Tuesday, February 25, 2020

The First Step Toward Wisdom: More than a piece of metal

Baseball is in a precarious position this spring. The news cycle around the sign stealing scandal of the Houston Astros and how to right the wrong hasn't faded. It doesn't help that the Commissioner of Major League Baseball, Rob Manfred referred to the World Series trophy as a "piece of metal." The desire for a what is fair and just have made the ideas, claims and questions written by William O'Malley, author of "Building Your Own Conscience" come to life in a new way. I have taught this article to students in my Morality class for over 15 years now. I have always believed and still do: the first step toward wisdom is to call something by its right name. Sadly, MLB has provided a great case study for how and why this is true.
Damn it, I love this metal.
As written in Forbes
The rhetorical point Manfred was trying to make regarded the constant trashcan beat about why he hadn’t vacated Houston’s 2017 World Series title because they defeated the Dodgers in seven games using the electronic sign-stealing scheme. 
"The idea of an asterisk or asking for a piece of metal back seems like a futile act,” Manfred said in an ESPN interview.
On one hard, Manfred is right. The Commissioner's trophy IS a piece of metal. Kori Rumore and Michael Terchaa of the Chicago Tribune write "the Commissioner's Trophy is a gleaming 30-pound prize made by Tiffany & Co. Sporting 30 metal flags, one for each major league club, and a gold-stitched baseball it is sterling silver and stands about two-feet tall." Wisdom suggests it is something more.

To most sports fans it is known as the World Series Trophy.

To baseball fans, it is the Commissioner's Trophy. In fact "Unlike championship trophies for the NBA, NFL and NHL, Major League Baseball's championship is not named for a person."

To those baseball fans whose teams have won the World Series, it is something much more. It is magical. It is memorable. It is priceless. 

The same might be said for other pieces of metal such as a wedding band, a miraculous medal or cross, as well as a key to a city. Indeed they are pieces of metal, but a wise person recognizes what they might mean...why they are valued and worth fighting for.
Los Angeles Dodgers' third baseman, Justin Turner feels no differently. He said
“I don’t know if the commissioner has ever won anything in his life. Maybe he hasn’t. But the reason every guy’s in this room, the reason every guy is working out all offseason, and showing up to camp early and putting in all the time and effort is specifically for that trophy, which, by the way, is called the Commissioner’s Trophy. 
“So for him to devalue it the way he did yesterday just tells me how out of touch he is with the players in this game. At this point the only thing devaluing that trophy is that it says ‘Commissioner’ on it.”
Rob Manfred is the tenth and current Commissioner of Baseball. He previously served as the Chief Operating Officer of Major League Baseball. He has issued a very public, humble and important apology for his remarks. He should. Why? Calling something by its right name and seeking wisdom means that "Then, you will handle it as it deserves." —William O'Malley, SJ

Such is the important work for Major League Baseball, its leaders, players, and all those who love the game. This event ought to be handled as it deserves. Discernment, more decisions, time and history will reveal how. 

Photo Credits
Manfred with Commissioner's Tropy

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Morgan Wootten: More than a Coach, a Fellow Parishioner

In the wake of Kobe Bryant's sudden and tragic passing, the world lost another basketball legend: Morgan Wootten. Coach Wootten might not be a household name here on the left coast, but for those who love the hardwood and especially those in, near and around the Beltway it certainly is, it was. Those who knew Wootten, most likely remember him as a coach who won 33 Washington Catholic Athletic Conference championships and coached more than a dozen NBA players. Others may recall that his overall record of 1,274-192 and multiple national titles earned him a spot in the Naismith Hall of Fame, I would however, like to point out that for the folks at St. Mark's in Adelphi he was something else....possibly something more...a fellow parishioner.
Dr. Daniel McMahon, the principal of DeMatha Catholic High School brought this to my attention when I extended condolences for this loss. He wrote
Thanks so much. I grieve but I was Morgan's colleague for many years, a fellow parishioner, and I worked in the program for five years as assistant JV basketball coach. I was sooooooo lucky to have him in my life. An extraordinary life, faithfully lived. And, I suspect that I am one of the few people who ever wrote a letter of recommendation FOR Morgan--though I know he wrote thousands for others. 
Though principal since 2000, I'm sure Dan would first tell you that he has taught English at DeMatha for 35 years. When I spoke to the Washington Catholic Athletic League last January, Dan penned the most thoughtful introduction I have ever heard. He is gifted with both the pen and with prose. Therefore, I wasn't surprised that he informally wrote the briefest of tributes in this way. I knew they were colleagues and that he would relate to Coach in many ways—I just didn't suspect it would be as a fellow parishioner.
As a member of a parish, I understand what that means and the value in that title. To know a person as a fellow parishioner means that you are united through a community of faith. You offer the same prayers, sing the same songs, hear the same homily and profess one creed. It means your bonds, your connection and rooted in God's love and mercy. In the past, it meant that you saw this person and their family on a weekly basis. It means you might know their habits—where they sit, Do they arrive on time? a little late? Do they go away in the summer? Today it means that I know a person and their family—sometimes directly, many times indirectly by showing up to share the sacraments and hear the Word of God (weekly, bi-monthly etc). We weather the storms of life—personal and public tragedies and loss together and rejoice in God's gracious gifts and abundant blessings with one another.

I worry that people my age and young may not recognize the value having a parish...in knowing others as fellow parishioners and as being one to others. I write this post because I believe Coach Woot
ten ought to be honored for not only being a great coach, but from what I read a great man of faith. I will let those who know him at St. Mark's share more.
On Valentine's Day, I opened my friend's annual holiday card to read (after the introduction) that they too find joy and value in a parish....in being parishioners. Alicia wrote:
2019 was full of fun adventures. Our parish, St. Agnes, celebrated 125 years in the Haigh Ashbury. We are so blessed to have found such an inclusive, diverse and compassionate spiritual home. To kick off the celebration we had a block party with food trucks, rides and a talent show and then the big Gala which allowed Nelson to dust off our dancing shoes and fancy clothes. It was an amazing event with friends, food and entertainment.
St. Agnes has been a spiritual home for my family too. My grandparent's funeral masses took place at what is now a Jesuit parish; my cousin Kristi was married at this church, too. Although my parish is St. Vincent de Paul in the Cow Hollow neighborhood, I am grateful that both of these parishes aim to strengthen and bolster a community of faith in the City of St. Francis. 

UCLA basketball legend John Wooden called Morgan Wootten the greatest basketball coach on any level. “I stand in awe of him,” Wooden said. He will not be forgotten in sports or in spirituality.

Photo Credits

Friday, February 14, 2020

A Different Kind of Love Story: Meet Zach and Julie Ertz

There are sports stories and there are love stories. I think it's safe to say, I'm a sucker for both. So on this Valentine's Day, what could be better than a story that involve two people whose first love was not one another, but their respective sports? To know the story of Zach and Julie Ertz is to know how sports shaped them, introduced them, and bonded them. That's a pretty good love—love story.
ESPN's E-60: Meet the Ertzes begins on January 21, 2018.  It's game day on opposite sides of the country. Jeremy Schaap resports, "one athlete is in California, playing for the US National team. The other is in Philadelphia, playing for the NFC title.  Their entire lives, winning was the only thing. Until they met each other. You've heard the story of boy meets girl, but you haven't heard this version."

What follows is the tale of how two athletes can be world class AND be each other's number one fans.

Julie Johnson, who grew up in Mesa, Arizona played soccer at Santa Clara University. She met Zach Ertz at a baseball game at Stanford's Sunken Diamond. Ertz, a tight end for the Cardinal saw her and the open seat next to her. He asked her if she wanted some sunflower seeds and this young woman, who once told her mom "I'm married to soccer" became Mrs. Ertz a little over three years later.
Zach, who was taken 35th in the overall draft by the Philadelphia Eagles said "I love how dedicated she was to her sport too. I really respected what she was trying to do as an athlete." In January 2014, Julie was selected third in the overall in the national women's soccer draft by Chicago. Soon, there was an even bigger opportunity: To play for the women's national soccer team.

My favorite moment in this video is when the camera captures Julie's reaction upon the national team defeating Denmark. A teammate ran over to tell her that the Eagles beat the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship game. She jumps with joy and drops to her knees to take a breath. Overcome with emotion—her team's victory, the distance from her husband, and his accomplishment—she begins to cry. Her teammates are at her side hugging and celebrating with her. A reporter manages to show Zach this clip after his game. Aquinas said what we see: to love is to will the good of another.

Each of us carries our own love stories. My first love was tennis; I fell so hard. I still hold a tenderness in my heart for that game. And to think of all the people in my life who have loved me and I have loved is humbling and gratifying. On this Valentine's Day, let us give thanks for the athletes we love, the sports we love and the stories of loving a game and loving one another. There's much to celebrate.

Photo Credits

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Dear Basketball by Kobe Bryant. Is it spiritual?

It doesn't happen every day....or very often, for that matter, but one of the best feelings in the world as an educator is when your class breaks into applause. I love when my students get so excited or moved that they only reaction is to clap. 

Such is the case, on the day I told the seniors in Sports and Spirituality that we would be going on a field trip to the historic Castro Theater to see the screening of "Dear Basketball," an animated short film written and narrated by Kobe Bryant. 
Field trips merit their own excitement, but the pièce de résistance was the fun fact that Kobe would be at the theater and hosting the event. I heard "best class EVER" at least eight times that day.

I write about that memory now, because on this night two years ago, Kobe became the first former professional athlete to be nominated for and win an Academy Award. I wanted my students to see this animated short film because I think it is spiritual. 

As written on IMDB, "On November 29, 2015 Kobe Bryant penned a letter in the Players' Tribune announcing his retirement from basketball at the end of that season. This film is the visualization of that letter, narrated by Kobe, scored by John Williams and animated by Glen Keane."
At the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival, Michael Strahan moderated a discussion between Bryant and Keane. As written by Taylor Weatherby,
During the chat, Bryant spoke about his newfound love for storytelling, which he believes is his purpose. "The best way to inspire is through story, it tends to sink in more," he said. And though he didn't mention whether he has more poems or short films in the works, he is plenty satisfied with what became of his initial post-NBA hobby. "I was happy I wrote something Glen and John believed in," Bryant said. "And that I could do something other than play basketball."
Kobe traveled to promote this film in person; he wanted to share with school kids this story and much more. He encouraged young people to find their passion, in athletics and far beyond. I believe he was committed to inspiring others. It is what he did first through basketball and I am not surprised he found others ways to do the same. I am grateful he didn't waste any time figuring that out!
The image from "The Player's Tribune."
About one week before the field trip was supposed to take place, I got a message from the San Francisco Film Society that due to unfortunate circumstances,  the event was cancelled. I did not want to tell my students, but I had to.... I knew this was a once in a lifetime opportunity. How I wished we had gotten a chance to hear from Kobe in person and in that context.

While I did share the poem "Dear Basketball" with that class, we were unable to view the short film together. Therefore, I decided I would share his work with this year's class as a way to begin talking about his life and his death. I asked them to respond to the question I would ask any of my students. Is it spiritual? Why or Why Not? 

I hope you will watch the film. Take your time reading and even reflecting upon their beautiful responses. And do as my class once did—clap.

Thank you, Kobe for sharing your love for storytelling with us. I can't help but find the connection to spirituality. Amen.
+ — + — + — + — + — + — + — + — + — + — + — + — + — + — + — + — + — + — + — + — +
His video is very spiritual, given that he describes that he was not pulled towards
basketball, but rather basketball pulled him. He viewed it as this “intolerable pull” as it slowly became his passion. From when he was younger, he sees himself as the same person with the desire to run through the court, and shoot shots into the basketball hoop, “with five seconds left on the clock”. Basketball is how Kobe harnessed his energy and this fire that he was able to control with the sport. This energetic flame can be seen through the way he plays in the games for the Lakers. His spiritual calmness can be seen within the reflection of his years of his basketball career, and the acknowledgement that his desire for playing basketball will be forever untouched, but he knows that his body will not be able to handle the stress any longer, as he is getting older.

He also thanks the sport of basketball for pulling him into it, only for him to love it even stronger.

By a very insightful reflection of his time in basketball before retiring, I believe that his view on the sport of basketball and his spirituality are very strong together.

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“Dear Basketball” by Kobe Bryant is spiritual. Kobe says in the video that he gave

basketball his all because that is what someone does when something makes them feel so alive.

The very root of the word spirituality is the Latin word spiritus, meaning breath, and in turn, life.

Kobe dedicated much of his life to basketball because ultimately, it is what made him feel alive and gave him purpose. The video follows Kobe’s journey from being a little boy playing with balled up socks and a trash can to being an NBA star—only a drive of great magnitude could lead to such progress. Throughout the video, he says that he is “in love” with basketball; the entirety of this video is a love letter to basketball. His being in love dovetailed with the drive that he had is an example of eros. Kobe directed this eros into fueling his basketball success. Playing basketball fed his soul and was a large part of his spirituality; he seemed to have been able to maintain a healthy spirituality by continuing to do what he was passionate about: basketball. The two functions of the soul—to give energy and to hold together—seem very much like they come from basketball for Kobe.

Photo Credits
Players' Tribune
Movie Poster

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Should Athletes Thank God in Victory and in Defeat?

When Patrick Mahomes was named MVP of Super Bowl LIV, he told the world one thing; he was going to Disney World. Good for him. What would you have said? Would you thank God? Many do. Here are but a few thoughts on this question—one I am often asked inthe world of Sports and Spirituality. 
People have strong reactions to PDF: public displays and public declarations of faith. Quite often, a person's comfort and appreciation for PDF is associated with the message and/or the messenger. Rabbi Arthur Weiner agrees. In the article "Does God Care Who Wins the Super Bowl?" he states 
I am not overly impressed when I see certain people who have not been paragons of virtuous or moral behavior doing some great athletic feat then praising God because it seems very contrived,” he said. “But if it’s an honorable person who’s behaved nicely and played by the rules kicks a field goal or scores a touchdown and at that moment acknowledges his creator, I think it’s a wonderful thing.
I believe this is an important message to share with young sports fans. In teaching young people about faith, yes, they need to learn how to pray but I think we often overlook guidance and formation on how to speak about our faith. Yes, faith is personal—but it is also communal. We all need mentors. To have a mentor in faith is a wonderful thing and athletes can and do serve as positive role models in sport and in spirituality.
From student presentations in "Faith and Football" I learned that Andy Reid, like Steve Young is LDS.
Father Warren Hall, director of campus ministry at Seton Hall University, said 
When you thank God, I don’t think it’s necessarily always about ‘Thank you for making me win today’ as much as it is ‘Thank you for the gifts you’ve given me, the place you’ve put me in,'” said Warner. “But that is how people are going to read into it — you win a game or make a play and say, ‘Thank you Jesus.’ (People) think why does Jesus care about him making that great play? I think a Christian or anyone expressing their faith is doing it in a bigger manner than just thank you for letting me make that play.  
McGovern and Warner caution that people not read too much into the fact that faith seems to be announced after a win – it is not often that a losing player begins a post-game interview by thanking God. 
True and true. A public demonstration of faith—a public prayer—before, during or after a win ought to be viewed for what it is. Aquinas defines prayer as "raising our hearts and minds to God."  Practically speaking, prayer is the building block of a relationship with the Divine. How? Why? Prayer is communication. Prayer is speaking, listening, showing up and making space for silence. I don't know a single relationship that doesn't depend on communication in its many forms. 

Thinking of prayer and public demonstrations of faith in this way—Why would we thank God for a loss? We would never thank God—in the moment—for personal losses or when things don't go as we hope. I have never thanked God for getting dumped or rejected from a job. I can't remember a time that I praised God for competing poorly or losing my cool.
Great message, great messenger
In time, I have learned from losses and from failures. In many of these experiences—over time and with God's grace—I have grown grateful for them. It's not immediate; I do not know that it could be. Things haven't always been easy, but the Lord is my companion. I am thankful God has never left me to carry my burdens alone. God has given me strength for the journey and beyond, but that is on me to understand and recover.

PDF can teach us as much about an athlete as it does about ourselves. I invite you to consider both the message, the messenger the next time you encounter PDF. What's being communicated? Please share....

Photo Credits
Young and Reid

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Faith and Football: Lessons from my students in Sports and Spirituality (Redux)

This semester I am teaching a senior course slightly different than the one I usually do; it is entitled Christian Spirituality. With the tragic death of Kobe and Gianna Bryant and the joy an anticipation of Super Bowl, however, there has been a lot of sport in this spirituality.

I wasn't planning on including Faith and Football—an annual presentation for Sports and Spirituality— into our curriculum, until the local team made good. I informed my students of the project and its purpose and I put it to a vote. Some admitted they don't watch any football and were slightly hesitant, but the overall enthusiasm and excitement galvanized this somewhat-quiet group to take the challenge. This posting highlights what we learned. Feel free to integrate the following ideas and information into your Super Bowl party!
Niners Fans' Theme Song
My students walked into the classroom with this Remix of the 1984 song "We're the 49ers." It's really hard NOT to move to when you hear the beat—whether it's today's cut, one that features the names of today's players or the voices of those from the Super Bowl XVIII championship team! It's unfortunate that crew didn't create a music video of their own in the way the 1985 Chicago Bears did. I decided to play the video of that hit single and am glad I did. The real football fans in the room couldn't help but appreciate the Sweetness of Walton Payton, among several other Hall of Famers. The white pants and dance moves—added bonus.
Following the musical frenzy, I wanted my class to give a nod to the all time epic performance of the late Whitney Houston as she sang our national anthem at Super Bowl Greatness needs to introduction or explanation. Demi Lovato will sing our national anthem at this year's contest.

Coin Toss Plus
With the class divided into two groups: Chiefs vs Niners, I asked the two captains to come forward for the coin toss. Heads or tails, in this case, would not determine who would punt or receive. No, the winner in this case was able get our Super Bowl snacks first. 

This group did not hold back. Students created a taco bar since we met after lunch. Move over stone soup! Kids brought different toppings and some exercised the option to bring in a can of food for the San Francisco Food Bank. 

After Thanksgiving Day, Americans consume more on Super Bowl Sunday than any other day of the year. With this project, it felt like another holiday weekend.

“What I love about the Chiefs is they’ve got each other’s backs always. On the field and off the field, they’re brothers. They’re all accountable and step up when called. It’s not offense, defense, coaches, all separate. It’s one big family. And I love that.” — Heidi Gardner, SNL
Two Player Profiles: Formed in Faith
Harrison Butler: Roman Catholic

  • Born July 14, 1995
  • Attended and played football at Georgia Tech
  • Nickname: "Butt Kicker" is a play on words for his name and position
  • Married with one child
  • Sometimes serves traditional Latin Mass at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Independence, MO

Mitchell Schwartz: Jewish

  • Born June 8, 1989 in Pacific Palisades, CA
  • Attended and played football at UC Berkeley 
  • 2nd round draft pick in 2012
  • Offensive tackle
  • Born and raised conservative Jewish
  • Hebrew name is Mendel
  • Schwartz wasn't allowed to play football until his freshman year of high school as his parents wanted him to study for his Bar Mitzvah instead. Furthermore, in middle school he was already 6’5 and 240 lbs—too big for Pop Warner


The Faithful
Growing up 25 east of San Francisco, the Niners were always our home team. Now that I live in San Francisco, it's strange that the city this classic NFL franchise calls home is 49 miles from where they play. Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara is but a few miles from where I work (in Mountain View). Something about it all feels disingenuous....but the Bay Area is known for tolerance. Our sports fandom is no different.

While this group struggled to find much about the faith of players, their report on the fan base was fascinating.

Known around here as "The Faithful" Niner fans rank eleventh out of 32 for the most annoying fanbase. I would love to see the criteria for this metric. They report, "fans are delusional and unfriendly." 

The Niners do however, have several fan clubs, including WON: Women of the Niners (they have a magazine!), the Kids Club, the Crib Club, and 49ers Pride, a group for the LGBTQ communities. Furthermore, the Niners maintain fan chapters throughout the country.
The Glory of God is the human person fully alive
Watching football has become a moral issue for many people I know. I understand. I also know when I see a play like the one my students chose, something inside of me catches fire. When I see such athleticism, the execution, the vision, and the glory of a great play I stand in awe of the athletes before me. These are the tensions those of us who love football must hold. The guts, the glory, the qualms and questions.

Two teams, similar colors. Chiefs fans have waited 50 years for the Lombardi trophy, Niner fans 25. The Super Bowl brings us together—for food, family and of course football. At mass this morning, I had to laugh as one of the intentions was "For the San Francisco 49ers. That they display great sportsmanship upon winning the Super Bowl. For this, we pray to the Lord!" Before the community could respond, the lector--my friend Rick said "I swear I didn't write that." 
In 2017, the Holy Father gave a message to the world before this non-religious feast day. In the message, the pope says he hopes the Super Bowl will be “a sign of peace, friendship and solidarity for the world.”

AP News reports "Francis is an avid sports fan who often speaks of how sports can bring about social change. He has previously taken to Twitter for the Olympics and soccer’s World Cup. This is his first Super Bowl message."

I was looking for one for today. Hoping he sends hails to the victors....and all The Faithful!

Photo Credits
The Faithful
We are the 49ers
Harrison Butler

Mitchell Schwartz