With the new school year underway, educators at every level have been required to make changes in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. On college campuses, these changes include online learning, smaller class sizes, and the face coverings and social distancing that is now commonplace.
Athletics departments, which rely heavily on community and face-to-face interaction, have some major changes to make to ensure the health and safety of the athletes while continuing to help form the next generation of Catholics. Despite these obstacles, athletics departments and other outreach programs continue to dedicate themselves to the physical, mental and spiritual development of their students.
Body and Soul
When it comes to athletics, Catholic colleges do much more for students than train their bodies to excel in competition. Charles Gartenmayer, the director of athletics at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, told the Register that athletics departments in Catholic colleges have slightly different priorities than their secular counterparts.
“Our goal is for our students to get their degree, have a strong walk with Christ, get along with others, and become leaders,” he said.
Gartenmayer pointed out that the young people coming through Catholic colleges right now will someday become parents, members of parish communities, clergy or representatives of religious orders. Likewise, those students who come through the athletics department at these institutions have an opportunity not only to become exceptional athletes, but exemplary Catholic leaders.
Scott Greve, the director of athletics for Franciscan University of Steubenville, has a similar goal in his own department. “We tell our student athletes and our staff and coaches that the No. 1 goal each year is that we are all closer to Jesus at the end of the year.”
Varsity Catholic, a division of Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) sends missionaries to serve student athletes in more than 50 athletics departments across the country. For some student athletes, the outreach of Varsity Catholic is their only source of faith formation.
Thomas Wurtz, the founder of Varsity Catholic, describes how the ministry is implemented on campuses: “Our model is what Jesus did himself. Can we raise up, invest and mentor like he did? Inspire, motivate and launch students to become evangelists, as well? We don’t just receive but share Jesus with others.”
The question raised across Catholic campuses is “How do we seek out and evangelize when a national crisis demands we remain isolated?” Overall, the health-and-safety restrictions set in place during the outbreak have been a heavy blow to departments that embrace Jesus’ call to “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). For many athletics departments, competition with other universities has been postponed.
“The hardest thing is the uncertainty that comes with this season,” said Emma Strecker, the captain of women’s soccer at Benedictine College. “At one point we thought we would all have to be quarantined for two weeks. Each day that we play could be our last day, because you never really know.” With games and tournaments being postponed or canceled, student athletes seek stability in their day-to-day routines.
Wurtz has observed athletes who struggle to find purpose for their training now that competition isn’t possible: “Athletes are given affirmations for what they accomplish, and the majority develop a sense of self-worth attached to achievement and accomplishment. When they’re not competing, they are wrestling with self-worth. ‘What’s the point? What’s the purpose if I can’t compete?’”
Greve elaborated on how the postponement of competition has changed the perspective of students at Franciscan: “Throughout the year we are usually gearing up to compete. … When that was taken away, especially in spring 2020, we had to refocus. It was a proud moment, because our student athletes took charge in refocusing. To watch them refocus and say ‘What is the Lord calling us to? If we don’t have competition, what do we have? What opportunities do we have to bring the love of Jesus to other people?’ the students at Franciscan have turned their attention to preparing physically, emotionally and spiritually for what God is asking of them. Some have begun to offer up their training as a sacrifice for a person or cause.
Marc Halberg, a junior on the men’s soccer team at Benedictine, expressed a similar optimism when it came to athletics during COVID: “It’s easy to get caught up in the world of college sports, but this is such a real-life thing that it helps us adapt to life in general. We can look back and take experience from this. We’ve changed it from a hardship into an opportunity to do something more, to change a negative into a positive.”
Clearly, more is on the line than just competing with other universities. These athletes have been training themselves spiritually as they practice sports, and that dual focus is proving invaluable in the absence of a tangible goal such as competition.
This fall, athletic departments and other outreach programs have made adjustments to how they minister to students. Charles Gartenmayer and his fellow staff members at Benedictine have developed the “Raven Safety Plan,” named for the school’s mascot. The plan involves mitigation, identification and care. All student athletes were tested upon arrival on campus. Students submit to daily screenings before practices, and the athletes are divided into smaller groups (between nine and 11 students per group) for soccer and volleyball. For football practice, varsity and freshman have been training separately. Gartenmayer stressed the importance of universal precautions being taken in every school department. “We can’t be in a situation where we do things in silos. We have to continue to have strong communication between everyone and to work extra hard to make sure it’s consistent,” he said.
The athletic department at Franciscan has implemented similar precautions. Students are screened daily before practice and wear masks when not on the field. Varsity Catholic has modified its Bible studies to an online format, as Wurtz felt that it was still important to reach out to these students even if they weren’t physically present on campus. “For some athletes it became their rock in their schedule. Student athletes are used to having their schedule mapped out for them. Many of them didn’t know how to schedule their time, because in a sense it has been done for them. For some of them it was a blessing that they have at least one piece of their week that’s consistent, an ability to talk to their peers about things of significance.”
Run the Race
Regardless of whether the athlete is religious or not, sports are an avenue toward virtue. The potential for sports to create more virtuous people is often overshadowed by the demands put upon athletes to win at all costs.
Catholic athletics departments have been focused on both the competitive and spiritual success of athletes for some time, but during the pandemic, the spiritual has taken center stage.
Students still find it worthwhile to gather with their team every day, despite the absence of the recognition that comes with competing against other schools.
During this health crisis, Catholic athletic departments have an even greater opportunity to focus on the ultimate goal of creating young people who are trained not only in body, but also in spirit.
Wurtz explained this goal aptly: “Why do we invest in sports as Catholic schools? My hope is that as a Church we can understand the depth of it more. Yes, it’s about character; yes, it’s about virtue. But it’s also about much more. To be an athlete, you have to die to yourself in certain ways. It’s hard to push ourselves, to give up things, to have self-control. We can connect that to our soul.”
Register correspondent Hannah Kubiak writes from Milwaukee.