The late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Byron R. “Whizzer” White once said that upon rising each morning, he’d have his breakfast while reading the morning newspaper — and he always began with the sports section. Why? “Because,” he told a biographer, “I’d rather read about man’s successes before I begin to read about his failures.”
White knew a great deal about athletic success. He was a halfback at the University of Colorado, where some enterprising sportswriter gave him the nickname of “Whizzer,” which White detested. After graduating, he signed a professional contract with the Pittsburgh team of the National Football League. They were called the Pirates back then, but later became the now-famous Steelers.
In 1938, “Whizzer’s” rookie year, he led the league in rushing and became its highest paid player. White competed in the league for two more years before World War II broke out and he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. He served as an intelligence officer in the Pacific, and in a twist of fate, Lieutenant Byron White wrote the Navy’s official report on the sinking of Patrol Boat 109 and the ordeal of its men, led by another lieutenant, John F. Kennedy.
Later, it was President John F. Kennedy who appointed White to the U.S. Supreme Court. While on the court, White wrote a dissenting opinion on the Roe v. Wade case that legalized abortion; he was usually given criminal cases by Chief Justice Earl Warren because White was known to often take a harder, more conservative line on those cases than some other court members.
So why all this about “Whizzer” White?
The truth is, Justice White isn’t really the subject of this particular missive. It’s about athletics — about what they teach, what they provide for young men and women. And it’s about how often the dignity of sport, of competition, is abused by adults. It’s about how athletics can sometimes bring out the worst in human beings.
St. John Paul II, an avid athlete in his youth, once lauded the moral value of sports, according to a 2012 Catholic News Service (CNS) story. He said athletic endeavors “are a training ground of virtue.”
But all too often, adults — some of them living vicariously through the exploits of their children — turn sports into a breeding ground for vice.
We all know stories of little league coaches — grown men coaching 10- to 12-year-old boys and girls — who come to blows over some disagreement on the field.
And each football season we hear of a pee-wee league coach or parent somewhere who goes temporarily insane and attacks a referee, a coach, or even in some abominable cases, a young player.
We are a nation obsessed with sports for good or bad, and while the good that springs from athletics — they often provide a chance for young people to attend
college who otherwise wouldn’t — they can also be a corrupting and negative influence.
Pope Francis loves athletics, too — soccer in particular. Last summer the pope met with members of the Argentine and Italian national soccer teams and was said by CNS to be “beaming” during the encounter. The news service reported that the pope gave a brief speech to the players, reminding them that they should maintain the spirit and passion of soccer, but remember that it is a game and a team sport.
He asked the players to take responsibility for the fact that “for millions of people, young and old,” they are heroes and role models. “Be aware of this and set an example of loyalty, respect and altruism,” the pope said. “I have confidence in all the good you can do among the young.”
Which brings us to the bottom line reason for writing about sports. Next weekend at St. Margaret Mary Church, the parish is hosting a day-long workshop called “Play Like a Champion Today” for its coaches, players and parents. If those words sound familiar, they should. They are emblazoned on the wall of a stairway taken to the field each day by the University of Notre Dame football team.
The workshop, said Father Stephen Pohl, the parish pastor, is designed to remind parents, players and coaches that even in the midst of competition, they must remember they are “disciples who know, love and serve God.”
“Sports for our young people can be part of the new evangelization,” Father Pohl said in a recent telephone interview. Competitive athletics “have a role to play” in helping form young people to be disciples of Christ, he said.
In a press release about next Sunday’s event, Father Pohl wrote that “the Catholic Church has long recognized the intrinsic value of sports and academics in developing the physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual aspects” of young people, parents and coaches alike.
No doubt Pope Francis would agree. And no doubt he would remind us all to keep athletic competition in perspective. A lot of good comes from competition, but we should remember that even before the contests begin, the teams must cooperate, must agree to compete.
It’s all just a game, remember. A game that can teach, that can both humble and support us. And with good sportsmanship, it can help us become the person that God wants us to be.