Thursday, January 26, 2017

Sports Stories Surprise Us

Though I cannot tell who reads Sports and Spirituality, I can determine how many unique views each entry has gotten. I can also ascertain where my audience lives, but only by continent. My second most popular posting hails from one continent—the Land of Oz. Much to my surprise, the January 26, 2011 blog Australia Day + Australian Open = A G'Day has been read by 10,000 people. I'd love to know how many of those readers live Down Under. I'd also like to know why that story has proven to be so popular. I've been wrong about sports stories before, and as my blog has proven, I will be wrong about them again. 
In the last month, "Catholics v. Convicts: The Story Behind ESPN's Shirt of the Century" surpassed my tribute to the National Day of Australia with over 12,000 unique views. More people took to ESPN's 30 for 30: Catholic vs. Convicts than I ever thought possible. My sense was that the story would only interest those who loved the once storied Miami vs. Notre Dame rivalry. I figured most sports fans would deem this tale as one that is no longer relevant. Boy, was I wrong. I've had more people stop me to tell me how much they enjoyed everything about the ESPN film, including many of my own students, who—honestly—have never been required to watch it for credit or for extra credit (ok maybe). And my first blog posting on this topic is now my most popular entry of all time.
I have always loved writing about the Williams Sisters. Their story of their lives speaks for itself; remarkable content and the very fact that I am still able to write about them—their on-going success and outstanding careers is a blessing. This year's women's final gives me yet again another opportunity to enjoy tennis' two greatest siblings. As written by the BBC, "It would also be a seventh Australian Open victory for the younger Williams sister, while Venus hopes to win an eighth major title, first in  Melbourne and first since Wimbledon 2008." This is already a great feat, but the casual observer should know that Serena and Venus are the second and thirteenth seeds, both women are in their mid 30s, and should Serena win she would earn her 23rd grand slam title. Her older sister by 18 months seeks to write her own tale. The Aussie sports commentator told Serena (after she defeated Johanna Konta), "We love you here in Australia. You've won a lot and we hope you will win some more!!!"  
But on this 230th Australia Day, I would like to raise a glass to a country so many Americans love with the same affection extended on Center Court to America's greatest female athlete. It is much more than a home to the best accent in the English language...rather, it is a country, a people, and a culture that has given both sports and spirituality, some of its greatest content, stories, champions, cheers and mates. A place and a people I never get tired of writing about...or that you deem unworthy of reading. No surprise there!

Sunday, January 22, 2017

How to Balance Rooting For Your Favorite Players Who Have Moral Issues

My 74-year old mother woke up today with two words on her mind: game day. Sports fans everywhere know the anticipation, the excitement, the nerves and the hope that accompany a day like today. (For those non-NFL fans, today the Falcons host the Packers in the NFC Championship and the Patriots host the Steelers in the AFC Championship. The winning two teams will play in Super Bowl LI). What is interesting or noteworthy to me about my mom's outlook is that it's one she hasn't held often. Even though she's been married to my dad for 49 years—a man who plans mass attendance around game times and the NFL draft—this is new, albeit strange territory for her. And that's because she is rooting, unabashedly and with tremendous enthusiasm for the Green Bay Packers.
When I talked to her this morning, she wanted to tell me—once again—how much she likes this team, the organization and especially the quarterback, Aaron Rodgers. She then shared a thought you may have had yourself. "If there's anything negative about him—you know, in his personal life and what not—I don't want to know. At least not today. I want to enjoy this game. Go Pack!"

I understood where she was coming from...and what she meant. No one has to dig very deep to find out the good, the bad and the ugly of any given professional athlete. Opinions abound. Stories of their generosity, kindness and character are just as common as their entitlement. I've wondered if the depth chart speaks to their talent, or popular media's perception of an athlete. To this point, Kevin Kennedy of USS Sports Machine, has scribed a response to my mom's quagmire. I hope you find it helpful, I hope you enjoy.

Honestly, I'm surprised the Niners even had a depth chart this year...
How to Balance Rooting For Your Favorite Players Who Have Moral Issues by Kevin Kennedy
With the continued development of technology and the advancement of social media, information from around the world often becomes available instantly. That’s good news in many cases, but what if it’s something you might not want to know such as a member of your favorite sports team engaging in questionable or downright morally negative behavior? Can you separate a player’s personal life from his role as a member of your favorite team?

Basically, you have three choices when it comes to balancing morality and team support:

      Voice your displeasure, whether it’s on social media or at the park, stadium or court.
      Don’t root for the guilty player, but support the team as a whole. Stay quiet when he or she is on, but cheer on good efforts by other team members.
      You can ignore their personal life and focus on what he or she does for the sport, as long as they perform well and helps the team win.

While there is no set formula of how to reconcile your mixed feelings, you can evaluate numerous factors. These include the nature of the offense, involvement in charity work, and whether the player has actually been convicted or just accused of a crime. Of course this whole scenario of morals versus loyalty comes with unpredictability. For example, fans have been known to cheer for one player while booing another, even if the athletes had offenses that didn’t seem to warrant one or the other.
For example, MVP Ryan Braun led the Milwaukee Brewers to a division title after a three-decade drought, but he fell from favor quickly when a cheating and lying scandal that involved performance-enhancing drugs took over. Compare that to Aroldis Chapman who was accused of domestic abuse. He was traded from the New York Yankees to the Chicago Cubs just before the trade deadline. While Chapman was never arrested nor charged, Cub fans expressed mixed feelings on social media about this controversial acquisition. However, Chapman was applauded with cheers during games as he helped the long-suffering franchise end the longest championship drought in sports history. Chapman pitched 7.2 innings in five World Series appearances, helping the Cubs defeat the Cleveland Indians in an epic seven game series.

However, once Chapman won his 2016 World Series ring with the Chicago Cubs, the Yankees seemed eager enough to have him back, despite his domestic violence background. They signed him to a record contract this December, inking him to a record $86 million deal. In this case, it seems that his performance on the field overrode his alleged transgressions.

Unpredictability is further enhanced by how the governing bodies in sports and the networks react. For example, some athletes get suspended by the corresponding leagues while others don’t. Additionally, the passage of time seems to ease some transgressions. Some big names with scandals tied to them even make it into the broadcasting booth. Such is the case with Pete Rose and Alex Rodriguez. If the network endorses them, does that mean they did not violate any ethics or morals? Only you can decide that.

Visit Kevin's other articles on USS Sports Machine's Website
Photo Credits
Aaron Rodgers

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Dear Sports Fans...Questions About Ben Roethlisberger and Others

Dear Sports Fans,
If you have a hard time keeping up with your favorite sports weekly, here's a tip. Read the "Letters to the Editor." This column, now known as the "Inbox" at Sports Illustrated is typically in the front of the magazine and includes the reactions, retorts and responses to article from a magazine that hit the news stand two weeks prior. These letters are pithy and penned by people from all over the U.S.; they make me laugh and they make me smile. The "Inbox" is a helpful resource, for the best articles will spawn much more than praise; they will elicit memories, spark creative quips, raise questions and well—make you want to put down the "letter" you're reading and find the source of such intrigue. Other articles will forcefully spew vitriol that is so toxic, one can't help but want to read what was printed in the past.  
This may be the only way to keep up with reading all there is in the wide world of sports. Good luck.
A slow but fairly disciplined reader.

P.S. I should make it a goal for 2017 to get one such missive into SI's "Inbox" and in print.
Writers and publishers know what they are doing: Sports Illustrated placed Steeler's quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on its January 23. 2017 cover for good reason. Not only is Big Ben playing in the AFC Championship game this Sunday, not only is the black and gold #7 jersey he wears the second most popular one in Iron City, but the article aims to address what its title suggests: "Why Ben Roethlisberger is the NFL's Most Polarizing Player * And What that Says About the Steelers QB—and You."

In what appears to be a nearly 5,000 word piece, S. L. Price writes 
Ben Roethlisberger has been good for nearly seven years now—good here being descriptive of public behavior, not morality, the way it’s applied to a heedful child or a docile dog. By all appearances the Steelers’ quarterback has acted like a cordial, civilized adult off the field, while on it he has proved to be one of the singular talents in NFL history. Whether that combination signals maturity—much less true redemption—is anyone’s guess.  
Beyond the telecasts, though, the chatter gets more contentious. Steelers partisans who don Big Ben’s jersey embrace a heavy brand of fandom. With the retirements of Ray Lewis and Kobe Bryant, the 34-year-old Roethlisberger is American sports’ most prominent polarizer, his number 7 as provocative as a question mark. And sooner or later, the ask does come.  
“He said, ‘Why you got that jersey on? You know what Ben did? You’re a woman and you’re wearing it?’ ” says Pittsburgh fan Lefifia Moore, 41, about a confrontation she once had with a man outside Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte.
Not much of this introduction surprised me. The information, the questions and the reactions were what a sports fan could guess. I figured the forthcoming "Letters to the Editor" would offer two points of view: Camp Ben and Camp Rapist (sorry). What I encountered was slightly different. 
One said:
I was disappointed in S.L. Price's story on Ben Roethlisberger [Big Ben]. Price presented the quarterback's positive changes in such a way as to raise doubts about the legitimacy of his growth. Roethlisberger has been a model citizen, teammate, husband and father for some time. Why not give credit where it is due? —Rudy Popolis, Denver, PA
Part of me wanted to write a letter in response to the "Letter to the Editor," and then I realized this is what the comments section is for in an on-line publication. Even comments however, have their strengths and their limitations. Too often they are reactionary and dim-witted...but not always. The other part of me, having read the full article and this response, challenged me to consider all that Price and Sports Illustrated had to offer. I found the piece to be a fascinating profile of a moral and character development. Don't believe me, or Mr. Popolis, read it for yourself.

The other letter said: 

It is not up to a writer to decide if it is o.k. for fans to wear a particular jersey. Perhaps they are simply showing their appreciation for a player's efforts on the field. —Russell Newton, Essex Junction, VT
Mr. Newton's message resonates with a question that sports fans have to answer for themselves more often that not. From Tiger Woods to Johnny Mac, Hope Solo to Tonya Harding, Pete Rose to Barry Bonds, no sport, no team is immune from controversy and consideration.

And rather than respond to this important question....or offer some thoughts...I am going to punt (pun intended). No, I am excited to share that have a new contributor to Sports and Spirituality. Kevin Kennedy is a young writer and offered to take on this very question. His response will serve as the next posting.

In the meantime, as you prepare for Sunday's games, I encourage you to pay attention to the conversation that takes place about certain athletes. What is the popular narrative that the public offers? What does the media promote? Who do they protect. I'm a big Mike Tomlin fan (Steelers Coach), so I'll spend my time sharing with you why I admire him and his leadership. Enjoy.

Photo Credits

Big Ben and #7 jersey
Tom and Ben

Monday, January 16, 2017

The Two Greatest Words in the English Language: What if...and Sports

With a colleague on paternity leave, I am once again teaching Foundations of Ethics: Morality and Social Justice. An outstanding course, the curriculum is as real as it gets. Just this past week, I shared a video clip from "The Miniature Earth Project" (set to Springsteen's "Streets of Philadelphia"). Their objective is to let the world know: If we could turn the population of the earth into a small community of 100 people, keeping the same proportions we have today, it would be something like this... 

It is poignant and interesting. For example 47 out of 100 people live in urban areas. 33 are Christian, 18 are Muslim, 14 are Hindu, 13 practice other religions, 6 are Buddhists and 16 are non-religious. However, many of the statistics are also overwhelming. For example, 13 go hungry or are malnourished. 14 can't read and only 7 are educated at a secondary level. Too many lack access to clean drinking water, etc. I use a video like this as an invitation to pray. Other teachers (and most likely the creators of the project) want to draw awareness to what is....and hopefully give humanity a place to ask What if?
The late MLK asked us to join in his dream. He too wanted us to use what my friend Alex Montoya believes are the two greatest words in the English language, "What if..." I think creativity, hard word, passion, solidarity, wisdom and grit is the only way we can get closer to that the other side. But, before we do, I think it's worth knowing not just the deficiencies and inequalities, but the abundance, and sometimes the down right absurdity we hold as well (to which I am also guilty). I say that because good bad or otherwise, sports reveals it all.

Tonight in Oakland, I hope a prayer vigil brings people together to reflect upon Dr. King's dream and how it might be achieved forcefully, yet peacefully. I hope their hearts will be inspired by the prophet Amos, who said
Rather let justice surge like waters,and righteousness like an unfailing stream.
But there is another event that's taking place that will capture the hearts and minds of thousands throughout the Bay Area: the return of the Cleveland Cavaliers for the first time since Game 7 of the 2016 NBA finals. That's right, LeBron and Kyrie Irving will once again face off against the Splash Brothers—Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson as well as Draymond Green. The Dubs have another weapon in their arsenal, one six-time All Star Kevin Durant (who signed a two-year contract for $54 million). When the game tips-off at 5:00 pm tonight, this is what you should know. The other stats may speak to the grim reality in your community.

Once every home stand, some Warriors fan pays minimum $700 to sit court side. As mentioned many times before, please do not fill those seats with anyone under the age of 18. Ever. Tonight, no fewer than 8 to 10 of the court side seats will indeed be occupied by a minor AND a group of four spent $52,088 on StubHub to be there, a stat reported by That's $13,022 a seat. 

One in every four subscribers to Sports Illustrated is female, and so  is one in every five people who played a round of golf in 2016. I know this, because I am that stat. Such numbers are far from criminal. If I were to be charged and convicted in a court in heaven, it might have to do with the inordinate amount of my income I have put toward hitting that 1.8" ball. Or, the countless hours that could have been put toward feeding the hungry rather than myself while watching football, baseball, basketball, and golf both live and in person, in a bar, Dino's pizza and my very own living room. Maybe yours too.
One in every ten Americans is a Dallas Cowboys fan. Ok, maybe that stat is inflated but Jack Dickey of Sports Illustrated writes "In the 15 Harris Polls since 1998 asking fans to pick their favorite NFL team, Dallas has been voted No. 1 10 times, including the most recently released edition, in 2015." That's quite a feat given that this team, valued at $4 billion had a winning percentage of .500 from 1997-2015, ranked 16th in the sport! (worse than the Jets and barely better than the Chargers). The moniker "America's team" is not in vain. BTW: exciting game against the Pack. I have to admit I enjoyed it knowing that at very limited if any tax dollars were put toward building AT&T Stadium. 

Speaking of which... every 22 years, the people of Arlington, Texas (may) vote for a new Rangers ballpark.  The one they are seeking (with a retractable roof) will only cost $1 billion. Fans agreed to pay for $500 million of it. At least they got two more years out of their ballpark than the Braves did. After 20 years at Turner Field, the Braves will relocate to a suburban ballpark in Cobbs County. I guess it's a positive that they will fund it for $100 million less, with an approval of $400 million in public money.

Every year, the free-spending Dodgers payroll increases as it does for the Yankees, Cubs, Giants and well, anytime that seeks to be in the post-season come Fall. But According to ESPN (a forecast from 2012).
Zack Greinke is about to earn approximately $147 million through 2018.• Adrian Gonzalez is owed $127 million through 2018.• Carl Crawford is due $102.5 million through 2017.• Matt Kemp has $108 million coming through 2019.• Andre Ethier is owed $85 million through 2017. 
Whew. Got that? 
That comes to more than a half-billion dollars (about $569.5 million, in case your hard drive just blew up before it computed it). For five players. Five.
Oh wait, Greinke signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks instead. He opted out of the sixth year of his contract with the Dodgers and packed his bags for Phoenix where he became the highest paid player in MLB. He signed a 6-year deal for $206.5 million. I once said if "what if" are the two greatest words, than "words cannot describe" are the three. In this case, maybe not.

I love sports—from amateur to professional. I can't imagine American life, or my own without them. I realize they are a huge, big business. As stated hundreds of times before, I also believe they are an invitation into understanding the spiritual life, recreation should not be underestimated nor should the beauty of the game or of athletes. St. Augustine wrote, Our whole business in this life is to restore to health the eyes of the heart, whereby God may be seen." When I see the business of sport in the ways I have written about today, I know why sports and spirituality may be such a challenge for many to even consider. So let us continue to ask....What if?

Photo Credits
New D-back
Cowboys vs Packers

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Do Some Sports Reveal Character More Accurately Than Others? The Story of Cardinal Tobin

My parents believe one can learn a lot about a person's character from the card game, Bridge. Their conviction has invited me to consider what other games and sports do the same. With all due respect to Coach John Wooden who famously quipped, "sports do not build character, they reveal it," I suppose the answer should be "all of them." But I'm inclined to think that some might do the job more effectively than others. Your thoughts?
Golf is a no-brainer; tennis might be, too.  And, reading The New York Times article "Coming to Newark Archdiocese: A Different Kind of Cardinal,"  invited me to think not so much about the sport, but the space that it inhabits as a way to learn about other people. That place is often stinky and sweaty. It can be state of the art or show signs of wear are tare from days older than Rocky. Some are open 24 hours and others are hopping at the break of dawn. That's your local gym...or more specifically the weight room.

As a woman who inhabits one approximately twice a week, I can testify that Dude Perfect's Gym Stereotypes are not in vain. These guys out of Texas A&M crack me up because they highlight human nature, or in this case insights into our character and maybe more into different personalities. Yes, there's the talker, the sweaty guy, and Mr. Sauna Suit. We know the person who sings loudly, the other who grunts for all to hear and I've wondered from time to time if I am lifting weights next to Narcissus. A person can't possibly look at themselves in the mirror that long....that intently? Can they? Oh yes they can...they do.
I've seen people horde their share of weights and stake their plot of land for no one to compromise. But I've also seen people pick up after themselves and others. I have seen that sweaty guy or girl feverishly wipe down the equipment they just showered, leaving it cleaner than when they arrived. I've been warmly greeted by people I barely know because we share a common ritual and commitment. I'm so lucky. 

I probably know more about the people who workout on the 6th floor at my gym than I realize. I know many people's names, a little bit about their families, where they work and what they do. But I'm also sure that no one in there is a Bishop, let alone a Cardinal.

I loved reading about the Archbishop elect of Newark, New Jersey: Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin for a number of reasons. The oldest of thirteen children, he has cared for the poor all his life. His humility is just one of many reasons why Pope Francis remembered this talented and gracious leader who speaks five languages. In Cardinal Tobin, I see servant leadership and a sense of humor. Imagine this guy admitting he "used to be a priest" in between his reps. Though still a priest, his responsibilities extend far beyond the parish where he grew up. In him, I find a face of the Church that I love and not ashamed to call my own. In Father Tobin, I see sports and spirituality as one.
Pope Francis said that "priests should be shepherds living with the smell of sheep." In addition to smelling like sheep, Cardinal Tobin probably smells like rats—a gym rat. When he left, he was "presented with a goodbye gift: a framed photo of the cardinal with his seven workout buddies, whose ages range from 27 to over 70." Though the article tells us some wonderful things about this Church leader—for example, I'm impressed that he "woke up as early as 4 many morning to pray before arriving at the gym by 5:30," I think his crew is a better character reference. I encourage you to read the full article here, but if you want the real story on Cardinal Tobin ask anyone who has seen or interacted with him at the gym. The sport and the space reveal a lot. 

Photo Credits