Amid the growing call for more lay involvement in responding to the Church’s clerical sex abuse crisis, Notre Dame Professor Clark Power believes sports can play a novel role in rebuilding the Church’s moral credibility.

Power, who is a faculty member in the Program of Liberal Studies, focuses his research on moral development and education. He’s also founded and serves as the executive director of the non-profit Play Like a Champion Today, which educates players, coaches, and parents alike in building character through inclusive, safe environments.

Earlier this month the university hosted a daylong conference on “Sports, Education, and Pastoral Care,” and in a follow-up interview with Crux, Power describes how sports ministry is one of the Church’s largest ministries, but how it needs more institutional support to thrive.

Crux: What are some examples in the U.S. where you see sports playing a vital role in Catholic ministries? 

Power: As far as I know, there are Catholic sponsored youth sports programs in every major city in the United States. Play Like a Champion Today “partners” with parish and school-based programs in about sixty dioceses right now. Youth sports minister to or serve children in two ways. First, they can give children an opportunity to play together for the sheer joy of the social experience (Play, as we discussed in our symposium, is essential to children’s welfare and development). For over fifty years now children’s playtime has been decreasing, and that seems to be at the root of skyrocketing rates of depression and anxiety disorders. Second, youth sports can develop a range of virtues from justice to courage (or “grit”). My research on youth sports participation indicates that team sports are particularly effective in teaching selflessness and social responsibility or as coaches put it, “there is no ‘I’ in team.”

I am most excited about some of the collaborative efforts that involve Catholic sponsored programs that include children, non-Catholic as well as Catholic, in economically distressed communities.

Do you see sports as a way to lessen the divide between clergy and the laity?

First, let me address the divide. For years now I have been writing to bishops informing them they have thousands of educated and deeply committed youth sports “ministers” in their dioceses. I have explained that our clinics explicitly prepare our coaches’ to assume a variety of ministerial functions from building community to providing moral and spiritual direction. Only a few bishops have responded.

Youth sports may be the single largest ministry in the American Catholic Church. Our bishops and priests must not only demonstrate that they appreciate the contribution that our lay sport administrators and coaches are making but give them the organizational and financial support necessary for their work.

I think the bishops and clergy generally should support youth sports as vehicle for what Jesuit Father Greg Boyle describes as “kinship.” Coaching is a ministry of love to children beyond one’s nuclear family. In the spirit of the Gospel, bishops and laity alike need to call each other to care for the children at the margins of our society where we can learn to love and be loved. I believe it would be helpful for priests to spend at least some time in youth sport programs, whether Catholic-sponsored or not, that serve the children in economically distressed communities.

Why, in your view, have the U.S. bishops never formally weighed in on the value of sports in youth ministry?

This is a complicated issue. In 1930, Bishop Sheil of Chicago, who was known as “the Apostle of youth,” founded the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) because he could no longer stomach accompanying young men to the gallows in the Cook County jail. Rooted in Catholic social teaching and committed to the values of democracy, diversity, and inclusion, Sheil organized the CYO to serve all the children in the city without regard to “race, creed, or color.” The CYO flourished in Chicago and spread to dioceses around the country. As historian Tim Neary explains, Sheil’s civically engaged approach did not fare well in post-war America. The American Catholic Church turned its focus from civic matters, such as addressing poverty and racism, to “the nuclear family, personal piety, and anticommunism.”

CYO leaders themselves lost sight of their original mission and most CYOs became simply sports organizations for Catholic children. With the sharp decline of priests and the “clericalization of the laity,” clergy and laity alike have focused on service to the (institutional) Church itself rather than on service to the world. The original, generous mission of Sheil’s CYO has been largely lost. Catholic parishes and schools have unwittingly replicated the growing inequality in our society - neglecting children in the poor neighborhoods that the Church left behind.

I don’t think that Americans, let alone the clergy, are fully aware of how income inequality is hurting the poor in our society, particularly children who live in economically distressed communities. The bishops and the priests are among the privileged in our class divided country and they suffer the isolation that comes from that. Income segregation has led to separate and unequal youth sports systems in the United States. Youth sport participation among the “haves” is increasing while it is declining among the “have nots.” The “haves” see youth sports as an investment in their children’s futures. They have the means to “pay” for their children to “play.” With the decline of public funding and community funding for sports and recreational programs generally, sports are becoming what they were in the 19th century - a “privilege for the privileged.”

You’ve argued that sports have long played a historic role in peace building. How so?

We are all familiar with the role that sports have played in the Olympic Games. Sports bring people together from all races, creeds, and walks of life. In his acclaimed, Crossing Parish Boundaries: Race, Sports, and Catholic Youth in Chicago, 1914-1954, Tim Neary shows how sports helped to build bridges across highly segregated Chicago neighborhoods. Recently, the Play Like a Champion program launched an initiative, “A Team for Every Child” to make sure every child, regardless of his or her athletic ability, family income, or zip code, can play on a team. This is a concrete and effective way of demonstrating how much we care for all of our children.

There is another kind of “peace-building” that we are attempting in communities that have significant street gangs. This peace building occurs through giving the children the opportunity to play on sports teams that are organized to function as communities.

Do you really think sports are one means in which the Church can credibly help folks recover from the clergy sexual abuse crisis?

The ongoing sexual abuse crisis, which has lasted 33 years now, has eroded the laity’s trust in the clergy and, in particular, the bishops. Lay Catholics have long lost patience in clerical leaders. At the very least, the American bishops have to demonstrate that they sincerely believe children’s lives really matter. Youth sports give the bishops an opportunity to follow the example of Bishop Sheil by supporting the most vulnerable children in our society.

To have moral credibility, our leaders need to do this out of love for the children themselves, not because they want to bring more children into the pews or Catholic schools.

Children in poor communities lack the opportunities to play sports that children in affluent communities take for granted. The Catholic Church already has youth sport organizations with educated coaches in cities across the country. But many of those organizations lack ties to poor communities and the financial resources to serve the poor as the Gospel demands. There is no question that youth sports are a powerful way of helping children. A growing body of social science research shows that youth sports can have a powerful influence on children’s mental as well as physical health and on their life trajectories more generally.