Because of this de-Catholicization of Catholic teams, it is now rare to see a player crossing himself before shooting a free throw. It may not be frivolous to suggest that this practice was responsible for a goodly share of the anti-Catholic sentiment in the land. Jack Kennedy might have won by a landslide in 1960 but for the fact that Catholics were, at that time, still crossing themselves before shooting free throws. No matter what devout reasons Catholics had for making the sign, non-Catholics (Protestants especially) were always convinced that, deep down, the free-throw shooter was asking God to curl it in for him.
Says Father Charles Riepe, rector of the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Baltimore and president of John Carroll School, "It's much to the good that the practice has largely disappeared. We had one kid here a couple years ago, a very bright, sophisticated boy, too, who was crossing himself before foul shots. I took him aside and suggested, as nicely as possible, that it might be wise to drop that. If you want to cross yourself, I told him, it's the kind of thing you can do in private before a game—and really, once beforehand should be quite sufficient to cover all the eventualities in both halves. Besides, as I also told him," Father Riepe adds, laughing, "it looks awful when you do blow a free throw. Then it appears that God really does have it in for you and John Carroll."
The de-mythification of sport, leading to the demise of the hero, may be a major reason why fundamentalists have taken the ball from the Roman Catholics. In the palmy days of yore, when order reigned over innocent games, sport was uplifting and a glorious celebration, like the mass. Sport and the church both stood for authority; the reserve clause was no more to be challenged than meatless Fridays. Heroes were larger than life, canonized as athletic saints, a comfortable adjunct to the church's own hagiology. The Roman church has always been perturbed by sex, and for its male adolescents, joining a team was considered the next best thing to a vow of celibacy. As long as budding young ladies could be kept in what the sisters called "Mary-like" clothes, and growing boys could be kept shagging flies and shooting set shots, nobody would have time to think impure thoughts, much less do impure things to one another. Anyway, that was the idea.
Even today, arbitrary pregame football team rites are heavily laced with Catholic taboo and mysticism. Dr. William Arens, the anthropologist, compares these peculiar ceremonial group devotions to "the exotic rituals of a newly discovered tribe." The belief that sex should be avoided before a game, the determination to keep the players segregated (ideally, watching action movies), the participation in a final meal together (a shared communion of good red beef)—all this is highly analogous to churchly concepts.
Still, it is not football but organized baseball that has the most Roman Catholic trappings. With its grand traditions, its constancy, its statistical litany, baseball could be neatly comprehended by the church—and it was. The baseball hierarchy does not take civil government as its model, but has an ecclesiastical design, beginning with the commissioner-pope, who is elected by the owners-cardinals, right on down to the fans-parishioners—indeed, the word fan is derived from "fanatic." The Baseball Hall of Fame closely approximates a Catholic shrine, which, of course, is exactly what it is called.
How ever deep their involvement with athletics, Catholics have always looked upon them as a diversion, rather like Tuesday night Bingo in the parish hall. Certainly, sport was never viewed as any sort of vehicle for conversion; athletics had nothing to do with theology. Football made Notre Dame a top-notch school, but the fact that Notre Dame was Catholic was quite incidental. If an atheist wants to play on the team, fine, give him the ball and never mind what he does with his Sunday mornings; if the best coach we can get is Protestant and Ara Parseghian wants the job, hire him. To Catholics, sport might be important, but it was never churchy. The clearest embodiment of Catholic athletic philosophy was the late Father Tom Brennan of Notre Dame. A serious theologian, a man of intellect, he could also serve as pastor to young Irish athletes. He was a fine athlete himself and a whimsical man who enjoyed dry martinis, which would sometimes lead to his conducting telephone conversations (presumably imaginary) with the devil. Sport appealed to Father Brennan—its joy, its fellowship and just because it could be so exciting. He liked to sit on the Irish bench, and he did not always agree with the way officials saw matters. One night, in Evansville, he began riding a referee. He got on the poor fellow pretty hard, but the referee was reluctant to call a technical on a priest. In exasperation, he came over to Father Brennan, shook a finger at him and said, "Come on, Father, you call the Mass, and I'll call the game." Catholics still roar appreciatively at this tale.
In contrast to the Catholic attitude, the Sportians, humorless and persevering, appear to be attracted to sport as an evangelical device that can be used baldly and also because, as an institution, sport is going to hell just like the rest of the country. All the talk in sport is cynical—of money, money, money, drugs and camp followers, dissension and dissatisfaction. Sin! Today's best-known white athlete is Joe Namath, whose womanizing and drinking are broadly publicized. It is said that his celebrated example provided some of the impetus for the Sportian movement.
Sportians are out to save sport by saving athletes. Once they are converted, they are cast as neo-crusaders. The field is to be an altar, the game a sacrifice. Paul Neumann, a Sports Ambassadors official who was a first-rate NBA player for several years, says, "A Christian is always keyed up before a game because he knows he is playing for his real coach." Alvin Dark goes further, suggesting everything he does is for the glory of Jesus Christ. In the sermon in which he revealed Charlie Finley's fiery future, Dark also said, "The more we read the Bible, the more we begin to turn our lives over to the Lord. For example, I gave the Lord my golf game. When I dedicated my life...one of the first things I did was turn my golf game over to the Lord."
Jesus has been transformed, emerging anew as a holler guy, a hustler, a give-it-100-percenter. While students of the new religion glumly acknowledge that his only known athletic performance was throwing the moneychangers out of the temple, Jesus' sad, desperate last hours have become a kind of Super Bowl. Wes Neal, previously with AIA, left that organization to set up the Institute for Athletic Perfection in Prescott, Ariz. He has become an accepted theoretician for the movement; the pamphlets published by the institute are handed out by many Sportian groups.
The new image of Jesus, the blue-chipper, is set forth in a Neal tract entitled Total Release Performance, which refers to the brand of ball that Jesus played on the cross: "It was another situation that would reveal his WINNING character.... At any point Jesus could have turned back from His mission, but He was a WINNER!" TO prove that Jesus had guts, the physical effects of being crucified are described in gory detail. Apparently, this is to shame athletes into competing more intently, whatever their injuries, their limitations or frame of mind. The crucifixion becomes an athletic sacrament, and athletes are asked to be martyrs. Without equivocation, the Institute lists as "SIN" such things as "failure to reach maximum athletic potential" and "fear of an opponent."