Finding the connection between sports and spirituality

CHERRY HILL — With the return of the school year, and many youth back in the routine of fall sports such as soccer, basketball and football, a program was held last week at the Catholic Community of Christ Our Light Parish here, to show parents, coaches and student-athletes the connection between, as the evening was called, “Sports and Spirituality.”

“Sometimes it is said that we take sports too seriously; sometimes, however, we don’t take them seriously enough,” said guest speaker Dr. Ed Hastings. “Sports are really a microcosm of life, society, culture and a lens in which we can look at what’s going on in our world.

Hasting is director of the Center for Sport, Spirituality, and Character Development at Neumann College in Aston, Pa. The primary aim of the institute is “to offer opportunities for reflection and dialogue on the power of good inherent in sports.”

Hastings also is assistant professor of religious studies at Neumann.

“Sports can be a locus, a location, where we can learn about God, and the spiritual life,” Hastings said.

Hastings mentioned that from early on in recored history, sports has had some relationship with spirituality. The ancient Greeks and Romans engaged in sports as a way of pleasing and pacifying gods.

Just as life’s sufferings and sacrifices can bring one into a heightened relationship with God, so can the sacrifice of putting team before self, and the suffering of a defeat in sports do the same. One learns to not quit, to persevere and to realize that tomorrow is a new day, another chance at success, and another chance to do our best.

“One of the things that helps us grow spiritually, is suffering and pain,” he said.

To drive home his point, Hastings read a passage from Tom Conroy’s memoir, “My Losing Season,” about his senior year on the basketball team at the Citadel Military Academy in Charleston, S.C.: “Winning is wonderful in every aspect, but the darker music of loss resonates on deeper, richer planes.… Loss is a fiercer, more uncompromising teacher, coldhearted but clear-eyed in its understanding that life is more dilemma than game, and more trial than free pass. My acquaintance with loss has sustained me during the stormy passages of my life.”

The speaker decried the “win at all costs” attitude that compromise the inherent, good values of sports. He also spoke of recent incidents that have given a black eye to the sporting world, including tennis player Serena William’s expletive-laden rant at the U.S. Open and the Oregon/Boise State college football fight, both last month, and NFL superstar Michael Vick’s 2007 prison sentence on dogfighting and gambling charges.

Last summer, Vick was released, and subsequently signed with the Philadelphia Eagles, for whom he played his first game last Sunday.

Although Vick has apologized for his actions, sports fans and animal lovers have boycotted the Eagles’ organization for signing him. Dr. Hastings, on the other hand, sees merit in what the Eagles gave the troubled superstar.

“The Eagles did give him an opportunity for a second chance, and I like that,” Hastings said. “We should be open to forgiveness.”

Hastings also praised Philadelphia sports players such as Phillies’ pitcher Brad Lidge, currently taking an online degree course in religious studies from Regis College in Denver, Colo.; and Phillies’ second baseman Chase Utley, an animal lover and supporter of the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

The guest speaker was earnest in describing his work with Neumann College.

“Youth long for something deeper in their lives. Sports is the hook, and I try to sneak spirituality to them. A lot of young people are not coming to church, but they are playing sports, so let’s take advantage of that,” he said.

“If we help them learn about God through sports, maybe they’ll come back to church.”

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