A few weeks ago, on a Sunday night I received a call from a coach at DeSales High School that their Head Soccer coach had a massive heart attack and was not expected to survive. I arrive at the ICU and find most of his players and many of their parents in the waiting room and hallway. They were in the process of going to his room in twos to say goodbye to their coach. I too went to his bedside to pray with Lee Smith’s family and the family of Don Bowers the school’s Athletic Director. Leaving the ICU room Don told me the team wanted to have a prayer service for their coach. We all assembled in the Chapel and talked about the great loss they were feeling and how it was little in comparison to the loss his family was experiencing. We talked about how death for believers in Jesus Christ was a transition and not an ending. We prayed together and concluded with Our Father which was said with as much reverence as I have ever seen. On Tuesday afternoon after school many of the same group assembled in the hospital’s hallways for an Honor Walk as Coach Smith was moved to the OR to harvest his organs for people he and his family do not know and may never know.
Seeing the love and respect these young men had for their coach gave me pause to again reflect on the privileged position coaches hold. Whether they know it or not they are Christian ministers and role models to the athletes they lead. They are teaching young people something they want to know, a sport. While teach the sport they have a great opportunity to teach many life lessons. In almost 50 years as a Board Member and 25 years as Board Chair of the Catholic School Athletic Association, I have seen many good coaches and they all have a few things in common. They are all respected because they have conducted themselves in a manner that deserves respect. They all demand discipline of their athletes and expect them to always give their best effort and put the team first. They are all people of integrity who play by the rules and refuse to bend the rules to gain an advantage. They have a great sense of what each athlete can do. They challenge all to do their best and never belittle ones with lesser abilities. They are honest with their players about what went well and where improvement is needed without demeaning anyone on the team. They recognize games are played to win but also for having fun. And most importantly they are people of faith. They begin practices and games with prayer and end them with prayer, not just rote prayers that are hurriedly said but prayers that recognize the needs of the team and the
needs of the team’s families and friends. They are people who attend church regularly and are not afraid to remind their team that this is a priority for a good life.
The Catholic School Athletic Association has existed for almost 70 years. It has survived because of numerous dedicated individuals who have volunteered countless hours to serve as Board members, Sports Directors, League Coordinators, Gym and Field Managers, Parish Athletic Directors, Coaches and team parents. This organization operates by three priorities: God, School and Sports in that order. Herein lies our challenge for the future because we live in a society where the priorities are reversed: Sport, School and God.
You do not have to look hard to see the problems these reversed priorities cause. I recently heard that a pastor with a school noticed that the school’s student athletes were on time for games on Sundays but not at church. When he questioned the students about church attendance, he received many ANSWERS but the most glaring were: “My parents won’t bring me “and “I play in a travel league that schedules games on Sunday mornings” The pastor suggested if this does not improve he might need to put in a rule: “If you do not come to church, you cannot play for the school’s teams” This met with a great uproar from some parents. Some wanted to know how he could suggest such a thing, but I wonder why the possibility of such a rule is even needed in a Catholic school. Are our parents buying into society’s reverse priorities?
We have always encouraged parent, grandparent and other relatives to attend games to support and encourage these young people in their sports activities. But it in a sport crazed culture we see incidences where fans scream at coaches, players and opponents in criticism of how games are played. Each year we see physical confrontations at youth sporting events. Thankfully we have had few incidents here over the years but the tragic outcome from the recently reported brawl at a 7th and 8th grade basketball game in Vermont should make us all think of our own conduct at youth games. Overzealous fans rob young athletes of good sports experiences. Have we forgotten these are human beings trying to do the best and not robots who do everything perfectly?
Each NCAA sports event I have attended in the last few years begins with an announcement from the conference hosting the event that it supports
sportsmanship and proper conduct during the contest. Anyone who violates these expectations will be asked to leave. The first time I heard this announcement I wondered why it was necessary. Then I sat in the stands, and it became clear why such an announcement was needed. What some people say and how they express it is highly inappropriate. I see more and more of the same behavior at youth events. I have been in a few circumstances where I have had to ask spectators to watch their mouths or leave the event. I am not talking about bad people but people who give sports more importance than it deserves and maybe have reversed priorities.
I have never met or known of an official who has called a perfect game. That doesn’t mean they aren’t trying to do their best. Like athletes there are more talented and less talented officials. The better officials move up and officiate the more important games and even rise into the upper levels of sports officiating. But they all must start somewhere, and youth sports is entry level for many. Over the years the CSAA has been blessed with a group of older officials who work our games because it is a way of giving back. And we have had a number who have graduated from our program to the NCAA and pro level. Each year we also have young people who try their hand at officiating, but the number decreases with each year. We are currently experiencing a lack of officials across all youth sports. The question is Why? I like everyone else have booed my fair share of bad calls at games in the upper levels of sports but that is where it stops. A growing number of youth sports spectators expect the same or better level of officiating at youth games as they see on tv at the upper levels. I have watched people scream about calls when they clearly did not know the rules, yell obscenities when they disagreed with a call and use threatening language toward officials. I recently met a man I used to officiate with several years ago. We talked about the lack of official these days and his comment was “you couldn’t pay me enough to take the abuse official have to put up with today.” Are the reverse priorities threatening a necessary component of youth sports?
Catholic youth sports are a fertile ground to teach lifelong values. Honestly most children who play sports in CSAA leagues never participate in sports after grade school. It is the responsibility of the CSAA board, directors, coaches, parents, parish athletic clubs, spectators and officials that the young men and women leave our leagues with the best experiences and the right priorities of God, School and Sports because they experienced them from us.
-Father Tom Gentile