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Leveraged Arenas and College Athletics

October 14, 2021 15 min read
By Thomas Wurtz Director of Varsity Catholic, Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS)
Rev. Craig Vasek Athletics Chaplain, University of Mary
Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona

Thomas Wurtz, founder and director of Varsity Catholic, a division of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), joined Father Craig Vasek, Athletics Chaplain of the University of Mary, to discuss the relationship between athletics, evangelization, and the idea that college athletics serves as a highly-leveraged arena in the spreading of the Gospel.


Fr. Craig Vasek (FVasek): You’ve been working with questions of discipleship and sport for a long time, and I’ve been edified by the vision you are able to articulate. Perhaps we could start by discussing the prominent role of sport in American life? The influence of athletics is everywhere we look, so could you set the stage for this conversation by speaking into that?

Thomas Wurtz (TW): As you drive down the road in every city in the United States, you’re going to see parks with sports fields and basketball courts and you’re going to see billboards featuring famous athletes and billboards for sporting goods stores. When you walk into a mall, you’re going to see sporting goods stores. When you turn on your television, you’re going to have countless options for sporting channels to watch any game possible from high school to the professional level. It’s a massive industry in our country: there are billions of dollars generated by the entertainment sector of sport each year, and there are millions upon millions more invested in and generated in the world of youth sports. So there’s both the massive entertainment factor and the fact that so many young people – especially aged five through high school – are involved in sports.

But sports don’t just influence society because of all the time and money that is put into it: they also have influence because they are fun. People enjoy participating, even at a leisurely or recreational level. Sports are fun, they contribute to our physical and psychological health, and they can even touch us emotionally and spiritually. Athletics is something that plays an important role in every part of the country and even extends in different ways throughout the Western world and beyond.

The people at the top of a culture tend to shape the behavior of the rest, and athletes are at the top of our culture in many ways. On the most basic level, athletes are influencers within the world of athletes: if I play basketball and like Steph Curry, I’m going to wear what he wears. But beyond that, because athletics touches on many aspects of our culture, athletes have massive platforms – they really have a voice in our culture.

FVasek: I wasn’t around 50 years ago, but I can’t imagine that athletics had this strong of a cultural influence. I don’t know that great basketball players and football players were on the campaign trail for politicians or running around advocating for different awareness topics or philanthropic endeavors to the point they are today. Maybe they were, but even if that’s the case, it still makes me wonder about the ubiquity or pervasiveness of sport. As you said, it’s everywhere, and there’s an authority given over to it. Because many young people don’t stop at wanting to dress like Steph Curry, or whatever athletic they look up to: they want to live like Steph Curry.

TW: That touches on deep questions of who we are as a society and how we hold up celebrities. We’ve become a culture of celebrity worship and expert worship: we tend to become idolatrous of people who have achieved amazing things. That can be very damaging for young people because it gives the message that you’re “nobody” unless you’ve achieved something great in life. That message can lead people to turn into something like sheep for their idols, just doing what they do without really thinking it through. Social media hasn’t helped, because it allows us to follow everything these people do throughout the day. That message is also damaging because it tells people that their worth has lessened if they haven’t achieved amazing things or become famous. As Christians, we know that our dignity comes from who we are as creations of God, not in how well we can do something.

FVasek: I want to stick with this question of the influence athletes (and other celebrities) have over society. About a year ago, there was some scuttle between Lebron James and another athlete about Lebron’s political activism. Basically, the other athlete told Lebron to stick to sports and keep his political opinions to himself. Lebron’s responding by saying, “There is no way I would ever just stick to sports. I know how powerful my voice is.” He made the point that he tries to keep himself educated on these topics, so he basically responded by saying that the fact that he is an athlete shouldn’t mean that he has to be quiet.

And that’s a good point. Of course, we want people to be well-formed if they are going to speak from a large platform, but wouldn’t we want Christian athletes, for instance, to use their platforms to speak about their faith? Their platform is massive in modernity, especially due to social media. I think it’s important to at least suggest to athletes and coaches that they recognize their visibility and that platform and take it seriously. They can shape or deform a culture.

In your experience in working with scholar-athletes and coaches, do you agree with that? Do you see them as having a responsibility to use their platform, or should they simply focus on competing and winning?

TW: To go back to the Lebron James situation, I agree: the fact that he’s an athlete doesn’t mean he can’t speak. He can still speak, he’s still a person. Whether or not we listen to him is on us. He has a platform and an audience and he’s leveraging that to speak into something that is important to him.

One of the greatest honors of my life – apart from my wife saying “yes” to marrying me – was being invited to a conference entitled “Sport at the Service of Humanity” at the Vatican in 2016. Almost 200 people gathered to discuss how sport serves humanity in so many different ways – we had people from the Olympics, as well as the Special Olympics and Paralympics, representatives from the government of Norway, the prince of Jordan, and the president of the NCAA. Peace was one of the main topics. In the Middle East, the idea was to help facilitate peace by bringing two cultures that don’t like each other to play soccer against each other. When you get all the players involved and people hear them say, “We shouldn’t be going to each other’s throats, let’s try to understand our differences,” it makes a difference. So why wouldn’t we want people that platform to promote peace? It seems like there is a responsibility and duty to use that platform.

A soccer player preparing to kick the ball

Finding God's Greatness

Fr. Chase Hilgenbrinck, a priest and retired professional soccer player, spoke with Fr. Craig Vasek, Athletics Chaplain of the University of Mary, on virtue, greatness, and sport.

Finding God's Greatness

As Christians, we believe in God’s providence, we believe that he has a will for our lives, and we want to submit to his will. So when student-athletes and coaches find themselves with that platform, they should recognize that God willed them to participate in it. And he’s also willed, at least passively, that such a platform and “megaphone” exists. So the question is, “What is God willing for me right now in terms of using this platform?” If God’s providential love has placed me on a platform in this moment, he is probably willing me to use it for my sanctification and for the sanctification of as many people as possible, whether it be promoting peace, the dignity of the human person, equality issues, and so on. It doesn’t always have to be a theological message – it can just simply be about human dignity.

FVasek: I was edified to see some beautiful testimonies given this summer at the Olympics. When athletes win a medal and have just a few moments to say whatever they want and they choose to use it for good, it’s very inspiring. Of course, if we’re going to use a platform for good, we have a responsibility to figure out what the good really is.

This is a slight change of gears: I’ve heard you speak before about the idea that athletics is a “leveraged arena.” I’m not sure if that phrase is original to you or not, but at the very least, I heard it from you first and you’ve spoken about it so well. Could you walk us through what you mean by “leveraged arena,” especially in regard to college athletics?

TW: Let’s start with college campuses in general. Curtis Martin, who is the CEO of FOCUS, often explains that FOCUS concentrates on college campuses because they are the most leveraged area of society. All these young people – future leaders – are gathered in close proximity, living and studying together, for four or five years. So as Catholics, we need to be sure that we’re in the midst of all that formation. College campuses are leveraged places because when students graduate and leave, they’re going to go out in all different areas of culture. You’re getting an incredible return on investment for spending time with those young people who will become leaders of society 10 years later.

When you step onto a college campus, one of the most leveraged areas of the campus in terms of shaping culture is athletics. It’s the student-athletes. So college campuses are leveraged areas of our culture, and athletics is the most leveraged area of that most leveraged area.

FVasek: So if our endeavor is to reach a generation – and the next generation, and the next generation, and so on – and athletics forms a central platform in our culture, we have a responsibility to be present among scholar-athletes. Imagine how society would be transformed if our most famous athletes were deeply rooted in God, in the truth of who they are, in the truth of the Gospel. People already want to wear what famous athletes wear: imagine what could happen if one of those athletes said, “I wake up every morning and I pray for half an hour.” People listen to athletes, so we absolutely need to reach them.

TW: Matt Birk, a retired center for the Minnesota Vikings and Baltimore Ravens, is an example of an athlete who has used his platform well. He’s made this point so often: no matter what sport or level you’ve played it, you have a platform if you are or were a college athlete. If you played the least popular sport at the lowest collegiate level, people will still respect that. Because it’s hard to be a student-athlete! Out of the 20,000,000-or-so people who are in college across the country in any given year, only 500,000 are college athletes. We can debate whether athletes should have such a powerful platform, but the fact is that they have it.

When we look at those who are currently participating in college athletics, how many are going to be coaches someday: coaches at the college level, or the professional level, or the high school level, or the youth level? Coaches are extremely influential in peoples’ lives. There’s something like over 180 Catholic colleges and universities in our country with athletic departments. If every coach in those departments were a disciple, the culture of the entire campus would shift. But now let’s take a step back: there are 1,200-or-so Catholic high schools in the country. In many cases we’ve begun to lose our Catholic identity in those schools, but if a coach steps in an as a missionary disciple and lights his team on fire, that can cause the entire culture of athletics at that school and then the culture of that school to catch fire even more radically than at the college level. And then all of a sudden, you’re evangelizing young people all across the country in much more radical ways and much more quickly than you can be trying to hire a good principal.

One point I don’t think we want to overlook is how young people can influence and evangelize their parents. I know a story of a family that started going to Mass because their son was on a high school soccer team with an amazing Christian coach. So the son underwent a conversion and got fired up and went to Mass and took his parents with him. And now his parents are on fire for the Faith. They’re amazing people and are living the Faith in amazing ways.

We should be evangelizing in strategic ways. God gave us an intellect and the ability to discern things, so let’s pray in radical ways for God’s grace to bear fruit in that. Let’s be clear: our first reason for ministering to college athletes and bringing them to the Gospel is because their souls matter. But it’s also important to recognize the platform they have and understand what it means to say that college athletics is a leveraged arena. It’s a strategically important place for us to be to bring the Gospel message to the world.

A Student Looks at Pikes Peak

To Address Poverty in All Its Forms

Curtis Martin, Founder and CEO of FOCUS, joined Msgr. James P. Shea to discuss his experience in evangelization and the formation of university students.

To Address Poverty in All Its Forms

Pope St. Paul VI talked about the need to be a witness first and foremost in evangelization, but then also to proclaim the Gospel. We have to be witnesses, but we also have to proclaim Jesus Christ. We can’t be really good and then think people are going to be transformed because of that. How are they going to know why you’re living a good life if you don’t tell them who Jesus is and give them a reason for your hope?

FVasek: When I arrived at the University of Mary to serve as athletics chaplain, the athletic director told me, “Father, you’re only one person and we have more than 450 scholar-athletes. So I think you need to see your role as being like Jesus, and all these coaches are your 12 apostles. You invest in them, and they will invest in their scholar-athletes.” How fantastic is that? He was being playful, but it’s beautiful, and I think it’s to your point. A handful of people – or even one person – living the Faith can impact and shift an entire culture. I’ve been edified to hear you articulate it because you’ve been working on it for so long and state it so clearly.

I have a question for you that might be way off topic, but I want to get your thoughts on it. I’ve seen so many scholar-athletes begin to experience a serious conversion who then want to quit their sports and leave their teams. As they undergo these beautiful conversions, their priorities begin to shift: they find that their sports are no longer as important in the grand scheme of their lives and they want to dedicate more time to the Faith. So many of these students discover the Faith and want to double down and really invest in it, and that’s beautiful. How would you respond to that situation in a general way? Each case is different, and I’m just springing this question on you, but I would love to hear your thoughts.

TW: Coach Jay Phillips and Mount St. Mary’s University helped me to understand this situation in a significant way. There is a vocational aspect to sport. I’m not talking about “big-V-Vocation,” but day-in-and-day-out “lower-case-v-vocation.” In his providence, God has desired for and allowed for young people to become student-athletes in their own particular moment in time. I think we can understand that to mean he wants to use that experience to sanctify that individual. It’s that simple. So when a student-athlete begins to realize that God is the most important thing in their lives, we need to help them to recognize the position he has put them in. That reality is the same for all of us no matter what we do: if you’re a garbage man, or a teacher, or a doctor, God wants to sanctify you through your ordinary experiences in life. So I don’t think the right answer is for these athletes to quit their sports, but rather to readjust some of their priorities. Again, in some cases, God may be asking for someone to go off somewhere else. But I don’t think that should be the first thing we think of. The first question a student-athlete should ask is how God is going to make them a saint and call them to witness where they are in life right now. Why would we want to abandon the course God has willed us to be on – either actively or passively – that has helped us to have this conversion? Instead, the question we should ask is, “Lord, what do you want me to do right here, right now?”

As a Christian, I can look at every moment of my life and know that God is using it to make me the saint he wants me to be. As a college athlete, everything you experience is part of that, from tripping during sprints, to spraining an ankle, to getting sweat in your eye during practice, to winning a championship, to being benched, to being rejected by teammates when you ask them if they want to be in a Bible study. When a college athlete recognizes that this is their vocation at this point of their life, they step out onto the court or the rink or the field with a new motivation, knowing that everything that happens to them is about their sanctification and glorifying God. This is their mission field now. Don’t quit!

But for someone in the midst of a new conversion, mission might be too intense to think about right away. So instead, we can invite them to recognize the amazing things God is doing in their lives now through the struggle and the competition of college sports. They can accept all those moments of suffering and offer them back to God.

FVasek: That’s beautiful. I’m thankful for your insights and reflections here. I want to take that last response and show it to Christian athletes and coaches over and over again.

Before we end, I want to express my gratitude to you for writing Compete Inside: 100 Reflections to Help You Become the Complete Athlete. We’ve used it here with our scholar-athletes at the University of Mary, and our coaches tell me how important it is because it helps their athletes to process what is going on inside them and it helps them to be understanding of what other people on their team might be going through at any given time. We’re going to be purchasing another load of them for our scholar-athletes. Thank you for that resource.

TW: Thank you for being an athletic department I can come to. Because the University of Mary sees the potential for what could be done through athletics and is actually doing it, you’re offering an example, and even other high schools and other colleges can look to you and imitate you.

FVasek: Along with faith, because we’ve focused on character development at the service of virtue, we’ve had other schools – some Catholic, some not Catholic – recognize how impactful such a focus can be in the lives of young people and on the culture of a school. It’s beautiful to hear that our work is impacting our students so much that other institutions are taking note. So thank you for that, and thank you for your time.

TW: This is beautiful. Thank you!

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