Monday, May 2, 2016

Basketball at the University of Notre Dame: Promoting Human Equality

Every last part of me wants to agree with William Byron when he writes, "Principles, once internalized, lead to something. They prompt activity, impel motion, direct choices. A principled person always has a place to stand, knows where he or she is coming from and likely to end up. Principles always lead the person who possesses them somewhere, for some purpose, to do something, or choose not to." But as someone who has taught teenagers for the past 15 years, I believe that principles are not enough. I wish they were, for they are foundational and offer a grounding for dialogue, inquiry and understanding about the moral life. But the head is separate from the heart, and it's different. For principles to be effective, they must be grounded in one thing: experience.
In my time at St. Ignatius, I have taught a few students for two years in a row and I've always felt that is a great privilege. Teaching junior ethics and then working with a good number of the same students during their senior year means that I know those kids fairly well. And I've seen and hear the great conflict that arises...good kids, really good kids KNOW the material. They agree with the principles in theory and yet they debate their efficacy, their practicality in the "real world" and the challenge they present. 

For example, during her Spring Break, a former student returned to my class to deliver a presentation on "The Sexualization of Female Athletes." She pointed out that much more than a double standard exists between male and female athletes. Furthermore, they are seeking more than equal pay for equal work. Media attention is a place to start. (SportsCenter provides less than 4% of its airtime to women's sports). They want respect and a better understanding of what they do. Much of her presentation parallels the Nine for IX episode "Branded." ESPN writes:
The double standard placed on female athletes to be the best players on the field and the sexiest off of it. Through stories of the women who have faced and tackled this question in very different ways, "Branded" explores the question: can women's sports ever gain an equal footing with their male counterparts, or will sex appeal always override achievement?
I was excited for my students to continue the conversations we once had in ethics through the lens of Sports and Spirituality on this topic. I believed the principles that framed our study would offer a fruitful dialogue. Instead, I left disappointed and disheartened. Truly, some of my most trusted male students were very close minded. They were resistant to the information. Rather than listen with humility or any sense of empathy, they became defensive and accusatory. I had seen this spirit in them before, it was back again.
I thought back to what they had learned one year prior. Byron writes: 
The Principle of Human Equality."Equality of all persons comes from their essential dignity.... While differences in talents are a part of God’s plan, social and cultural discrimination in fundamental rights... are not compatible with God’s design" ("Summary," pp. 23-4). 
Treating equals equally is one way of defining justice, also understood classically as rendering to each person his or her due. Underlying the notion of equality is the simple principle of fairness; one of the earliest ethical stirrings felt in the developing human person is a sense of what is "fair" and what is not.
Though I believe teaching the principles of Catholic Social Teaching is necessary, and our curriculum must include what our tradition promote and upholds, it has limited authority if it remains abstract. I must be grounded in an experience. And that is why I can't stop thinking and wanting to talk about an article from "The Players Tribune: Get with the Program"

Grant thoughtfully describes the culture of men's and women's basketball at Notre Dame. He names what most fans probably know Notre Dame will always be a football school first, but states but the next biggest show on campus is women’s hoops. He shares his limited understanding of women's basketball prior to his time in South Bend and what the culture taught him about it. In fact, he says "One of the coolest things about the culture we had at Notre Dame was that it was normal to see women’s and men’s basketball as being equally important." If this is remotely true—and I have a sense that it is—then this might be one of the things I am the most proud of as a alum.
Super proud of the fact that co-captains of the Men's basketball team graduated last May.
I've talked to my colleagues at St. Ignatius where I teach about how we might create a similar culture. Synapses have flown. Ideas and input hasn't been met without resistance, questions and conerns. And yet, every coach has recognized the culture didn't just happen. It started somewhere. Usually those things start at the top....but who knows, maybe it was student, or in this case, student-athlete driven!

I believe there is too much at stake to not further consider how we might create a similar culture We all must recognize our perceptions and biases, but can we be open to what we might learn or gain? My assessment of Jerian Grant's story is that he gained respect and friendship. To me, that sounds like the ideal footing for the promotion of human equality.
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