Sports and the Catholic Fan

Originally published on Catholic Exchange, September 2nd, 2006, by Tom O'Toole
And thrice they cried like thunder
On Our Lady of Victories
The Mother of the Master of the Masterers of the world
– G.K. Chesterton, “The Arena”
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden…and persevere in running the race that lies before us” (Heb 12:1).

Do Fans’ Prayers Count?

For many a Catholic or Protestant participant, praying for one’s self before, after or even during a sports contest has become commonplace. But given the popularity of both professional and amateur sports in our country, should the Christian fan also be encouraged to pray for his favorite team? And, even more to the point, can a fan’s prayers actually influence the outcome?

To answer this question, one must start by asking whether fans have any impact on the game itself. Certainly, even the most cynical of sports critics readily admits to the “home court” advantage, that even though fans do not participate directly in the game, their cheers can inspire extra effort from their chosen charges, not to mention make it more difficult for the opponents to perform. Of course, while some may claim that much of what the home fan offers is either nasty putdowns or mere noise, this evidence encourages Catholics to wonder whether fan influence can not only be enhanced by the prayers of those at the ballpark, but extended to the petitions of the faithful who follow the team via the airwaves as well.

While movies such as Remember the Titans and Glory Road accurately depict how teams helped small towns to come together to eliminate racism, for Catholics, the movie Cinderella Man (ironically directed by Ron Howard, the same man who gave us the astonishingly anti-Catholic film The DaVinci Code) best illustrates the power of intercessory prayer in sports. In it, the wife of boxer James J. Braddock enters a Catholic church to pray that her husband quit this violent sport — only to find the church jammed with people who have drawn hope from Braddock’s gutsy underdog performances, and are praying the rosary for his success in the upcoming heavyweight bout.

Football Theology

But as inspiring as the story of Braddock’s rise from Depression-Era rags to Heavyweight Championship riches is, the story of Notre Dame football is certainly the greatest and most enduring story of fans praying for their team. As both a sports journalist and a graduate of the university, I realize that many Catholics and non-believers question this theory, not only men like Murray Sperber, professor of English at Indiana University, who has written volumes ridiculing this notion, but even the late Coach Ray Meyer, himself a graduate of Notre Dame but best known as the long-time basketball coach of DePaul, who joked on the day of the game that after Notre Dame coach Digger Phelps went to morning Mass to light a candle for the Irish, he would go to a later liturgy and blow it out, then relight it for DePaul.

In Shake Down the Thunder: The Creation of Notre Dame Football, Sperber chronicles how Fr. John O’Hara (president of ND from 1921-1933) and their famous coach Knute Rockne founded its “football theology.” In both sermons and written bulletins, O’Hara encouraged this connection of the faithful to football, even using calculations and charts which drew a direct correlation between the number of students receiving daily communion and the team’s chances for victory, while Rockne, after his conversion to Catholicism in 1925, scheduled few Catholic colleges so as not to divide the fan base. Spurred on by victories over Georgia Tech and other teams in anti-Catholic, pro-Ku Klux Klan states, O’Hara’s plea for prayer for the team from the nation’s Catholics was wildly successful, culminating with Notre Dame’s road win at highly favored Ohio State in 1935. Dubbed “The game of the half-century,” Notre Dame scored three touchdowns in the fourth quarter, including two in the last two minutes, and O’Hara was flooded with literally thousands of fans’ letters, many who claimed it was their rosaries that turned defeat into victory. This game also contributed to the practice of Catholic grade school teaching nuns leading their students in prayers for an Irish victory every autumn Friday. To Sperber, however, this was the final straw, for it gave “fans the illusion of power over their team’s destiny.”

Our Lady of Victory

While O’Hara’s direct correlation between communions and victories cannot be counted as doctrine, it is certainly closer to the truth than Sperber’s contention that those countless prayers meant nothing to the Irish’s success. When former Irish coach (and devout Catholic) Lou Holtz used to kid that “I don’t think God cares who wins a football game — but I think His Mother does,” he was actually speaking from experience.

College football is the number one spectator sport in our country, and as one of two Catholic universities (along with Boston College) who play Division I football, Notre Dame is for millions of enemy fans their only witness to the Catholic faith each autumn week. And while Boston College has enjoyed much gridiron success, Notre Dame’s greater fame is largely due to her name. When he founded Notre Dame and promptly built the Golden Dome, Father Edward Sorin made sure that everyone knew that Notre Dame was Our Lady, and, as our Lord’s number one fan, not acting on her own initiative but influencing His decisions nonetheless, Mary became the Fighting Irish’s number one fan as well, praying that the team’s play always reflect favorably on her Son.

Just as Notre Dame’s early victories gave hope to a Catholic immigrant population at a time when many Americans were not friendly toward our faith, praying for Notre Dame (and other Catholic teams) should once again be encouraged, especially among our young (and our young at heart). For with so many “Culture of Death” role models vying for their attention, following the exploits of a bunch of lads who lift their helmets in salute of Our Lady after every game, win or lose, may not be such a bad idea after all.