Thursday, August 26, 2021

Faraway Goal: Using story and soccer to talk about Afghanistan

I frame the curriculum of Sports and Spirituality with a focus on three things: language, vision and story. Ron Rolheiser said, "God speaks to every element in the language it can understand." For the purpose of the course, that language is sport. Second, "spirituality is understanding there is more to life than what meets the eye." Thank you Richard McBrien. My goal is to help young people acquire the ability to see the spiritual in all things, especially sport. Finally, I believe sports are the subject of some of the greatest stories we have and hold. "Faraway Goal" is a  story about Nick Pugliese, an American soccer player who played on the Kabul Cup championship. His story is how I decided to talk to my students about a crisis in our world that has brought tremendous sadness to my heart—the current events in Afghanistan.

In 2014, Nick found an opportunity to continue his soccer career after college in an unlikely place: Afghanistan’s pro soccer league. He said, "You cannot explain this place in two minutes, let alone two hours. I'm not sure whether I will be able to share this experience with people or if it's something that I'll just hold with myself for the rest of my life.” 

The article, Empire Alumni Nick Pugliese Featured on Sunday ESPN SportsCenter, states "Tom Rinaldi voices the story, which explores Pugliese’s life in Kabul last fall (2013). A native of Rochester, N.Y., Pugliese went to Afghanistan to take a job after graduating from Williams College in Massachusetts, where he was a soccer standout. He played high school soccer at Rochester’s McQuaid Jesuit."

“I was just fascinated by the idea of an American all by himself living in this country and of all the things, he was playing professional soccer,” said Dan Arruda, producer of the feature for ESPN, who spent 10 days in Afghanistan with Pugliese. “It just seemed very surprising to me and I wondered what his life was like.”

I shared this story with my students because I wanted them to see just what Kabul, a city of 3,000,000 people looks like (let alone from a fellow American's point of view). I wanted them to see Ghazi stadium—a place that was once used by the Taliban for public executions and in Pugliese's tenure as a venue for  Afghani "association football matches." I wonder how and if that will change again.

Through soccer, Pugliese becomes much more than friends with his teammates. To him, they are family. 

Sayed Shahab Shah said, "he was speaking a little Farsi, I was speaking in broken English. We started with hello! How are you? We drink tea together. We go to the market together. We tell each other stories and share our thoughts.

Upon hearing that word "story" my eyes began to pool with tears. I started to wonder what are the stories Sayed is now telling Nick, who is in law school at Yale. 
I wondered if Nick's teammates and friends are safe. Are they living in fear? Are they even alive?

Sayed added, "we don't treat each other like a foreigner or an Afghan. We're like brothers."

If only that was the perspective of the Taliban...of ISIS....ISIS-K and what hurts me most—of the US Government. I believe the United States of America  has a moral obligation to uphold our end of the bargain in protecting those Afghanis who protected us. I know friends and family here in the US who have lost sleep over what we have failed to do.

As written in the WSJ, "Today More than 100 people were killed, including at least 13 U.S. service members and 90 Afghans, at the Kabul airport Thursday when two blasts ripped through crowds trying to enter the American-controlled facility, disrupting the final push of the U.S.-led evacuation effort." Please pray for peace, for safety, and integrity.

After watching Faraway Goal, my Dad said "if Afghanistan had a team that played in the World Cup, things might be different. A soccer team unites people in many foreign countries in a way that little else does. They would certainly cheer against America, but it would bring together all of those in the Afghanistan in a much different way." This in no way is meant to simplify the complexity of the problems. That being said, one of my students—a die hard soccer fan, completely agreed. How I wish that story could and would be written... 

Photo Credits
Nick with Medal

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

School Rules: The Positives and Negatives of Norms, Rules and Expectation in Sport

On the first day of school, one of my studnets walked in significantly late. I was speaking to the class when he handed me his tardy slip and kept walking toward an empty seat. Several of his friends laughed at this brazen move. I imagine this confident senior must have been embarrassed on some level. Who knows. I was so shocked by the interruption that I gave a response that surprised even me. 

I said, "Did you know if you are late in NFL for a team meeting, you are fined? Interesting, huh? But for those of you who know the culture of the NFL, fines aren't uncommon. But let me get back to the point at hand; I would like to talk about that consequence: Is it fair? Is that a good idea? Fining players when they show up late?! We will talk about that in this class."

growing up with a Grandfather and uncles who refereed, I suppose respecting the rules is in my DNA.
Glasses Ref has retired from his duties at the white hat but still works with the Pac 12 Crew of officials

The class thought about it too. I returned to my original point and the bell rang but a few minutes later. As I packed up my backpack, I realized the 2021-2022 was well underway and with it, a new way to talk about classroom norms, expectations and rules.

Given that the entire student body hasn't been together since March 2019, I realized quickly how important it is to cover nuts and bolts of the course and what students are expected to have in class. Between posting the seating chart, taking roll and reviewing the syllabus, we haven't had much time to talk about Sports or Spirituality. Therefore, I figured why not integrate them into this discussion as well.

I posted my syllabus and asked students to review and sign it for homework. It includes a course description, outcomes, and our units of study. It lists the grade structure and procedures, grade scale, late work policy as well as expectations for academic integrity and attendance. Starting last year, we implemented a diversity statement. I hope students know how seriously I take the principle of respect for one another, for me and the course itself.

It was important for Coach Wooden that all his players had short hair.
Bill Walton challenged this!

After formally reviewing the information I want to be sure they are familiar with, I presented the following three prompts that address culture, climate and rules.

  1. If you are late for a meeting in the NFL you are fined.

  2. Many private clubs have dress codes and norms or rules for members. At the Olympic Club in San Francisco some of the rules are as follow: no hats inside a building, no jeans on the property (Lakeside), male members must wear a collared shirt when playing golf, men must tuck in their shirt, hats cannot be worn backwards, no cargo or yoga pants on the course or short skirts. It is the responsibility of members to know and follow the rules but not enforce them on one another. That is the job of the staff.

  3. John Wooden, the legendary coach at UCLA, had three rules for his players:  1. Be on time. 2. Never criticize a teammate and 3. No profanity. Not one word

I asked the class to determine what was positive and negative about each statement. I challenged them to think creatively and consider how these ideas relate to our school. I emphasized that the point of this exercise was not for them to share their opinion on the matter but rather to consider how these norms can affect a community for better or for worse. 

I have always tried to offer personal examples when I talk about school rules. For example, when I share with my students that I enforce the dress code, I remind them that I too must follow one: female teachers are not allowed to wear sleeveless shirts. They are asked to wear a sweater over a tank top or any blouse with straps, etc. However, providing these examples that relate to the wide world of sports was much more interesting. For example, one student noted that the dress code at Olympic Club affects men more than women—many saw that as a new characteristic! They also loved reading the list of what else the NFL issues fines for. I've heard it called the No Fun this why?

I hope my students will return to class with other examples of rules and norms as they apply to our school and the world at large. Stay tuned. It's exciting to be back.

Photo Credits

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Football as the Metaphor for Life: What We Can Learn from the NFL on the COVID-19 Vaccine

In his Pro Football Hall of Fame speech, John Lynch said, "I want to state the National Football League is the greatest metaphor for life that I've ever known." I have a world of respect for the nine time Pro-Bowler and now General Manager of the San Francisco Forty Niners and still his words challenge me. Really? Football is life? I suppose Ted Lasso is proclaiming the same truth.

On one level, his proclamation should not surprise me. The yellow jacket, the bronze bust, the platform to recall and celebrate past success allows one to wax poetic about the power and potential of this great game and the organization that makes it the most popular sport in America. Even with emotions running high, I have to admit, his metaphor works—for better or for worse. 

Three words that come to mind when I think of NFL leadership are cronyism, nepotism and sexism. Truth be told, these isms are characteristic of too many powerful organizations. Sadly, drug use, alcohol abuse, domestic violence, sexual assault and homophobia are friends of the program. In the NFL, you have the obscene wealth of the owners, the extreme wealth that agents make, and the inordinate cost of season tickets. The PSL should be criminal. Unfortunately, the list goes on. Did I mention the Black Hole? 

But Lynch does not focus on the shortcomings, the limitations of the National Football League. Instead he says:  

It challenges each and every one of us that plays this great game in every way possible. Everything about the game is hard and tests your will. It compels every man that puts on a uniform to not only do their best, but to be their best. In football we quickly discover we're only as strong as our weakest link, and if we're to achieve the goals that we've set for ourselves, we must all learn to play together and pull together. Each of us comes from a different walk of life, but when we huddle up, we huddle up as a team. It doesn't matter where we come from or your background. All that matters is the fulfillment of one goal: victory.
And I think few too people know this metaphor extends to a battle we are fighting in our country and in the world today: COVID-19.

The NFL is now nearly 90% vaccinated!  These increased numbers didn't get there by happenstance. Due to the league and players' union, every player is not required to get the jab,  However, life is challenging for those who won't. And I want to thank them for that. 

In the ESPN Daily Podcast, How NFL Team are Combating Vaccine Hesitancy I learned the league is actually leading a vaccine campaign in the US. According to Kevin Seifert this is the last thing he would ever imagine saying. 

While many people are aware "if an unvaccinated player causes an outbreak that forces a game to be canceled, that player's team must forfeit. And every player on both teams will lose out on their game check." Many fans—and players!— are upset about this decision. They wonder Why should the vaccinated get punished for what others have chosen not to do? Good question. And yet, is that not corollary to our reality right now? If all those who are able to get the vaccine had gotten it, we would not be required to wear masks indoors once again. For the record, it's NOT fun and it's hard to teach with a mask on. The metaphor is real.

But what many people do not know are what I see as positive measures the league has taken to promote getting vaxed. 

If you are vaccinated, there are very few protocols or restrictions on your actions around the team and in your personal life as well. You do need to wear a contact tracing device in case you get exposed and must get tested every 14 days (this is subject to change based on the variant). You can eat in the cafeteria, you don't have to worry about social distancing, you can go out to dinner when you are on the road, you can leave for the bye-week. You can do all the things—for the most part—that NFL players have been able to do in previous years to the pandemic

However, if you are unvaccinated, you are subject to all the protocols and a few additional ones that we saw in 2020. You must wear a mask at all times except for when you are participating in a game or practice. You have to stay in town during the bye-week so you can keep getting tested so you don't bring anything into the building. When road games  happen, you are going to have to travel separately, you can't leave your hotel room, you can't eat with the team in the cafeteria, and you can't see your family without them being subject to testing. Players have to wait 30 minutes for their test results so they can join team meetings. The "No Fun League" fines players if they are late for meetings! This means athletes arrive at practice extra early. In short, the NFL is making it very difficult for players to stay unvaccinated.

You can call it a maximum pressure campaign, but those steps, those requirements remind me of Lynch's message. These times are hard; the past year has tested my will in more ways than I thought possible. And yet, we must strive to do our best and be our best. We must work to stay healthy, to be clean and as far as I'm concerned get the vaccination that prevents severe illness, hospitalization and death. Do we have the goal of beating the virus? Do we want to protect people like Ron Rivera—coach of the Washington Football team who is immunocompromised due to chemotherapy treatments in 2020 and cannot get the vaccine? Indeed, we come from different walks of life. Fortunately the vaccine is completely free. And what might we all say to one another in that huddle as we continue to work toward victory over this pandemic? Let us continue to work toward fulfilling a goal—putting COVID 19 in the history books

Lastly, I would like to write a whole lot more about John Lynch, but his message was but a starting point for this post. I had the pleasure of meeting him at the US Open in June at Torrey Pines! Thank you, Cort!!! I loved his speech because it reflects what I consider to be shared values. He  thanked his wife Linda first, his children—each one of the four by name, and his parents. He said, "your standards and expectations were always high, your love always unconditional. The Catholic faith that you instilled in me and blessed me with is my guiding light. Where would I be without it? Where would I be without both of you? Mom and dad, I'm truly grateful and I love you."  I too am grateful to my parents for the Catholic faith they instilled in me. And for what it's worth, leaders in the Catholic Church have encouraged the faithful to get vaccinated.

Photo Credits
Vax Site
JL and Jake

Monday, August 16, 2021

MLB at Field of Dreams: Here's to the 2021 School Year

The 2021-2022 school year at Saint Francis High School officially begins on Wednesday, August 18.  With 10 minute classes, we have just enough time to welcome students, introduce ourselves and share an insight or two about the course. And, thanks to MLB at Field of Dreams that took place on August 12 between the Chicago White Sox and New York Yankees in Dyserville, Iowa I know exactly what I will share.

I have always loved the artwork of Lisa B. Johannes entitled "Is this heaven?"

My two sections of seniors enrolled in Sports and Spirituality will be asked to pull out their notebooks and with pen in hand and respond to the following statement: "I believe in things visible and invisible." I can't wait to hear what they have to say.

Perhaps these words are familiar to you. I say them with conviction at Mass when we stand and profess the Nicene Creed. I have never been a person who must "see to believe." To me, there is so much more to life than what meets the eye. Such is the stuff of the spiritual life. 

It's also the premise of the movie "Field of Dreams" in which Kevin Costner, playing Ray Kinsella—an Iowa farmer turned mystic—greets his father for the first time in years thanks to a call and a commitment to build a baseball field. The catch? (both literal and metaphoric here) is something that takes place on a diamond that he builds from his corn fields. 

Ray hears the voice. He sees Shoeless Joe Jackson. Some do, like his daughter and others do not. For Ray and his family, the invisible IS visible to him. Thanks be to God. 

If you would like to use "Field of Dreams" in your own Religious Studies class, I have created a discussion guide hereIt is a beautiful movie—the setting, the music and the lighting. It is a weird one too. How perfect for teenagers. I have written a number of blog postings about this movie you might enjoy. 

Kerry Weber, editor of America magazine writes, "You Don't Have to Love Baseball to The thing about “Field of Dreams,” though, is that you don’t have to love baseball to find beauty in the film. You just have to want to be reminded of the power of faith in things unseen and the need to find courage to follow a path not yet trod. It offers stories of second chances and reminders of the beauty of reaching out when all seems lost, only to find that someone has been watching out for you all along."

I think "Field of Dreams" offers an invitation to reflect on some very basic questions that relate to the spiritual lives. For example, In your own faith life—What messages have you heard? Have you been called to do something that is as Ray says, "totally illogical?" Do your family members see what you see? Do they support you in your vision? Field of Dreams is just one way to consider what our Creed outlines as truth. 

Sure you can call it a smart marketing gimmick by MLB, but for me it offered good press and a new chapter in the story of Field of my students will read again this Fall. It evokes so many of the primary themes of my class—mystery, pilgrimage, beauty, sacrifice, reconciliation and the afterlife. Sometimes, believing IS seeing. 

Photo Credits
Is this Heaven?
MLB at Field of Dreams
Corn Field

Monday, August 2, 2021

What We Can Learn from US Olympian Jessica Springsteen

I have yet to watch much of the Tokyo Olympics, but I will certainly be tuning in today to watch the Boss' daughter, Jessica Springsteen compete in Equestrian. Ranked number fourteen in the world, Jessica Rae is the middle child of Rock n Roll Hall of Fame singer and songwriters Miss Patti Scialfa and Bruce Springsteen. She is also the youngest of the four members of the United States Equestrian team. Thanks to Jess, I have learned that Equestrian is the only Olympic event which involves animals and in which men and women compete together. With every sport, I seek to celebrate its virtues. Jess has certainly brought those to the spotlight. 

Think what you will of Springsteen's success in horse riding. Yes, the sport defies financial accessibility. I'm sure there are those who believe that her parents' power and privilege has put her in a perched place, one that points to Olympic glory, but her story intrigues me. I am not that familiar with horses. I know but a few people who ride. So what gives?

Fortunately, I figured out why: I have been told that our parents influence us more than we will ever know. To hear Jessica talk about her sport serves as a poignant reminder of that power of parental example. 

I have a program from the 1984-1985 Born in the USA concert tour that stands proudly in my room. It features each member of the E Street band with a full page photo and biographical information including: full name, nickname, height, weight, birthdate, instruments played, first band, secret ambition, favorite color, favorite food and what do you like to do on a date. Bruce Frederick Springsteen's nickname is "The Hardest Working Man in Show Biz." Attend but one of his concerts, and you will the moniker as self-evident.

In order to make an Olympic team, one must become "the hardest working man or woman" in their sport. I can only guess Jessica saw that work ethic in her father...and in her mother who has been with the band since before she was born. The Boss has continued to sing, write music, write a book, perform worldwide, perform on Broadway, create a podcast in that time. 

The Duke University graduate saw not only the hard work but the passion that fuels the fire. "They [Bruce and Patti] obviously found their passion when they were younger with music, and they recognize how hard it is," Jessica told the Robb Report. "Some people go through their entire life without finding something that they really love, so they just kind of really pushed me. They know that you just have to keep going. And they've really instilled that in me."

Jessica's passion—her Olympic dream— is now a reality. According to the Town&Country article Bruce Springsteen’s Daughter Jessica Joins the U.S. Olympic Equestrian Team, "The professional rider also gave some insight into her extensive training routine, which included strengthening her legs and core. But, she noted, there's no substitute for riding itself. She said, "The best way to keep yourself sharp and to stay in shape for show jumping is to constantly ride." Springsteen started riding at the age of four. 

According to ESPN Olympics 2021 - Jessica Springsteen is far more than The Boss' daughter

  Jessica traveled with the team to London in 2012, but she didn't get a chance to compete. She then took the 2014 American Gold Cup and won her first five-star event in 2016, but it wasn't enough to make the cut for the Rio Games.

Over the five years between Rio 2016 and the delayed Tokyo Olympics, she progressed up the ranks and started working with her current horse in 2019. The pairing put her in the Olympic radar when it helped the U.S. jumping team win the FEI Jumping Nations Cup USA in 2020. She would add her own individual victory in the K 4* Grand Prix Hubside Jumping Tour event June 13 in France.

Equestrian comprises three disciplines: Dressage, Eventing and Jumping—with men and women competing on equal terms. Springsteen will be representing the US in Individual Jumping with her horse Don Juan van de Donkhoeve. 

In every interview I have seen, I have found her to be incredibly engaging. A self-described introvert, she smiles easily and defers to the wisdom and expertise of her teammates. I find her to be a wonderful representative of our country in these Olympic games and hey...all this makes a for a great story, too. I think her parents deserve *some* credit in all of this.

In 1990, the Boss wrote the song "Living Proof" following the birth of his first child, his son—Evan. To my knowledge, he has not written a song in honor of his daughter. Perhaps HER example at the Tokyo Olympics will prompt that.

Photo Credits (see links above)
Town and Country