College Basketball’s Counter-Reformation

Every year I go to Christmas Eve mass with my family. When I went this past December, I noticed signs in front of the church and brochures in the lobby advertising something called “Catholics Come Home.” Since I only attend mass this one time of the year, I didn’t know that Catholics were away or that the Church has decided to counteract declining attendance and involvement with an aggressive marketing campaign reminding you of Catholicism’s Greatest Hits. This year, Catholics Come Home even enlisted former Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz to do some spiritual recruiting and draw some analogies between playing football and becoming a more active Catholic:

This year, Catholics Come Home even enlisted former Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz to do some spiritual recruiting and draw some analogies between playing football and becoming a more active Catholic:

So perhaps there’s some ecclesiastical synergy between efforts to reinvigorate the Catholic Church and a proposed college basketball conference featuring only Catholic schools. Sounding more like the name of a 1960s left-wing group or a film about the reunion of a 1960s left-wing group or the Dude’s 1960s left-wing group, the Catholic Seven is actually the unofficial name of a potential college basketball conference consisting of Providence, St. John’s, Seton Hall, Georgetown, Villanova, Marquette, and DePaul. Right now, of course, these teams all play in the Big East, but with several Big East teams (Syracuse, Pitt, Louisville, Notre Dame) heading for other, more lucrative conferences—the ones with bigger football programs—the remaining Papist schools without football programs (DePaul, Providence, Marquette, St. John’s, Seton Hall) or with relatively small ones (Villanova, Georgetown) have decided to band together.

Early returns are favorable, mostly because it makes sense. With all the conference restructuring going on there’s no regional coherence to these conferences anymore, so West Virginia, which used to be in the Big East, is now in the Big 12 where it plays Kansas State. At one point, things had gotten so out of whack that San Diego State was set to join the Big East, where it might have played UConn (a mere 3,000 miles separating the schools), but thankfully the deal fell through. Adding to this confusion, the new college football landscape is one in which conference “branding” trumps accurate counting: the Big 10 will actually have 14 teams once Maryland and Rutgers join (it has 12 teams right now), but will still be called the Big 10.

The word that keeps recurring to describe all these comings and goings is “chaos.” There’s even a blog devoted it. So in a world where chaos seems to rule college sports, the Catholic Seven supplies a much needed dose of logic and reason. And nostalgia. As the AP writer notes, the Catholic Seven offers a reminder of the link between Catholic colleges and universities, basketball, and the immigrant and urban poor populations (initially Irish and Italian, then African American) that helped make college basketball such an integral part of their institutional identity. And as Warren Zola, the dean of Boston College’s Carroll School of Management, remarks, “I think it’s fantastic if some leaders in intercollegiate athletics can put the brakes on chasing every dollar out of their potential in athletics and refocus on their purpose as an institution.”

Except that chasing every dollar and refocusing on an institutional purpose aren’t exactly mutually exclusive. Not long after the plans for the Catholic Seven were announced speculation began as to who would televise their games and how much would they pay for those rights. Just because these schools don’t make much (or any) money from football programs doesn’t mean they’re allergic to it, after all. And whether or not the conference succeeds or falters has everything to do with how much revenue it brings in rather than with Catholic values and culture that might seem to bind these schools together.

The appeal of the Catholic Seven isn’t that it offers an oasis of reason amid the chaos of conference restructuring, since what’s being referred to as chaos isn’t really chaos at all. There isn’t a lack of order, it just that we might not like the order that’s so obviously driving all this reshuffling: the endless search for more and more revenue, made all the more unseemly by the athletes’ (ostensible) amateur status. What the Catholic Seven offers is the opportunity to look past this money-go-round and see shared principles and values, even if they’re ultimately illusory.

I don’t mean that to sound judgmental. I like the idea of the Catholic Seven, and I hope it comes to fruition and succeeds. In fact (and in the interest of full disclosure), I went to DePaul, which is now the largest Catholic school in the country with over 25,000 students–an achievement that has a lot to do with basketball. But even as I’m tempted to attribute some significance and meaning to this grouping of urban Catholic schools, I’m also aware (or at least I try to be) of how that significance allows me to divert my attention from the shameless money-grab going on elsewhere in college sports.


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