As the Madness of March and college basketball descend upon the sporting world, once again there are many Catholic colleges in the mix. Over the years, Georgetown, Marquette, Gonzaga, Notre Dame and many other Catholic schools have been a part of the landscape that is men’s and women’s college basketball. Of the more than 350 schools that compete in Division 1 NCAA basketball, about 10 percent of them are affiliated with or classified as Catholic schools. And year after year, the presence of Catholic schools in the NCAA tournament stays true to the 10 percent, or more often exceeds it. This year, nine of the 68 teams in the men’s bracket are Catholic schools (13 percent) and seven of the 64 teams in the women’s bracket are Catholic schools (11 percent).
Many Catholic schools even gain national recognition through their basketball teams. Without any understanding of Catholic or Jesuit higher education, I remember growing up in the 80s hearing all about Georgetown basketball. And later on, as a cheerleader at University of San Diego, I discovered the collegiality with other schools in the West Coast Conference that came through shared opposition to our communal rival, Gonzaga.
Why are so many Catholic schools good at basketball?
Some conferences have many Catholic schools. My own Fordham Rams and University of San Diego Toreros are in such conferences. Putting aside conference composition, I would like to focus on the particular characteristics and spirituality of Catholic higher education.
Catholic education is holistic; it focuses on developing the whole person. When an athlete comes to one of these schools, it is not only their athletic skill that is fostered, developed and cared for. Athletes in Catholic colleges are developed intellectually, spiritually and ethically. That is not to say that these places are free from imperfection. But the goal is clear. When athletes come to our schools, they are entrusted to our care.
In my experience with Catholic education, athletes form special bonds with teammates and coaches. For a few years while teaching at a Catholic high school, I also coached the girls’ tennis team. What a joy this was! In our time together, we focused on team building, prayer and, of course, laughter, which not so surprisingly resulted in tennis excellence and team success.
In Catholic education, athletes make the most of not only their particular athletic prowess but other gifts as well: the capacity to do justice and serve; the joy of being a role model; and the appreciation of the opportunities before them. Catholic higher education has the vocabulary to identify goals and the guidelines to carry them out in life. Inspired by Gospel values, Catholic higher education fosters community, service and excellence.
Another hallmark of Catholic higher education is that this mission is not limited to academics or campus ministry or clubs and activities. In Catholic education the mission permeates all parts of academic life — all members of the community are joyfully and lovingly charged with the mission — and athletics is no exception. I would argue that due to its tremendous influence, athletics should be a place where mission is particularly visible. The values of Catholic education translate well into the arena of athletics, bringing a dimension of selflessness to the team members, so the team remains community-focused and community-driven.
Excellence is also a call that transcends sport. Jesuit education uses the term magis to express the notion of always seeking for more, of never being fully satisfied. Magis calls one to keep doing justice, to keep pursuing excellence, to keep caring for others, and to keep improving. It is no wonder that with this foundation Catholic colleges and universities tend to perform rather well in athletics, in this case college basketball. So, I hope you’ve filled your brackets with Catholic schools! Taking a chance with a Catholic choice in those pesky 8-9 or 7-10 match-ups will most likely pay off.