Click here if you don’t see subscription options
Tom DeignanMarch 08, 2019

Around the time James Naismith contemplated hanging a peach basket on the wall of a gym at the Y.M.C.A. International Training School in Springfield, Mass., the bishop of Cleveland, Richard Gilmour, was conferring with his parish clergy. Gilmour—a few years prior to Naismith’s creation of a new game called “basket ball”—had charged the Rev. Thomas F. Mahar, the pastor of St. Vincent Catholic Church, with opening a new parish to serve rapidly growing neighborhoods in south Akron.

It took a few years—Naismith is credited with inventing basketball in 1891, the same year Bishop Gilmour died at the age of 66—but Akron’s St. Mary parish was finally established in 1896. A century later, after the high schools serving St. Vincent and St. Mary parishes merged, the Fighting Irish successfully recruited a group of highly touted basketball players collectively known as “the Fab Four.” Among them was an Akron native named LeBron James.

Today, the North Maple Street campus of St. Vincent-St. Mary is home to the recently renovated 1,800-seat Lebron James Arena, purchased with a $1 million donation from the school’s most famous graduate. And while arguments rage about whether James or Michael Jordan is the best basketball player ever, what cannot be debated is that James is just one of many elite athletes with close ties to Catholic educational institutions.

There is no way to explain the success of Catholic school athletes without taking into account a wide range of factors—historical, sociological and, yes, spiritual.

Look no further than the annual March Madness of the N.C.A.A.’s basketball tournament. Each and every year, Catholic colleges and universities are well represented. And each year, pundits express shock at what The New York Times in March 2018 dubbed “an undeniable fact.” In college basketball, The Times asserted, “Catholic schools have long punched well above their weight.”

But it is not just men’s college basketball, even if the last three N.C.A.A. Division I Men’s tournaments produced two Augustinian champions (Villanova in 2016 and 2018), a Jesuit runner-up (Gonzaga fell to North Carolina in 2017) and a genuine Catholic folk hero, in the form of 98-year-old Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, Loyola Chicago’s team chaplain and most energetic fan during the Ramblers’ highly unlikely run to the Final Four in 2018. Catholic schools have also excelled in women’s basketball. In the early 1970s, Philadelphia’s Immaculata University “won the first three de facto national women’s basketball championships,” The Times noted, while the University of Notre Dame’s women’s team has appeared in five title games since 2011, winning the national championship in 2018.

Then there is high school football. Throughout the 2018 season, eight Catholic schools were consistently ranked in USA Today’s top 10 high school programs in the country.

In college basketball, The Times asserted, “Catholic schools have long punched well above their weight.”

As for college football, you may have heard that Notre Dame has quite a storied football history, posting one of its most impressive seasons ever in 2018.

That Old-Time Religion

There is a temptation to say that the athletic success of Catholic schools simply comes down to money. They attract students who are able to pay hefty tuition fees; and, the argument goes, the rich can afford resources that give them a distinct advantage. But Lebron James was not rich. Neither was George Herman “Babe” Ruth, whose parents were so overwhelmed by work responsibilities (they lived above a saloon they ran) and family tragedy (as many as five of Ruth’s siblings died in infancy), they sent 7-year-old George to St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys in 1902, where the strapping Brother Matthias Boutilier introduced the young Babe to baseball.

The N.B.A. Hall of Famers Bob Cousy (Holy Cross) and Patrick Ewing (Georgetown) were both the sons of immigrants (and Ewing an immigrant himself). As were at least some of the 150 graduates of St. Anthony’s High School in Jersey City who earned full scholarships to Division I colleges after playing for legendary coach Bob Hurley, who won over two dozen state titles before the school was forced to close because of financial pressures in 2017.

In short, there is no way to explain the success of Catholic school athletes without taking into account a wide range of factors—historical, sociological and, yes, spiritual.

That is certainly what Villanova University’s president, Peter M. Donohue, O.S.A., believes. “Our Augustinian values are a part of how our coaches lead, how our student-athletes compete and how our fans come together to support the Wildcats,” Father Donohue told America by e-mail. “Each year our student-athletes and coaches sign ‘The Foundation,’ pledging their commitment to the university’s values of veritas, unitas and caritas (truth, unity and love). The pledge is a symbol of why they are at Villanova, what they are part of and that they are committed to something bigger than themselves.”

For well over a century, Christianity and athletics have engaged in a complex dance. On the one hand, sports were often linked to vice—gambling, drinking—and Sunday sporting events were all seen, to varying degrees, as corrupt. On the other hand, two decades after the Y.M.C.A. was founded in 1844 in London, a New York chapter cited its mission as “the improvement of the spiritual, mental, social and physical condition of young men” (emphasis added).

Athletics and Academics

This emphasis on the spiritual benefits of athletics—especially given the struggles Catholic immigrants and their children faced in big cities—led to one of the more influential sports programs of the 20th century: the Catholic Youth Organization. “Sports and religion became linked in American culture during the progressive era,” writes Timothy B. Neary in Crossing Parish Boundaries: Race, Sports, and Catholic Youth in Chicago, 1914-1954. “Protestantism’s ‘muscular Christianity,’ exemplified by the YMCA...later became a model for the CYO.”

From basketball to boxing, bowling to baseball, generations of urban youth—“boys and girls...without regard to race, creed or color,” as its original 1932 charter put it—were exposed to sports and spirituality through C.Y.O. leagues.

Catholic school student-athletes did not achieve success only on the court. In the late 1940s, “Holy Cross brought structure to [Bob] Cousy’s life and Cousy’s thinking,” writes Gary Pomerantz in his recent book The Last Pass: Cousy, Russell, the Celtics, and What Matters in the End (reviewed in this issue of America). Cousy’s course work at Holy Cross “reflected the intellectual rigor and humanistic philosophies of a Jesuit education,” which resulted in Cousy thinking deeply “about prejudice and racism.” Cousy, a child of French immigrants, even wrote “a senior thesis...on the persecution of minority groups, with a focus on anti-Semitism.”

None of which prepared Cousy for the intense bigotry faced by teammates like Chuck Cooper (the N.B.A.’s first African-American draftee) and Hall of Famer Bill Russell (also the graduate of a Jesuit school, the University of San Francisco) as they built the great Celtics dynasty of the 1950s.

This emphasis on the spiritual benefits of athletics led to one of the more influential sports programs of the 20th century: the Catholic Youth Organization.

Racial tensions in the United States only intensified in the 1960s, a dynamic starkly illustrated by the high school career of the great Lew Alcindor. The future Kareem Abdul-Jabbar led Harlem’s Power Memorial Academy (founded and run by the Irish Christian Brothers) to a 71-game winning streak in the 1960s, on its way to being voted the greatest high school basketball team of the 20th century. But Abdul-Jabbar has written at length of his “shaky” relationship to Catholicism and those years at Power, mainly because of the racism he endured.

Baseball was Abdul-Jabbar’s “first love,” but to get to the playing field he had to bike through Manhattan’s Good Shepherd Parish, “which was all Irish,” he writes in his recent book Becoming Kareem: Growing Up On and Off the Court. Abdul-Jabbar and his friends were assaulted with all manner of racial slurs and traveled in a group to protect themselves. “I couldn’t help but wonder how they could worship at a Catholic church and receive the same Christian lessons on loving your neighbor that I got, yet be filled with such rage and hatred,” Abdul-Jabbar writes.

And in what Abdul-Jabbar describes as his “greatest betrayal,” his coach Jack Donahue, “the adult I trusted most, besides my parents,” also addressed him using a racist slur. Donahue later claimed it was a motivational tactic, but to Abdul-Jabbar, it was just the latest in a long string of bigotry he could not help but associate with Catholics.


But if conflict was dominant, there was also a counter-narrative, as Professor Neary has emphasized. Starting in the 1930s, the C.Y.O. founder and bishop of Chicago Bernard Sheil “brought together thousands of young people of all races and religions from Chicago’s racially segregated neighborhoods to take part in sports and educational programs.” Sheil was a Chicago native, born in 1886, “the only child of second generation Irish American Catholics Rosella Bartley Sheil and James Bernard Sheil Sr.,” Neary writes. Bishop Sheil founded the C.Y.O. in the wake of terrible race riots to spur positive social interaction among black, Irish and other urban kids.

“The history of Bishop Sheil and the CYO,” Neary’s book notes, “shows a cosmopolitan version of American Catholicism, one that is usually overshadowed by accounts of white ethnic Catholics aggressively resisting the racial integration of their working-class neighborhoods.”

Impressive Integration

As terrible as that resistance was, there was also significant progress. In fact, the mid-century offspring of both the European and African diasporas who benefitted from C.Y.O. programs and moved through Catholic high schools conducted an oft-ignored (and impressive) integration project of their own.

Consider the impressive Villanova basketball teams of the early 1970s, including the N.C.A.A. tournament runner-up in 1971. Those Wildcats featured black and white students from Catholic high schools, like Hank Siemiontkowski, Tom Ingelsby and Chris Ford. Similarly, mid-70s Marquette squads (including the 1977 champs) featured diverse standouts like Lloyd Walton out of Chicago’s Mount Carmel High School and Jim Boylan from St. Mary’s in Jersey City.

Into the 1980s, Catholic school basketball teams were also finding success with racially mixed squads.

Into the 1980s, other Catholic school basketball teams were also finding success with racially mixed squads. St. John’s had Frank Gilroy, Mark Jackson and Chris Mullin, while Georgetown featured Terry Fenlon, Patrick Ewing and Al Dutch. All of this culminated in the magical 1985 Final Four, featuring St. John’s, Georgetown, Villanova and (the only non-Catholic team) Memphis State. The result was Villanova’s stunning 66-64 victory over heavily favored Georgetown.

This was in some ways the culmination of a century-long experiment in physical, social and spiritual education. Those 1985 teams would send numerous players to the N.B.A. Just as important, less prominent reserve players went out into the world and became college and high school coaches, mentors, successful entrepreneurs and, ultimately, one hopes, better men.

It does not seem like an accident that when, in 2015, Richard E. Lapchick, the director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, created an all-time N.B.A. All-Star team with a social conscience, Bob Cousy, Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were three of the starting five.

And so, at the 1985 Final Four, along with thousands of screaming fans, also present were the legends of Brother Matthias and Bernard Sheil and Bill Russell and Lew Alcindor. This legacy may well be imperfect. But as any fan cheering on the 2019 St. Vincent-St. Mary Fighting Irish can tell you, it is also a work very much still in progress.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Barry Fitzpatrick
5 years 1 month ago

The last line of Deignan's article gives me hope. This is a work in progress, and one which needs some serious soul-searching. I am so torn when it comes to athletics. As a high school principal for 24 years in two Catholic high schools, I saw nothing more over-emphasized by some for its presumed role in building character, and at the same time nothing more under-emphasized by others who saw competitive athletics as doing nothing particularly important for those involved. Clearly, a work in progress.
The article is a little too rosy to be accepted at face value. That 1985 championship in the NCAA men's tournament may have been a landmark of sorts, but it also had players in the game on the winning side who were admittedly playing under the influence of drugs. Not something for the university's admissions brochure. When will Catholic schools address the glaring disconnect that exists between the money spent on athletic programs and that spent on the majority of their students who happen not to be involved in sports? This message is further clouded by exaggerated and sometimes hyperbolic statements about students or grads who represent the school on the court or field of play. Do we really know anything about their spiritual connection to the school's mission, or do we assume they buy in? And what about graduation rates? Look at those 1985 teams and ones that followed. Some of the evidence is damning. Better to look at some of the "legends" as imperfect, as Deignan points out, and to engage the discussion of how we match the athletic program to the mission of the school, match it in word and action. Now, off to do my bracket with Sister Jean's advice.

Laura Lyonskarrh
5 years 1 month ago

Great article. One point that is misleading is that Power Memorial was not located in Harlem when Lew Alcindor attended- it was on the upper west side of Manhattan.

Sean Hession
5 years 1 month ago

Tom, thank you for this article and reminder of how many parishes once lived out their faith. After a 35+ year hiatus in Florida, our parish has reestablished the CYO in Florida. In addition to athletics, our reimagined CYO program also includes social, arts, after-school and service programs for youth. https://saintjohntheevangelist.com/cyo To this we have added a Catholic Adult Organization (CAO) to engage our parishioners Mind, Body, Spirit and Soul. https://saintjohntheevangelist.com/cao The programs are in their first year or so but are already working smalll miracles of engagement and inclusion. If you or your readers would like to know more, we would be happy to share.

Patricia Rogan
5 years 1 month ago

DeMatha. I believe it was the only team to beat Power Memorial during the streak. Morgan Wooten had the team practice with Tennis rackets tied to their hands (or so the legend goes).

David Rosanova
5 years 1 month ago

Great article. Marquette has produced many “round ball” greats. I am so thankful to say, as an alum, WE ARE MARQUETTE.

The latest from america

Scott Loudon and his team filming his documentary, ‘Anonimo’ (photo courtesy of Scott Loudon)
This week, a music festival returns to the Chiquitos missions in Bolivia, which the Jesuits established between 1691 and 1760. The story of the Jesuit "reductions" was made popular by the 1986 film ‘The Mission.’
The world can change for the better only when people are out in the world, “not lying on the couch,” Pope Francis told some 6,000 Italian schoolchildren.
Cindy Wooden April 19, 2024
Our theology of relics tells us something beautiful and profound not only about God but about what we believe about materiality itself.
Gregory HillisApril 19, 2024
"3 Body Problem" is an imaginative Netflix adaptation of Cixin Liu's trilogy of sci-fi novels—and yet is mostly true to the books.
James T. KeaneApril 19, 2024