If you've been online during the final stages of March Madness you have probably seen people chatting about this question: Why are Catholic schools so good at basketball?
The question will linger after Villanova's smashing 79-62 win over Michigan in last night's title game. This is the second national title for Villanova (with its ties to the Augustinian Order) in three years. And, of course, Notre Dame won the women's final four, on a shot that was called -- with some reason -- a near miracle.
Yes, it's easy to joke about the prayers of hoops-loving nuns and saints.
However, there is an interesting story here, one linked to culture, theology and economics. Kudos to The New York Times for producing a serious feature-length piece that dug into the substance of this topic. The #DUH headline: "Why Catholic Colleges Excel at Basketball." Here is a crucial transition passage:
Excelling in big-time college basketball sits easily at mission-oriented institutions. Sports are not only these universities’ front porch, but also the faith’s emissary.
Villanova’s president, the Rev. Peter M. Donohue, hosts an opening Mass for athletes every year, where he reminds them they are ambassadors for the university’s mission. “To have our charism move on,” he said, using a dogma-tinged Greek word for spirit, “the banner needs to be carried.”
Whoa. "Dogma-tinged"? I think it's enough to say that this is a theological term. Also, that definition is a bit off. The word "charism" has a much more specific meaning, one that would have done a better job of supporting this story's thesis. Dictionary.com says:
charisma ... noun, plural charismata
1. Theology. a divinely conferred gift or power.
2. A spiritual power or personal quality that gives an individual influence or authority over large numbers of people.
So what are we talking about when we talk about a hoops "charism," one that gives Catholic schools an advantage, an edge that allows them -- as the Times put it -- to punch "well above their weight" on basketball courts?
For starters, this is a matter of "location, location, location." And economics, since football takes more money and more space.
But there's more to this phenomenon than urban zip codes. Read the following with care. You are looking for a three-part equation:
... There is more than just something in the holy water. Several characteristics of Catholicism in America, both sociological and spiritual, have helped determine this affinity; the Catholic Church’s decision not to abandon the urban poor in America in the second half of the 20th century, when so many other institutions did, was particularly significant.
Much of Catholic education’s historic commitment to basketball derives from demographics.
Several decades ago, many American Catholics were working-class urbanites, clustered in some of the same cities -- New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco, New Orleans -- in which these schools rose up. ...
In basketball, with its inexpensive overhead, compact field of play and small number of participants, they found a sport that suited them.
This urban reality then, eventually, became linked to another powerful factor in American sports -- race.
Over time, the schools became a magnet for black players, including luminaries such as Bill Russell (University of San Francisco) and the championship Loyola-Chicago team of 1963, which broke an unspoken rule by starting four black players.
Black athletes, Catholic or not, often landed at these colleges partly because they frequently played basketball for the local chapter of the Catholic Youth Organization, which was originally founded as a kind of urban, Catholic parallel to the predominantly Protestant Y.M.C.A.s. The C.Y.O.s set many black players on the path toward Catholic colleges.
As America marched through the 1960s and beyond, these urban schools also had every reason to stress Catholic social teachings on racial and economic justice.
That leads to the final connection:
There is nothing in Catholic dogma that specifically elucidates the virtues of basketball. Yet several scholars pointed to elements of American Catholicism that helped persuade schools to embrace sports.
Jesuit philosophy -- embedded at so many top basketball schools, such as Gonzaga, Xavier, Creighton and Georgetown -- extends to all aspects of life. It preaches cura personalis, or “care for the person” -- in not only the intellectual and spiritual sense, but the physical one, too. ...
For St. Joseph’s Coach Phil Martelli, these teachings comport with the sport that he called the “greatest societal experiment.”
“In basketball, it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white, rich or poor, city or suburbs,” said Martelli, whose wife, Judy Marra Martelli, played on those three Immaculata championship teams. “And in the Catholic faith, you shouldn’t be measured by those things -- your W-2 or what you drive. You should be measured by your character.”
Now, there is one final question, for those (especially traditional Catholics) who care about theological details.
Here goes: In what sense -- academically, morally and spiritually -- are these schools "still Catholic," in terms of the characteristics laid out by St. Pope John Paul II in his epic (and supposedly binding) Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church) on Catholic higher education? Click here, here and then here for some background.
The Times piece does a fine job with the positive side of this Catholic education equation, making a completely valid link between Catholic teachings and justice issues that are easy to spot in urban settings. That's what makes this an interesting story.
I'm just asking if supposedly faith-centered schools, and their leaders, find it easier to compete at the highest levels of American sports when they emphasize some doctrines and, well, downplay others? How orthodox are these hoops-heaven schools when it comes to ancient Christian doctrines that are less popular in this day and age? Here's looking at you, Georgetown. And, yes, my alma mater -- Baylor.
Yes, that's another story, maybe for another day.
MAIN IMAGE: Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, 98, prays with the Loyola University of Chicago team. A Loyola-Chicago photograph.