Picture this: It’s a weekend afternoon. The boys of the neighborhood have gathered for their weekly game of stickball. The teams have been picked, and the ground rules have been laid. As usual, Mrs. Bruin’s Oldsmobile will serve as third base. If the ball bounces once before landing in old man Kotter’s flower garden, it’s an automatic double.
This scene was quite familiar to Bill Thierfelder, president of Belmont Abbey College in Charlotte, N.C., growing up in the Bronx. However, in his opinion, it is an unfortunate reality that such imaginative, spontaneous play has become a thing of the past.
“Play is a universal theme. As far back as we know it, we have examples of play (and religion) being present. Every human being is then wired, in a sense, to play,” says Thierfelder, who has his doctorate in sports psychology.
Thierfelder says that what has happened over the past generation or two is that sports have lost their free, unstructured and creative flavor.
“I think that the proliferation of professional sports and their advances in competition for money are to blame,” he says. “In order to draw in large sums of money, the professional athlete is no longer a player, but rather a worker. To call someone an NFL player is a misnomer. He is paid to do what he does. He is thus no longer playing the game, but working.”
This observation is nothing new, according to Theirfelder. He cites St. Francis de Sales, who observed in the 16th century, “Games of skill, which exercise and strengthen body or mind, such as tennis, rackets, running at the ring, chess and the like, are in themselves both lawful and good. Only one must avoid excess in the time given to them and in the amount of interest they absorb. For too much time to be given up to such things will cause them to cease to become a recreation and instead become an occupation.”
Thierfelder notes that the loss of the communal nature of our society and a local parish has caused parents to organize their kids to play freely or on sports teams not in the neighborhood, but elsewhere. Thus, the proliferation of traveling teams and endless tournaments outside of one’s hometown have become the norm.
“Kids thus are no longer just playing baseball and imagining home runs over the bushes. Rather, they now have moms and dads standing up cheering. Play is now on a regulation field, with lined-out fields and fancy uniforms.”

Put God First
In Green Bay, Wis., Christina Pallini knows well the need for balance when it comes to juggling faith, family and sports. In short, she and her husband have found that putting God first is the key for a healthy family life for their four children ages 12 to 19.
“From basketball, soccer to football, my kids have been on traveling teams and in out-of-state tournaments,” Pallini says. “We have been in a number of different cities on Sunday mornings, but we always went to church. If we had to be at the soccer field at 10am, we would be a little late.”
She is an admirer of Blessed John Paul II, who was himself an avid skier and outdoorsman. In his Jubilee “Homily to People of Sports” in October 2000, the late Pope said, “It is a fitting occasion to give thanks to God for the gift of sport, in which the human person exercises his body, intellect and will, recognizing these abilities as so many gifts of his Creator. Sports contribute to the love of life; teach sacrifice, respect and responsibility, leading to the full development of every human person.”
Pallini says there have been times when she and her husband have had to say “No” to a particular tournament or different event. “I tell my kids that we cannot do it all. We have to make decisions.
“Sports are a good thing, and as long as we keep God as our God and not sports as our god, then everything falls into place.”

Field of Virtue
Theirfelder is a big believer that sports, when properly ordered, are wonderful teachers of virtue.
That attitude is something that Coach Bill Milhalski has taken to heart in Pulaski, Wis. For close to a decade now, Milhalski has been coaching junior varsity baseball at a public high school. He tries to instill virtues into his players.
“I tell the kids that performance in the classroom takes precedence over playing on the ball field,” he says. “I encourage my players to be disciplined and work hard in the routine of practice. Good performance in practice equals good performance in games. Striving for perfection on the field and off the field is key.”
For the most part, baseball at Pulaski High is still played as a game and not “work.”
In the eyes of Thierfelder, that is a good thing. His advice for communities where sports have lost their character of play is: Return them to the parish level.
“Sports should be a part of our parish community. I would say that we should be building up activities and team sports within our parishes, rather than going to traveling teams, which are destructive to families because families aren’t together anymore: Your schedule is now dictated by whoever made up the soccer schedule. Better parish life and keeping activities focused on the parish level is the way to go.”
Overall, Thierfelder advises families to ask themselves, “Are prayer and the sacraments first in our family lives before we commit to practice and game schedules?”

Eddie O’Neill writes from
Green Bay, Wisconsin.