Recently, we at Play Like a Champion have heard of a growing debate on whether or not Catholic sports leagues should schedule activities on Sundays. We've heard from partners on both sides of the divide from the theological to the practical. Should Sundays be reserved for Church and family time? Are sports a form of spirituality, that often involve the whole family? Will canceling Sunday games help to stem the tide of decreasing youth participation in the Mass? What about young athletes who are involved with multiple teams? If Sunday games are abolished, is there enough gym space available to fit the games in throughout the week?
In Support of Playing on Sunday by Dobie Moser:
When dealing with complex challenges, seek out the simplest solution, and then discard it, because you are dealing with a complex situation. Beware of a half truth: you may get the wrong half! These adages come to mind when considering the question of whether to ban Catholic youth sports games on Sundays.
Those who oppose holding games on Sunday are concerned about losing young Catholics. They are asking important questions, such as why are only 20 – 30% of families in parishes attending mass and why are so few young people involved in parish youth clubs? They are also critical of the attention, time, and resources that youth sports demand as well as reports of negative fan, coach, and athlete behavior. They hope that by getting rid of Sunday sports in Catholic settings will take us back to bygone days when Sundays revolved around Church and family.
All of these questions deserve thoughtful conversation, reflection, and response. Little good is done by hand wringing and blaming others. Acting precipitously may well make matters worse.
Time for Different Questions
Asking different questions can open doors to considering new ways forward. Here are questions that change the conversation and invite other possible responses.
- What is the mission of sports in a Catholic setting and how is that mission best achieved?
- Are sports in Catholic settings formational for children, parents and coaches? If so, what needs to happen to help all involved to be more faithful disciples of Jesus Christ and active members of our Catholic faith community?
- What would most likely happen if all Sunday athletic contests happening in Catholic settings were halted?
A Catholic Framework for Youth Sports
Saint Don Bosco, founder of the Salesisans, took the approach of going out into the streets of Turin to meet young people where they are to connect with them. Upon building relationships with them, he started oratories where children could get educated, play sports, and pursue music and the arts within an intentional Christian community. In a similar way, in the 1930s Monsignor Bernard Sheil went into the streets of Chicago to reach out to young people who were not practicing their faith and started the CYO (Catholic Youth Organization) that was the birth of youth ministry in the United States.
In both cases, these men of vision and faith understood sports as a way to reach young people and to form them as disciples of Jesus. Building on that foundation, our Catholic church believes that sports in Catholic settings today:
- are rooted in the mission and values of the Church, and are, therefore, youth ministry;
- train and prepare the coach as a youth ministry leader representing the faith community;
- form the team as a small Christian Community that is part of the larger Catholic community;
- help young people to grow as disciples of Jesus within the faith community.
This understanding and approach to youth sports in Catholic settings assigns particular roles and responsibilities to the different parties involved.
- Players play – they learn to play, develop skills, win, and lose while modeling Catholic values and behaviors;
- Coaches teach – they are faith leaders and sport leaders who help the children grow;
- Officials officiate – they are trained to provide a safe experience according to the rules;
- Parents support – they provide encouragement and support while modeling Catholic behavior and values.
It is easy to give examples of athlete, coach, and parents misbehavior in Catholic settings. Yes, bad behavior is prevalent throughout youth sports, and is regrettably present in Catholic youth sports as well. Yet this is why having our Catholic perspective present to offer another way is critical.
Our Catholic schools and parish youth ministry programs are becoming aware of the shortcomings of youth sports culture. We are responsible to find a better way, a faithful and Catholic way, to operate sports programs in Catholic settings. Programs such as the Notre Dame’s Play Like a Champion Today and the Diocese of Cleveland’s CYO are examples of ministerial approaches needed to build a Catholic culture in youth sports.
It is understandable to want to eliminate sports in Catholic settings on Sundays as a response to difficult challenges and real frustrations about low Church attendance and disinterest in Church activities more generally. Yet parents and athletes who participate in athletics in a ministry context believe that they are engaged in faith formation through sports. A strong case can be made that Catholic youth sports is our Church’s largest youth ministry program with the most volunteers, especially male volunteers.
It is critical that our Catholic Church stays involved in youth sports. Of course, Catholic youth sport programs should not schedule games and practices on Sunday mornings. The issue is whether youth sports should be eliminated altogether on Sundays. Such an action would cripple many Catholic sports programs already struggling to schedule practices and games with limited available facilities. Do we really believe that if sports were eliminated on Sundays, young people would become more active in their faith? It seems more likely that they would leave Catholic youth sports programs for other non-religious youth sport programs.
We need to recapture the evangelical zeal of Saint Don Bosco and Bishop Sheil and go to where young people and their parents are. Let’s use sports to bring our children closer to the Lord, back to the Lord’s Eucharistic table, and more fully into the Christian community.
Dobie Moser, D. Min, is the Executive Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministry and CYO in the Cleveland Diocese. He has served on the U.S. Olympic Committee and has trained thousands of coaches in Catholic settings throughout the U.S. and Canada. He is a contributing author of the 2015 book, Youth Sport and Spirituality, Catholic Perspectives from University of Notre Dame Press.
Outside of the occasional tournament, the Valley Catholic Sports League does not play on Saturday's or Sunday's. A few reasons for this are as follows. First of all, other athletic programs/organizations (club teams and other organizations) have consumed many of our student-athletes. These programs have either taken student-athletes completely away from our schools, or have put our families in a position that leaves our student-athletes with little time for anything else other than sports. We feel a well-rounded student-athlete is a more prepared student-athlete for the future.
Furthermore, it is difficult to find facilities to accommodate games on the weekends. Our schools use their church and school parking lots, which many have 4-5 Masses on Sundays. This makes it difficult to have the space available for sporting events. When it comes to using other facilities, we find ourselves competing with those same organizations mentioned above for space, not to mention the cost that can be an issue for many of our schools.
Finally, the other reason is something that has trickled down from our local Catholic High School’s, which are regulated by CIF (Southern Section). They are prohibited from participating in any school organized event on Sunday’s, and we have followed that same rule for our Catholic Elementary Schools. It is our understanding that Sunday is a time to pray, get away from the grind, and be with family in some other environment outside of competitive sports.
Brian Milone is the Director of the Valley Catholic Sports League in Southern California.