The Place of Athletics in Catholic High Schools

A father embraces his son after handing his son the same number jersey he wore when he played football at St. Henry School in Nashville, Tenn. (CNS photo/Rick Musacchio, Tennessee Register)

What is the place of athletics in Catholic high schools?

Catholic high schools emphasize education of the "whole person," and try to resist the temptation to let sports drive the agenda or dominate students' lives. This goal, of course, is not always achieved. Some Catholic schools—at the high school and college level—are quite popular precisely because of their sports.  

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It's a tough balance. Success in sports drives up applications and local interest, and potentially donations, but it can overshadow other programs, potentially marginalizing non-athletes and non-coaches. And yet, sports can foster a work ethic, a spirit of collaboration, and a sense of commitment to a larger community. For young men in particular, sports can be a healthy way to channel aggression and energy and cultivate the loyalty and strength-through-adversity that will make them good husbands and fathers. 

A female colleague of mine (when I asked her the impact of sports on girls) told me that sports give young women "a power beyond their looks." It empowers them to embrace a role, she said, different from what our culture and media expect. She said that if you look at a typical girls' magazine, it's all about what women are wearing, who they're dating, and how they apply their makeup. But during games and practices, she said, girls cannot worry about their clothing or social standing. They have to focus on the team as a whole and what they can contribute. In her experience, girls who play sports often develop a maturity and a confidence earlier than some of their peers. (She added that the same qualities can be developed in other activities—like dance, music, or in student leadership groups.)

Athletics programs can be one more vehicle for giving glory to God and reinforcing the habits and virtues that make for selfless leaders. On the other hand, it can also inflate egos and individualism, not to mention cause major injury (at least in football).

How, then, do we think about the role of sports in Catholic education? Knowing of the pros and cons, how should sports at a Catholic high school be different than at a non-Catholic high school?

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Abigail Woods-Ferreira
3 years 11 months ago
Sports are an essential part of education, just for the reasons you stated. I think at a Catholic school their connection to the development of the whole person can be made explicit in the mission. The best way to keep them integrated at the practical level is to always treat sports like any other activity - students should not be missing inordinate amounts of class time for sports, athletes should be held to the same academic and disciplinary standards as other students, coaches should be held to the same professional standards and boundaries as other teachers, and institutional integrity should always come first, even if it is at the expense of winning on the field. (I know that might be extremely challenging for schools with an elite football tradition, like Notre Dame. I confess that as an Ann Arbor native I have just a slight bias against Notre Dame football :) ) I also think it is important to make athletic opportunities available to students who may be interested in playing casually, but aren't interested in Varsity level commitment. Intramural sports often get overlooked, but their presence in a school is good for a wide range of students and a reminder that the main purpose of school sports is physical activity, having fun, and building community. These are simple things, yet if a school is not careful, it does run the risk of developing a culture that puts athletics on a pedestal instead of making them an integrated part of education. When sports are well integrated they are, like the arts and spirituality, essential parts of a Catholic education.
Kevin M
3 years 11 months ago
I love sports, and working for a small Catholic university, I've seen first-hand the vibrancy and diversity that athletics brings to a campus. The same goes for high school. However, it is so difficult to find that balance between fostering the natural competitor's spirit and the win-at-any-cost reality that drives (especially larger) athletic programs. In that, the head coach's character is vitally important to encouraging the positive atmosphere of any team, but is especially important in a program founded up Catholic principles. Coaches that do not conduct themselves ethically nor treat their players with dignity are all too common in athletics; and all too common at Catholic universities. Often the desire to find a "winning coach" and the dollars that accompany winning supersedes institutional principles. Of course, nobody likes losing, but at what cost does winning come for some programs? The reality is that even in the most successful programs, most of these kids will not be going pro in their sport. So, for Catholic and non-Catholic players alike, the time spent with their team can be paramount to the healthy development of their philosophies of self, community, hard work, sacrifice, and even God.
John Walton
3 years 11 months ago
I always feel sorry for Georgetown's football team.
Monica Doyle
3 years 11 months ago
Interesting read as my 16 year old son is wearing his football jersey for 'Warrior Friday' today at his Catholic High School. I was one of the moms providing the pre-game breakfast to the varsity football team last Saturday. The boys were polite, respectful, cleaned up after themselves, and came over to thank the moms individually for the pancakes, bagels, muffins, bananas, Gatorade, and water. The coach said grace before the boys dug in for the breakfast. So far it has been a positive experience for my son.
Shayne LaBudda
3 years 11 months ago
Except for few of us, sports are pursued largely for pleasure, play. Our modern way of living makes it far too easy to neglect the health of our bodies. By participating and learning sports in our youth we hopefully can carry some outlet for play and continued use of our bodies into our adulthood. Joseph Campbell (and others) have spoken of the beauty and grace achieved when the mind and body are absolutely synchronous. Athletics are one of the ways we can ever reach this rare state. I would hope that any phy ed teacher or coach at a Catholic school (of any level) can shed some light on this potential, as it is a gift from God.
J Cosgrove
3 years 11 months ago
I am going to make two plugs here and one does not have anything to do with high school sports. Last night my wife and I saw the movie, "When the Game Stands Tall." It is about the high school football program at de LaSalle High School in Concord California. the most successful high school sports program in the history of the country. They had a streak of 151 straight victories over 13 seasons (1992-2004) and still are the premier high school football team in the country. They have over a dozen present or former NFL Players as graduates. The movie is about what happens when the streak ends and what happens to the players and the coaches as a result. The emphasis in the movie is in building young men and a winning football tradition was just a vehicle for that. A very inspirational movie. A side anecdote, I am a graduate of another Christian Brother School who won the Pennsylvania state football championship a few years ago and was in the championship game for the second year in a two. I started an email discussion with someone at de La Salle about the two schools on simultaneous paths. I had no knowledge of de La Salle's history. Needless to say my school lost while de La Salle went on its merry way. So when this movie came out I was anxious to see it. My second plug is for Father Greg Boyle's Tattoos on the Heart which I just finished a few days ago. I bought the audio book and would listen to it in the car and while walking. In it is one anecdote after the other of the plight of gang members in the Los Angeles Latino ghettos. They use the term "dog" and "homie" to address each other all the time. Fr. Boyle describes the killing of several young homies he worked with by rival gang members. In the movie, some of the football players are from poor neighborhoods near Concord and in one scene where one is trying to convince another to go play football at the same college together, he addresses the other as "Dog." In a scene a short time later one of them is inadvertently in a ghetto area to give a friend a ride home when a rival gang member to the neighborhood comes up and executes the young football player. All this was right out of Fr Boyle's book. So I recommend both, Tattoos on the Heart and When the Game Stands Tall. The movie is probably leaving the theaters now but if it is near you, see it to see how a Catholic program plays out in the greatest high school football program in history. The book is always available.
Mary Pearlman
3 years 11 months ago
We also had a competitive inter-mural sports league in elementary school - I think Catholic Schools here in Southern California still do. ( I graduated from high school in 1969) We didn't need Title IX to give girls equal opportunities either - and the thing I remember most fondly, is that the dads turned out to watch and root for their daughters the same way they did (or sometimes couldn't) for their sons. As the Holy Father pointed out a few days ago, in sports, you learn to work and live as a team - to recognize each others' strengths and weaknesses and to support each other to reach a common goal. It's good. Even if you're not actually one of the players, but a booster of the team, still, you can contribute to the success. I hope that parents and schools guard the ideals and values of sports and athletes - especially Catholic schools, I know it was an important part of my education, as important as music and literature.

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