May 29, 2015

Faith and Family / Sean Gallagher

The virtue of fair play will go on

Sean GallagherMy 10-year-old son Raphael started playing football last fall as part of the league organized by the archdiocesan Catholic Youth Organization (CYO). He had previously watched Indianapolis Colts and University of Notre Dame football games with me for years, and was excited to get on the field himself.

At the time, the National Football League (NFL) was embroiled in a controversy dealing with various players who had been accused of domestic violence. It eventually caused the league to stiffen its policies against players who commit such crimes, and to publicly advocate against them and for help for their victims.

Raphael was somewhat aware of the controversy, but my wife, Cindy, and I didn’t sit down and speak with him about it. At his age, we felt that, among other things, it was better to focus on giving him good examples to follow rather than using bad examples as object lessons.

We also focus on giving him good principles to follow in his behavior in his family and among his friends. Raphael’s participation in CYO football was one way of instilling those good principles. It also gave him a laboratory in which to put them into practice in his interaction with his coaches, teammates and opponents.

This has been one of the purposes of athletic competition across cultures and history. It’s so universal that one could easily argue that the natural promotion of good behavior through athletics, broadly speaking, is part of human nature.

Even in the face of the deeply criminal and immoral off-the-field behavior of a handful of NFL players, people across the country have reacted strongly to the finding of a league investigation that New England Patriots personnel, including four-time Super Bowl champion quarterback Tom Brady, were involved in intentionally deflating footballs used in the American Football Conference (AFC) championship played against the Indianapolis Colts on Jan. 18 and in previous games.

Part of the reaction to the attempt to manipulate the game is undoubtedly related to team loyalties and the continual burgeoning popularity of the NFL. But surely part of it is also rooted in an instinctively deep valuing of fair play—across all human behavior. We naturally want there to be a level playing field for everyone. And when someone intentionally tries to skirt the rules that keep it level, we don’t like it and let others know about it

We may use adult words to express our displeasure, but it’s not much different from kids on a playground shouting, “Not fair!” to what they believe was an act of cheating by their opponents.

The irony in this most recent NFL controversy is that the Patriots did not need to cheat to defeat the Colts in last January’s AFC Championship Game. But because the preponderance of the evidence shows that they did—and then tried to cover up their infractions—more people will probably remember the cheating than their play on the field in blowing out the Colts 45-7.

No matter how often prominent football players like Tom Brady give bad example by breaking the rules, Cindy, I, Raphael’s CYO coaches and other adults in his life will continue to focus on instilling in him a broad array of virtues, including the valuing and modeling of fair play.

While we believe that the Catholic faith that undergirds CYO will help us in this task, we recognize that virtues can be encouraged apart from faith. Gridiron greats and the good and bad things they do on and off the field come and go. But the virtue of fair play will go on. †

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