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GUEST COLUMN: Transforming athletes into something greater

The following is adapted from a Sept. 2 talk by Linda Del Rio at a Vatican seminar organized by the Pontifical Council for Culture: “Sports at the Service of Humanity.” Del Rio spoke to the group of international delegates during a session titled “Overcoming the Throwaway Culture to Promote the Culture of Encounter and Fraternity.”

When a sportsman’s career is in its final stages, our society tends to move away from athletes as their physical abilities naturally diminish. This throwaway society results in the sportsman losing his or her feelings of self-worth and humanity. When the adoration of their skills and celebrity are gone, privately and publicly, the enterprise and corporate-driven endorsements motivated by egoism and self-interest are also gone. The sportsman is tossed aside. Pope Francis cited dangers in a “throwaway culture” as an intrinsic evil.

At the international economic seminar in July (“Towards a More Inclusive Economy, July 12), His Holiness used the example of wine being transformed into brandy as it passes through an organizational still. He stated: “It is no longer wine, it is something else: perhaps more useful, more specialized, but it’s not wine!” Maybe this is our answer, the athlete transforms into something or someone greater to society. We as educators, sport leaders, pastoral directors and organizations, should educate, and change our academic programs by adding majors in coaching and leadership for the future of the phenomenal platform of sport. Sport teams globally have the availability to sustain future goals for athletes, and the resources to educate and prepare athletes and their families for the end of the first phase of the “winemaking.”

Before any ball is kicked off, first baseball pitch thrown from the pitcher’s mound, basketball tipped off, or a hockey face off, the playing field is level. In the spiritual realm, there are no home field advantages, for in sports, as in life, we find the ground leveled through our faith. It is important for athletes to set their sights on heaven where Christ sits in the place of honor, not on the World Cup or Super Bowl. And when their life is revealed, they share in all the real glory. Today’s athletes—even with all the super-smartphones, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and media at the speed of light—they need, and actually are hungry for, a straight forward encounter with God.

I’ve been in the sport world in different capacities for 34 years: speaking with young athletes on campuses; married 30 years to my husband Jack, a former professional football player and now coach on the Denver Broncos’ football team; our son Luke is a quarterback at Oregon State, and our three daughters played at a high level in high school. I witness the easy entrapment of the invincible persona that engulfs players when all is going well. The public views you differently and have a nonrealistic view of your life. This worldview does not embrace that we are servants to the same God. Our joys and sufferings are the same, but magnified in the public eye.

Jack and Linda Del Rio, center, with Varsity Catholic missionaries in New York, when traveling with the Denver Broncos to the Feb. 2, 2014 Super Bowl.

We are losing the ability to contemplate and listen to creation, the way God intended us to through his love for all of us: where we are and exactly who we are. We should never lose, as Pope Benedict called it, the “rhythm of the love story of God with man.” We can agree that athletes should live in wide open spaces of grace, and not fear a dark society that believes death is not a part of eternal life. Let us continue to fight the good fight of this throwaway society.

Linda Del Rio serves as global ambassador for Fellowship of Catholic University Students (www.Focus.org) and executive consultant to Varsity Catholic (www.VarsityCatholic.org). She is married to Denver Broncos’ defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. Follow Linda Del Rio on Twitter @magnifi28.

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