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We live at a time of extremes, in both nature and society (perhaps the former reflecting the latter). And one of the many societal ones: the way sports has become so revered and oft-times all-consuming (even supplanting Christ on Sunday).

We see all the "soccer moms," we see toddlers wearing Yankee hats before they're one-year-olds,  we see coaches fighting at Little League games (actual fisticuffs), and we see the tremendous emphasis on sports at middle and high schools, including Catholic ones -- where it's not unusual for half the grounds to be set aside for football, baseball, soccer, tennis, track, and a gym. When you visit a prospective university these days, first stop on the tour (or the culminating one) is often the arena.

Sports can be healthy, at times spiritual -- when we have the proper perspective. There is even a Vatican department for sports (although we don't see much in the Bible about it). Church leaders have instructed, however, that sporting events are meant to be for fun -- to teach coordination and practice and cooperation, for relaxation, more than competition.

Winning should be secondary.

In a book called Catholic Perspectives on Sports, Father Patrick Kelly explains that a virtuous person treats sports not as an obsession but as a recreation. We aren't supposed to be overly serious (zealous) about it. Reserve that for things that really count.

Yet every sport, it seems, has turned into a situation where all that matters is winning. It is sports along with shopping that have most infringed on the Sabbath -- whether it's taking a kid to his or her game or watching football on TV or now the pagan-like ceremonies at the Olympics (which were originally formulated to honor Zeus, a Greek god).

We are way past the point of imbalance.

In college, sports are often more emblematic of a school than what it teaches. We have saint-like statues of coaches and players outside our stadiums. Athletes are treated far differently -- and there have been cases where gifts and women have been showered upon them during the recruitment process. Pros? Consider that the highest paid athlete (a boxer, speaking of fisticuffs) made $85 million last year.

It's not unusual for a football or basketball player to have a salary of $15 million and another ten or twenty million in endorsements.

The average annual salary in the National Basketball Association is $5.1 million (including bench-sitters).

The Vatican culture office that opened the new "Culture and Sport" department has stated  that the sporting world is in need of a "cathartic" change to fight from spiraling into a profession dominated by money and drugs.

We also need to fight the idolatry.

Our society is polluted with superficial reverence for everything from actors in Hollywood to the bronze bull on Wall Street. Thankfully, they removed the statue last week of a football coach at Penn State University (for not acting on information that an assistant was abusing young men and boys, in the cause of keeping football high and mighty).

What happened at Penn State only happened because sports had grown vastly out of control -- a coach deified, winning having become everything.

It is absurd how many people -- actors, directors, talk-show hosts, commentators, religious celebrities, politicians, and particularly sports figures -- have been set up as gods and goddesses in our era. Beware: false charisma. Their statues should likewise be removed. Leave up Mount Rushmore, perhaps, and some select ones with true historical value in Washington -- and of course those representing Christ, the Blessed Mother, and saints; but purge the rest. Purify.

There are so many such statues we can't list them all and anyway don't like to name many names. But they should likewise be removed. Stop the overkill. At the NBA Hall of Fame, shirts athletes wore and old basketballs or nets are treated as if they are sacred relics.

Many athletes are fine men. They entertain us greatly. And they are well-rewarded for what they do. They should not be held up as heroes as we hold up the heroes in a war or those who are quiet heroes in an average household raising children or working in a hospice. Stop worshipping that statuette called Oscar. Take down that statue of Marilyn Monroe in Chicago. Stop building huge libraries for every single president. (Are they all so worthy?)

To finish on sports: the first soccer game at the Vatican goes back to 1521. There is one played every year between papal guards. Sports has its place, it seems, even in the Church. And there are the examples like Tim Tebow and the devout Catholic football all-pro Joe Klecko and basketball star Jeremy Lin -- who openly profess their faith, and as a result are accomplishing meaningful things. There is a statue of Tebow at the University of Florida. He is a great guy. He has a tremendous mission. He is also human. Is the statue necessary? (He probably would care less if it were removed.) We can grow spiritually through what sports is meant to teach: discipline, preparation, unselfish teamwork, integration of the body and spirit. Above all else, it should lead to setting an example, something Tebow does in the flesh, not as a bronze figure outside of our new cathedrals called stadiums.

[see also: At Penn State, shock, anger, Olympics were designed to honor pagan god, and Our extreme times: the college football craze]

[Print article]

[pictured at top, Saint Sebastian, patron of sports]

[Further note from The NY Times: "In 1982, the president of the University of San Francisco, the Rev. John Lo Schiavo, suspended the university’s basketball team. The school had had a legendary basketball program — the great Bill Russell won two national championships as a player in the 1950s — but it had gotten out of control. Tutors were taking tests for players. Some were taking no-show jobs from boosters. The N.C.A.A. had twice put the university on probation.]


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