By Mark Haney
The Catholic Times
LANSING — Do competition and Christ mix?
That was a question Ron Landfair put to teens during a breakout session at the Diocese of Lansing Jamboree, “Where Would Jesus Be?” on Sunday, Nov. 7, at the Lansing Center.
Landfair, tennis coach at Lansing Catholic High School the past 10 years and director of the diocese’s Office of Multicultural Evangelization, addressed that question in “Jocks for Jesus.”
“A lot of you have these bracelets on — Where Would Jesus Be? “ he said to a room filled with teens from around the diocese. “Would Jesus be on the practice field? Would Jesus be in your locker room? Would Jesus be in your group? Would Jesus be in your heart? Would Jesus be in your coach’s heart?
“If we are serious about this ‘Where Would Jesus Be’ as athletes, He’s going to be in our hearts, in our attitudes, in our thoughts. Part of the problem is you, all of you sitting in this room. Because you know what is missing? “
We forget that we have partaken of the Body and Blood of Christ, he said, and therefore should be transformed by that encounter, that relationship.
“You cannot have it both ways,” Landfair said. “When you encounter the Real Presence, you encounter Christ, and you are supposed to be changed by it. You people need to get off your lazy theological butt and start practicing and living what you say. That does not mean you have to be perfect, but you have to try. Sometimes I’m not the best person, but I have to try.”
In today’s athletic environment, where winning is prized above all, faith faces a challenge.
“I think you have to practice like a champion,” he said. “Everybody wants to win but most people aren’t willing to pay the price to win. The price you have to pay to win may not be the price you think you are paying. It’s not about how many hours you spend on the practice field. It is about what kind of champion do you see yourself being? Are you willing to win at any cost? What really matters to you? How do you set goals for yourself? So instead of just saying, ‘We want to win,’ there is a way you win and a way that you don’t.”
And the way you don’t, he said, is by forgetting your faith and following today’s smack-talking trend.
“Is that (talking smack) consistent with the Gospel?” he said. “Let’s be honest. No. Here’s why. I think athletics and the Gospel challenge us. How and when is your faith challenged when you compete in athletics?”
The teens are challenged, they say, when a foe who has been talking smack falls or gets fouled and you find yourself deciding whether or not to extend your hand and help him back up. Or when you do really well and want to take all of the credit for yourself, as if God didn’t have a role. Or when you aren’t doing so well and question why God isn’t helping you.
Their responses to such challenges varied.
“You can get mad but you just have to brush it off and keep going,” said a girl cross country and track runner.
Another girl said she laughed at the other person.
A football player said he got mad and hurt an opponent. “Then I ran off the field,” he said, “pumping my chest. And I used some unkind words.”
“Does that sound about normal?” Landfair asked. “Seriously. Does that sound about normal?”
In the face of the trend for humiliating opponents, Landfair said, Catholic athletes must remember Catholic social teaching, which honors the dignity of all people.
“There is so much good going on in sports, but it gets blotted out by what’s not so good,” he said. “I think Catholic athletes are called to represent the Gospel whenever and wherever they compete. You can’t treat your opponents like an obstacle. You cannot deny your opponent his or her dignity as a person.
“You can’t have it both ways. You cannot say you are a believer and then go out and do stuff that show unbelief. You’re being a hypocrite. You can’t say, when I am practicing and playing I am a meat-eating sinner who doesn’t care about other people but now when I am at youth group or at Mass I am a good Catholic. The challenge isn’t being a good Catholic at Mass or here at the Jamboree. The challenge is being good Catholics when you are not here. That is when your faith is challenged.
“It is not enough for us to say what we believe in, we have to do what we believe in.”
And winning, he said, is not the true test of a Catholic athlete, so be wary of those who stress it above all.
“Sometimes, as coaches, we put unnecessary pressure on you to win,” he said. “You feel that pressure and stress sometimes too. Nothing you do is going to bring world peace, cure cancer or solve world hunger, so go out there and have fun. And remember, there is something beyond this activity. How we do this activity says a lot about who we are as Catholics. We want to do it with our dignity intact. We want to do it with the dignity of our opponents intact.”
Because, he reminded the students, we aren’t exactly following a winner.
“If I don’t win, is it the end of the world?” he said. “Sometimes our coaches would have us believe that. You have to remember, we get in line behind a guy who lost (Christ). Right? Sometimes if we don’t ask ourselves why we are competing, why we are doing this thing, why we are working so hard, we’re not going to know that either. How many of you think about why you are competing? If you are only competing to win, you are competing for the wrong reasons.
“Why are we doing this if we aren’t doing it for the glory of God?”
Sports, Pope John Paul II said, must contribute to the development of the person.The problem for some young athletes, Landfair said, is that their coaches don’t heed the pope’s instruction.
“When your coach fails to see you as a person, he or she isn’t recognizing one of the basis tenets of Catholic social teaching, which is the dignity of the person,” he said. “One of the things that really gets me upset are these coaches who think you are just cannon fodder, you’re just there to enhance their greatness. If my ego, my self worth is going to be built on the shoulders of a bunch of teenage athletes, I have problems.”
Too many coaches, he said, don’t recognize the pressure and stress students face in their everyday lives, “which is far greater than anything I can imagine.”
“Whether I like it or not in my role as coach I am to be the face of Jesus to my players,” Landfair added. “Some days I struggle with it, some days I’m pretty good at it. But I have a passion for young people and your spiritual development.”
Being a Catholic athlete, he said, will never be easy because faith is never easy.
“It is not easy,” he said. “Because you are challenged. You are supposed to be challenged. It’s not supposed to be easy. You are supposed to struggle.”
The athlete’s big challenge, he added, is: “How do we reduce the chest bumping and braggadocio and increase our ability to truly care and love our faith, teammates and coach?
“The key problem, I think, is this: you’re getting mixed messages. On one hand, we ask you to win. You want to win. Your school and community want you to win. But we want you to do it while being Catholic. I think for some people that translates into being weak.
“What determines if you are a winner or not is how you conduct yourself, how you represent your faith, how you represent your school, how you represent yourself, how you represent your family. It is an awesome responsibility you have, if you would quit fooling around and taking it lightly. Get rid of the insignificance. Because you are witnesses to the Gospel.”