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Frank Deford
March 03, 1986
Catholic colleges in the U.S. have enjoyed marked success in big-time basketball, but, as the author suggests, this may be a mixed blessing
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March 03, 1986

A Heavenly Game?

Catholic colleges in the U.S. have enjoyed marked success in big-time basketball, but, as the author suggests, this may be a mixed blessing

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Harold Jensen, a junior who came off the bench to shoot five-for-five in last season's 66-64 championship game win over Georgetown, says, "I like it and everyone on the team likes it—blending in with the students. Basically, most of us here have the same ambitions, whether or not we're playing basketball."

The players, in fact, seem at least psychologically seamless with other students, a majority of whom prepped at private schools and are neat, polite and well-mannered—ideal accoutrements for the lush, rolling Main Line turf they inhabit. "They are," Dan Regan says (and not unkindly), "very satisfied with themselves." Dianne Sugg, the editor of the student newspaper, The Villanovan, says Villanova students possess "a certain mind-set." What? "They're looking to make it big."

The paradox in this is that while most of the students at Villanova are playing it safe by choosing the college, the basketball player who selects 'Nova must, in coach Rollie Massimino's words, "be a little bit of a maverick." After all, for the most part the players are outsiders—blacks in a white school, and for the most part non-Catholics among Catholics. Harold Pressley, a black Catholic from Mystic, Conn., who is the team's leading scorer this year, acknowledges that he was "a little uncomfortable at first" when he came to Villanova, but he was soon enough at ease. "You're able to get the feel about what people are like here," he says. Pressley obviously found the right crowd, for his stated ambition is "to be rich." Jensen wants to work on Wall Street this coming summer. Gary McLain, the team's little playmaker last year, who wasn't quite big enough or good enough for the NBA, didn't mess around with going to Spain or Italy to play ball for a few years. He tucked his degree under his arm and took a job in finance in New York.

If this makes it sound as if Villanova is influenced more by a search for profit than by a search for truth, it's fair to keep in mind that these acquisitive values are to be found to some degree in all segments of youthful American society today. As in the late, lamented '50s, apathy and greed rule again. Then, too, the college years of any era are traditionally downtime for religion, and at Villanova, as at most other Catholic schools, Catholicism appears to be more a way of life than a set of religious beliefs.

At Villanova you can look up and see the autumn sun glinting off the gold crosses of the twin steeples that adorn the chapel the Augies built. But there is no longer any requirement to attend services, although because so many of the kids come from a shared Catholic background, it is still not uncommon for them to pull one another along. Capone observes, "As someone once said, as long as we have finals, we'll have prayer in the classroom." The Masses are always better attended during finals.

Coach Massimino demands that his players—Catholic and otherwise—go to Sunday services when the team is on the road and to a special team Mass before each game. Pressley admits that he groused about the requirement as a freshman, but now he has become one of the veterans who advise newcomers not to bitch. Generally, most complaints in American colleges from athletes about having religion forced on them have centered upon born-again fundamentalist Protestant coaches. What few priests are left on Catholic campuses have all they can do to teach and administer.

Nevertheless, religious schools, whatever the denomination, are forever torn about what sort of moral guidance they are mandated to provide. And, of course, there is also the perennial question: Where does house theology become propaganda and squeeze out open inquiry? Villanova's mission statement attempts to draw a line: "Although Villanova functions as an independent institution in the conduct of its own affairs, in matters theological it recognizes its obligation to the Magisterium of the Church."

Thus, last year the editor of The Villanovan, John Marusak, was censured for running a paid advertisement for a birth control device. More recently, the Villanova president. Father John Driscoll, rescinded the invitation of a pro-choice speaker who was to appear on campus for a theological symposium. "Within the framework of academic freedom," Driscoll says, drawing on his pipe, "anyone identified with a Catholic university has a right to teach the students the doctrine of its ruling body."

As suggested by the raging debates on many campuses over institutional investment in South Africa, universities must often make moral choices for themselves—and this is especially true if they feel their "explicit reason for existence," as Driscoll says is the case with Catholic schools, "is value orientation." But while big-time basketball is indisputably a rotten borough, Catholic schools have hardly been shy about residing there. When it comes to morality, they often seem to ask more of their students than of themselves. Of course, maybe they believe they haven't got any choice. Maybe they think if they want to compete in basketball, they've got to wink at the sinners. Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition. The one person at a Catholic institution who comes easily to mind for having spoken out courageously against the system is not a cleric, but Digger Phelps, the basketball coach at Notre Dame. And when he was derided, then, by both his coaching colleagues and the press for being a tattletale, who in Catholic education came to his side?

Questions about the direction of big-time intercollegiate athletics are regularly brought up by Catholic school presidents when they gather together, but apart from perfunctory nods toward goodness and light, no strong moral protests ever seem to be publicly ventilated. Driscoll shares what seems to be the benign, majority view. "In this country the tradition of athletics runs deep," he says. "And not only that of participating. Observing sports is also a strong part of our culture. Now we all must concern ourselves with overemphasis, and if abuses take place because of indifference on the part of the coaches or the administration, then it's wrong. But if mistakes are made unintentionally, there's no reason to punish athletics. That's just the way human beings operate."

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