Sports and the Catholic Faith

Originally published on Catholic Exchange, July 25th, 2006, by Tom O'Toole

As the author of a book on Catholic sports biographies that sits on the shelves of The Vatican library, I am often asked about the relationship between sports and faith. And while St. Paul’s classic analogy “Run so as to win. Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one” (1 Cor. 9:24-25), certainly suggests a strong connection between the two, million dollar athletes who proclaim after key games that Jesus was the reason for victory continue to make critics uneasy.

Is Winning Everything?

For the evangelical Protestant, winning seems to be the crucial issue in the sports/faith relationship, for victory is what provides them with the soapbox to preach that Jesus saved them, or the game, or both. Catholics, on the other hand, have a sacramental view of sports. Just as Jesus’ body and blood are present both really and symbolically in the Eucharist, life is present both really and symbolically on the playing field. For although the action is, in some respects, “just a game,” real suffering and joy do take place there. And since the Catholic finds value in both, he gains grace from sports both on and off the field, in both victory and defeat. In fact, the lesson of losing is perhaps even more valuable to the Catholic Christian, for in defeat one is truly united to the suffering of Christ (cf. Col 1:23-24).

And so to paraphrase Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, shall we continue to lose so that graces may abound (cf. Rom 6:1)? Of course not! The first rule of sports (and faith) is always to persevere, never to give up hope until the last second ticks off the clock. Anything less is a forsaking of teammates, coaches and even fans. Accepting defeat while there is still a chance of victory is totally unacceptable to the Catholic, and can be compared to the difference between committing suicide and dying a martyr.

Learning Perseverance

I usually explain to them the uneasiness is due to the fact that the athlete’s understanding of sports (and the faith) is not Catholic.

Few, whether Protestant or Catholic, will argue with St. Paul’s statement that the discipline and perseverance learned in sports can be a great model for growth in faith. As Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Paprocki of the Archdiocese of Chicago (who was once dubbed “The Running Reverend” for the many marathons he raced before becoming bishop) told me, “When training under someone, it is easy to see why the derivation of the world ‘discipline’ is so close to the word ‘disciple.’” Indeed, it is the first part of St. Paul’s statement, the part about winning, where the controversy starts to creep in.

A Blessed Opportunity

While I have witnessed many examples of true Catholic athletic diligence, perhaps no one embodies it better than Cammi Granato of the United States Women’s Hockey Team. Six times the United States faced the Canadian team in the finals of international competition, and all six times our northern neighbors sent the USA team home in defeat. Finally Cammi figured out what was missing: while both teams had equal talent, the Canadian girls were closer off the ice and thus trusted each other more on it.

So before the 1998 Olympics, Cammi made sure the US team was not only sharp in competition, but tight away from the rink as well. The other matches went as planned until the night before the gold medal game, and Cammi began to pray.

“I fully realized how much this one game could change my life,” Cammi recounted, “how winning gold would not only validate the team, but would bring me more opportunities to promote my faith and women’s hockey, as well as to endorse products. I was tempted to pray for victory, but instead I just thanked God for blessing me with this opportunity and giving me the joy to compete, and then I just asked Him to allow me and my team to play our best, and I left the outcome in His hands.” Team USA won that game 3-1, and Cammi, voted the most inspirational athlete of the games by her countrymen and women, was chosen to carry the American Flag in the closing ceremonies.