Can a Catholic Hoops Conference Save College Sports?

Photo by Saed Hindash/The Star-Ledger
Seton Hall Pirates v. Rutgers Scarlet Knights on Feb. 12. Photo by Saed Hindash/The Star-Ledger

March Madness ended with an exhilarating April flourish on Monday as the Louisville Cardinals defeated the Michigan Wolverines and became the new kings of college basketball after a tense 82-76 win in Atlanta.

But the euphoria that always accompanies the popular NCAA tournament may be short-lived this year, as media attention returns to an unprecedented spate of crises that have prompted grave concern about the ethics of college sports.

Chief among the outrages is the ongoing backlash over an abusive basketball coach at Rutgers University, but the sex abuse scandal in the Penn State football program also remains fresh in the public’s mind.

A litany of other alleged acts of malfeasance involving the NCAA, big-time schools, high-profile coaches and student athletes also continues to undermine the credibility of college programs, while concerns are growing about the pernicious influence of huge television contracts, especially for college football games.

Yet amid this tumult, a brand-new basketball conference composed almost entirely of Catholic schools is set to emerge this summer, which some say could point the way toward a new, or perhaps old-fashioned, model of college sports — and maybe even burnish the church’s image along the way.

Some are hoping that’s the case as a revamped Big East basketball conference rolls out this summer with at least seven Catholic colleges and perhaps several more.

The Catholic Seven, as the new American Athletic Conference has been dubbed, is being organized by DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, St. John’s, Seton Hal,l and Villanova, and will likely include Creighton, Dayton, St. Louis, and Xavier, as well as Butler.

All have basketball programs, but none have football teams that earn lots of television money — but also cost lots to run. (The physical toll of football on young men is also a growing ethical concern.)

While the new division will have at least one non-Catholic member (Butler), the virtual denominational monopoly is unique, and brings expectations as well as risks.

“It is an opportunity to say we are a Catholic school, we are in the image of Jesus Christ and these are our gospel values and how we live them,” Ray McKenna, founder and president of Catholic Athletes for Christ, told the Catholic weekly Our Sunday Visitor.

“I think that is a real potential opportunity, especially when the league is predominantly made of Catholic teams,” McKenna added.

Even if all the players are not Catholic, the academic standards at Catholic schools — plus their focus on community service — “could help institutions reconnect their sports programs to their missions, and reinvigorate their religious identities at a time when important groups on campus fear it’s slipping away,” as Associated Press higher education writer Justin Pope put it.

Some are also cheering for the new conference to succeed for other reasons: They say that by breaking away in protest, these schools are offering a corrective example to the way that big-money programs,especially in football, are driving (some say warping) amateur sports.

“The role of athletics within higher education has dramatically changed over the past several decades as many schools seem to chase commercialism rather than fulfilling their institutional and educational missions,” said Warren Zola, an assistant dean at Boston College’s Carroll School of Management and an expert on the business of college sports.

Zola said this has resulted in intercollegiate relationships based on sharing pots of money rather than values, and the new Catholic conference “harkens back to a day when alliances and conferences were based on institutions with shared philosophies rather than revenue as a priority. Regardless of whether those alliances are based on religion, shared educational philosophy, or geography, conferences of similar schools is a positive.”

The AAC, which officially launches on July 1, is “a risky venture,” wrote Yahoo sports columnist Pat Forde, because the new conference will likely lose money at first by separating from “the football-enhanced Big East teat.”

But, Forde added, “in a mercenary college athletics world drunk on dollars and disdainful of both common sense and the common fan, it’s nice to see one group declare that something else matters more. Identity matters more. Equality matters more. By breaking away from the Big East, the Catholic Seven will reclaim both.”

Indeed, the new conference recalls the roots of these colleges as urban-centered schools who used lower-cost basketball programs as a way to serve and champion the children of new immigrants. A conference of sibling schools could also revive natural rivalries that have often been torn asunder by constant realignments.

There are serious risks, however.

If the conference is viewed as “too Catholic,” it could hinder recruiting. And while many of these schools have strong programs or past successes, they will have to chalk up wins if the AAC is to survive its good intentions. The big money still flows to football, so an all-hoops conference must be better than average to break out.

Moreover, history has shown that religion is no protection from scandal, nor is faith a guarantee of fairness.

In fact, Iowa’s Grinnell College recently became the focus of controversy after its basketball team breached etiquette (and maybe ethics) by running up the score against a hapless foe from Faith Baptist College, which Grinnell defeated 179-104.

The twist? The Grinnell player who led the blowout — and scored an NCAA record 138 points in playing the entire game — is an evangelical Christian who credited God for helping him crush an overmatched opponent: “He definitely multiplied my talents that night. His fingerprints were all over that game.”

David Gibson is an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He is a national reporter for Religion News Service and has written two books on Catholic topics, the latest a biography of Pope Benedict XVI. Via RNS.

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