what Joe’s mother wanted for her son.  And the beauty of his testimony is that it was not unique to his experience.  I saw a nod of mutual understanding and agreement from several men in the crowd.  I know it’s what my own brother experienced on the track team and what I hope my athletes find in their four years of high school.

I recognize a club team has the potential to build athletes up and I hope they do.  A school however makes teammates out of young men and women who have lockers above and below each other, who may not have been able to run a mile without stopping the first time they came out for the team, who may reveal their deep love for God in a retreat small group or who may get in trouble with the dean for the same offense.  Students in the past did; they will continue to do so in the future.  A school is a community and for some, a family—complete with its own legacy and name.

My father and I joked about whether or not Beau would have to go through try-outs this coming spring to make the varsity team.  I hope he does. Casey Martin, now the men's golf coach at Oregon who also made the cut for this year's Open poignantly said, “Professional golf is the most selfish endeavor in the world.  Everything revolves around what you do.  That’s the way it has to be because the team is you.  It’s not a team, it’s you.  It’s a selfish endeavor, but when a golfer is part of a team, it’s not…

Having Beau try out, play for the Santa Margarita Eagles and eventually the Texas Longhorns teams will change the nature of the game.  And I hope in doing so, his teammates become more than friends; I hope they become brothers.

Photo Credits
Future Longhorn

Coach Lad
ND defeats Syracuse

DLS Hall of Fame

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Matt Cain: Together we are Giant...and Perfect.

I love the number 22.  I can’t think of a more fitting pitcher to have executed the 22nd perfect game in Major League Baseball than the San Francisco Giants’ own Matt Cain.  The numbers that characterize the longest tenured Giant (at the age of 27) are deceiving.  Thanks to a commanding 8-2 record this season,  #18's lifetime record (77-75) is back over 500.  I can think of innumerable games that have resulted in a loss because of a lack of run support from the Giants. Fortunately, last night was different. The Giants scored a season high 10 runs for him.  They picked him us as he picked up all of SF today.  For once, all the numbers add up.  0 Runs, 0 Hits with 0 Errors = 1 perfect game.
And with it comes a great lesson for sports and spirituality. Matt Cain achieved true greatness on Wednesday night, but I can’t see his accomplishment without recognizing that he did not do it alone.  None of us can do it alone.  I would like to argue that this is why we need both authentic religion and authentic spirituality in order to live a life of faith.

When I caught the highlights, I couldn’t stop the tears from flowing when I saw Blanco’s incredible catch in the 7th inning.  99% of the time that hit is a triple.  He was positioned close to the gap and made a great angle to the ball.  He had no glove left on the ball.  If you look up “web gem” in the on-line dictionary, you will now see Gregor Blanco.
When he caught it, he immediately turned to show his teammates on the infield that he made it.  Blanco wasn’t looking for personal glory; no he already knew he was a part of something much greater—a perfect game in the works.  Cain took his hat off to salute the right fielder.  When the two reconvened in the dugout they exchanged an embrace of gratitude.  This is but one example that Cain’s feat was made possible with the hands and handiwork of others.

I would not be writing about faith if it hadn’t been passed down to me through my parents, grandparents and some great teachers.  I continue to learn the precepts of my faith through study, prayer and example.  When asked what is my religion, I identify as a Catholic.  Ask me about my spirituality, it’s Catholic too (heavily influenced by St. Ignatius.  Ignatian Spirituality.  But please note, Ignatius, the founder of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, always points us back to Him.).  I am incomplete without both.  Religion guides what I do and spirituality characterizes how I do it.
Many people find spirituality more appealing than organized religion because of its free form and personal nature.  The beauty of the spiritual life is that is a reflection of who we are and how we live.  It need not follow any order or ritual, tradition or even other people.  This is inviting but it can be tricky.  It can go unchallenged.  It can become undisciplined and isolated. 

Religion on the other hand provides a community of faith in the way that spirituality does not. It is defined by tradition and ritual. It is passed down from one generation to the next through this order.  Yet, many who identify with a faith tradition find that while some religious teachings do reflect who they are and what they believe, many do not.  This tension too often leads people away from organized religion rather than working from within.  What is the answer?

I believe spirituality and religion are two feet of the body of faith.  Sometimes we lean more on one foot than the other, but I firmly believe both are necessary for the journey!

An author I respect and admire, Andria Trigiani (who is not a theologian or overtly spiritual/religious person) wrote “There is no one path to learning faith.  You use the tools you have and if that includes gathering in community, then that’s for you.  Some people go to the gym and others put on a pair of sneakers and run as far as they can go.  Both build the body and so it goes with the soul, the path to faith is personal.”

While I appreciate the running analogy, ultimately, I disagree.  I really think you need both.  Religious without spirituality is bone dry.  Spirituality without religion is selfish. That is a VERY strong word, but ultimately, it only benefits the self.  I think back to Barry Bonds’ singular accomplishment in achieving the home run record. It was exciting but it wasn’t transformational.  I don’t think there’s a member of the Giants on the field last night who didn't wake up today saying “I was a part of something truly magical last night.  Matt Cain did it.  We did it. Go Giants!”  You may disagree.  Many do.

Matt Cain’s achievement was made possible because of Melky’s Cabrera’s catch at the wall in the 6th, Buster Posey's efforts from behind the plate..and the list could go on.  But it was also made because Matt Cain is a work horse.  He is talented, committed and fierce.  This game was in the making for many years.  His perfection was seen on June 13, 2012 and will be celebrated for weeks, months and years to come.  I believe our perfection or ultimately our salvation is no different. 

Special Shout out to Marc Rarden--the lucky dog who was at the game for first hand insight and the photo featured here as well as to my co-director/producer, Sean Lawhon for additional input
Photo Credits
Cain's Record
Gregor Blanco's Web gem

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Casey Martin: Proof that golf is the greatest game ever played

What a difference 14 years makes…and doesn’t make. 

Fourteen years ago, I’m not sure I could name 10 athletes who are devout Christians.  Is it just me, or is the list growing? As fans get more comfortable (or not) with the likes of Tim Tebow or Josh Hamilton, Jeremy Lin or RG3, I think back to the pioneers in this field—AC Green and Kurt Warner.  I wasn’t overly comfortable with PDF-- public displays of faith.  Overt gestures and award winning thanks to God didn’t sit well with me.  And then I heard Casey Martin speak on KNBR.  The full story is here…"What he said and how he said it."  What a difference (x) years makes…..

In 1998 the Olympic Club Lakeside hosted the 98th US Open.  Among its contenders were two national champions from Stanford University—Casey Martin a member of the 1994 winning team and Tiger Woods, who won the individual NCAA championship in 1996. At the time, Tiger had won but one of his four green jackets.  Casey Martin on the other hand was better known winning the right against the PGA to use a cart during tournament play.
What a difference 14 years makes.

Today, Woods has won 73 PGA Tour events and has been world number one golfer for the most consecutive weeks and greatest total number of weeks. He has been awarded PGA Player of the Year a record ten times and he has won 14 professional major golf championships, the second highest of any player (Jack Nicklaus leads with 18).

After trying to make it on the tour from 1998-2003, Casey settled into a new role with the sport he loves.  He is head coach of the University of Oregon men’s golf and is hoping to leads the Ducks’ to their first NCAA championship golf title.
Today, Woods is seeking to gain his first major since the US Open 2008.  This four-year period is the longest drought for him since his 2005 Masters win (prior to that, he hadn’t won since the 2002 US Open).  People wonder, Does he love the game or does he love winning? A fair question.

Martin however is thrilled to be playing.  He made the cut by one stroke. According to US Today Sports, he said "I do stay close to the game, and even though I don't compete anymore. I decided that because it was a qualifier — it is the U.S. Open, and it's true that it's open to anyone who can qualify — I would go for it. And lo and behold I made it."

Tomorrow, they will join Stanford sophomore Cameron Wilson and Oregon State junior Nick Sherwood as they play their first practice round together at the Olympic Club.
People continue to look at Tiger with more disdain than affection.  We don’t know where to place him or how to characterize him.  Who is Tiger, really?  What is in store for the legend, the two-time Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year. 

And people will look at Casey with ever more respect and affection.  A friend admitted today, that in 1998, he thought it wasn’t right that Casey was permitted to drive the cart at the US Open.  Martin filed a lawsuit against the PGA who claimed it created an unfair advantage.  Fourteen years later, we look at the Supreme Court’s decision and wonder how we could have thought otherwise.  Making an accommodation for an athlete with a disability does not compromise the game.  It is ensures that justice is served.

What a difference 14 years makes...
The Disney movie "The Greatest Game Ever Played" is about golf. I used to roll my eyes at the over-dramatic title, but as William Simmons so eloquently states, “through great visual display credited to director Bill Paxton, we find out that this has much more meaning than a game.”

He adds "though the movie is about golf, it seems as though the sport is just the framework for what is really going on. What is really going on is a story of individuals being told they can't fulfill their dreams, because of age or social status." What unfolds, regardless of a conflict between a son's wishes and a father's demands and an English golf legend looking to bring the title home with the country breathing down his neck is what the title suggest is that a great game is being played.

Once again, golf has served as a framework in the life of Casey Martin. He never let a disability get in the way of his pursuing his dream. Obviously the dream has not died. Same venue, many of the same golfers….14 years later. I hope this year’s US Open reveals what will be the greatest game ever played.

Photo Credits
Casey Martin and Tiger Woods
Stanford Team

Coach Martin
Golf Cart

Thursday, June 7, 2012

My Commencement Address: God's Dream for Us

I love graduation day.  The pomp and circumstance of this special day in a person’s life always speaks to me.  And in the month of May, I delight in hearing who will speak as the commencement speaker at various colleges across the country. 

The debate of whether or not President Obama should have spoken at Notre Dame still looms with controversy even three years later!  I was impressed to read that he spoke at Joplin High School in Missouri. Just hours after last year’s graduation ceremony, the school was destroyed by a massive tornado that claimed the lives of one graduate and 160 others.  He also spoke at Barnard College and most recently at the United States Air Force Academy. 
Imploring them to be part of the next great “American Century,” President Obama addressed graduating cadets and their families. “I see an American Century because we have the resilience to make it through these tough economic times. … And no matter what challenges we may face, we wouldn’t trade places with any other nation on Earth,” Obama said (Denver Post). I hope these young graduates rise to the challenge.

I love to wonder, if given the opportunity, what I would impart to graduates. Considering that I have concluded the last 12 years of teaching seniors with a common message, I know exactly what I would talk about: pursuing your dreams...with a twist. In fact, the final unit in my senior elective Sports and Spirituality is related to this very topic.  We study spirituality as God’s dream for us
Understanding spirituality in this way means “letting go and letting God.”  It requires discipline, prayer, being open and total trust.  A very special guest speaker and friend, Frank Allocco, the head coach of De La Salle High School basketball, revealed how true this was in his own life.  In the article “Lofty Dreams and Buried Blessings” he said, "As a young man, I thought I had a clear vision of what my life should be, but God had a better plan. I just had to let go and trust that He knew the way…."
Because this humble truth is both beautiful and tremendously challenging, examples are a must.  We need to hear about the lived experience from others that we admire, love and trust—from Coach Allocco to your alma mater’s commencement speaker. We need assurance that the spiritual life, when lived this way may yield a dream akin to the pearl of great price

On the last day of class, I didn’t give an address to my students.  Instead I showed the NFL Films: Putting Our Best Foot Forward—David Ruffer.  I hope you watch it. The moral of the story is eloquent:
Monday through Friday, David Ruffer lives his dream by attending Notre Dame.  On Saturdays, he plays football.

“It wasn’t something I ever thought I’d be doing.  It’s greater than anything I thought would happen.” said Ruffer.

Maybe the best dreams in life, are the ones you never had... that still come true.
For those who believe, I think this is the perfect way of explaining God’ dream for us.    

Photo Credits
President Obama
Coach Allocco