A few weeks ago I was in a gathering of local professional and businessmen where the subject was raised of the big money that is involved in collegiate sports.
The point was made that one university after another has learned that a winning football or basketball team can inspire donations to the school, and that this surge of contributions offsets the costs that the university must meet to put the teams on football fields or basketball courts.
I told these men that I am from Nashville, Tenn., where Vanderbilt University is situated. Vanderbilt’s officials inevitably insist that the university is absolutely committed to its interscholastic sports program. It is a member of the Southeastern Conference, and some of its teams indeed have done well over the years.
Still, no one ever would question the fact that Vanderbilt puts its academics first and foremost. Distinguished around the world for its high academic standards, its alumni have been outstanding for producing so much, and so well, in endeavors in business and other professions.
For example, Vanderbilt’s medical school is one of the finest in the nation. Among my good friends is an ophthalmologist, a physician specializing in vision disorders and eye disease, who teaches in the medical school. On occasion, I visit his office. In the lobby of the medical school office building are bronze busts of the professors at Vanderbilt who over the years have won the Nobel Prize for Medicine.
Frankly, seeing these busts impresses me far more than would the sight of even a hundred citations of All American athletes or bowl victories lining the wall.
Why? Because, those professors who received the Nobel Prizes made a mark for themselves not by winning a contest, but by moving further along the conquest of disease.
Do not get me wrong. I enjoy a good football game in the fall and an exciting basketball game in the winter. Athletics certainly should be part of school programs.
Athletics build teamwork, lead young people to focus on worthwhile goals, to make sacrifices for their goals, to survive in an atmosphere of honest competition and to attend to bodily health. They also promote self-esteem.
But still, my thoughts return to those physicians and scientists at Vanderbilt with the Nobel Prizes who worked to uplift the quality of life for all people, just as many like them are working to do the same today.
Well, so far, it may sound as if I am attacking, or radically downplaying, intercollegiate college sports and maybe sports in general. Indeed, I think that we allow, or force, universities and even high schools to go too far in expending resources on sports. To an extent, we probably cannot expect anything else.
After all, every generation in human history has found great delight in sports, as evidenced by the ancient Romans’ obsession with games in the Colosseum and the Polynesian fascination with boats that could be moved with high speed on the open sea.
Were I a father, I am sure that I would encourage my son or daughter to give his or her all to a sports team at school. But I also would try to put it in perspective. The Catholic ideal is not to win a game and to find the greatest satisfaction there, but rather to use talents and to make sacrifices for others.
Contest, with the world, the flesh and the devil, is part of discipleship. Youths must learn this fact, and sports can help in the process. But, ultimately, to be truly Catholic in spirit, youths must see the greatest reward is in following the example of Jesus, the Suffering Servant of those who suffer.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV associate publisher.