Religion and sports: unfathomable feelings and community

The first of three pieces on the connection between religion and sports

Religion and sports: unfathomable feelings and community

In the 1992 film A League of Their Own, Jimmy Dugan prayed to God in a pre-game talk with the Rockford Peaches: “May our feet be swift; may our bats be mighty.” Although the prayer piqued confusion from the players, and laughter from the film’s spectators, it reflects a connection that is prominent in the world of sports: its connection with religion.

NANCY JI/THE VARSITY

NANCY JI/THE VARSITY

A trend has been growing where athletes will start off their victory speeches by thanking their respective deities before thanking teammates, coaches, the organization, and of course, “the [winning team]’s fans: the greatest fans in the world.”

Charlotte Marcotte-Toale, a member of the Varsity Blues cross country team and member of the Christian athletic organization Athletes in Action, stated that: “The gift of God’s love in Jesus allows a student or an athlete to perform out of an identity of love that they didn’t earn, and that isn’t going to change, which frees them from worries, insecurities, fears, and doubts.”

Marcotte-Toale, like many other athletes, relies on religion to continue competing in her sport with the highest amount of effort that she can possibly exert. She believes that university athletes and professional athletes often use religion as motivation to compete, to continue to compete, and to “compete with heart and soul.”

Beyond the direct influence of religion on athletes, however, other connections can be drawn between the two traditions. One possibility is the experience of inexplicable sensations brought about by religion, and similar sensations prompted by events and moments in sports.

In New York University President John Sexton, Peter J. Schwartz, and Thomas Oliphant’s book Baseball as a Road to God, the writers explore experiential connections found between baseball and religion through chapters discussing such topics as miracles, faith, and doubt.

One prominent theme discussed in the book is a type of experience shared between religion and sports, the ineffable: “It’s really our moments in life that analysis and cognition can’t capture,” explained Schwartz.

Just as the enlightenment and lessons that come with religion may cause this sensation, so too may success in sports. When Don Larsen pitched a perfect game in game 5 of the 1956 World Series, the Yankees and their fans were undoubtedly overcome with a feeling unlike any other — a combination of joy, relief, and the inexplicable.

With these shared ineffable feelings also brings a coming-together of fans and players alike. This unification of people in a community is one major theme promoted by most religions, and is seen in the confluence of sports fans on municipal, national, and international levels.

“There’s something that a community identifies with in a sports team in a manner probably more closely than other aspects of civic life,” posited Schwartz.

On a daily basis, fans wearing a team’s colours or logo will exchange nods on the street, and will cheer in unison in the stands of a stadium or arena. Beyond these traditions, sports have the power to unite a more substantial group of people and provide them with feelings of security and comfort.

In 2009, the New Orleans Saints appeared in and won their first Super Bowl Championship. In the summer of 2005, Hurricane Katrina rushed through and destroyed much of their city, killing many of its citizens, and leaving many homeless. During the storm, the Louisiana Superdome, where the Saints play, provided shelter for over 26,000 people.

When the Saints won the Super Bowl, fans of the Saints, citizens of New Orleans, and those watching across the globe were united by joy for the team and its ability to overcome the effects of the tragedy and bring something to be proud of to their city.

The feeling of community that arose from this championship victory was on a monumental scale, similar to religion’s ability to bind together millions of people around a common cause.

“There’s an ability to unite about a common cause, and sports seems to be a medium where that seems to be more acute than other aspects of life,” added Schwartz.

 

Peter Schwartz will be giving a talk on November 20 at 7:30PM at 1700 Bathurst Street in the Hurwich Boardroom as part of a series of talks entitled “Jews in Sports.” 

Blue becomes Beast

U of T graduate Kyle Ventura set to spend 2013–14 CHL season with the Brampton Beasts

University of Toronto alumnus Kyle Ventura has been signed to play the 2013–14 Canadian Hockey League (CHL) season with the Brampton Beasts. Ventura graduated from U of T in June 2013 with an Honours Bachelor in Arts. The aggressive forward led the Blues in scoring for three seasons and served as assistant captain during his final year on the team.

Blues hockey players have a busy schedule: players are on the ice six days a week, travel frequently across Ontario, as well as Canada and parts of the usa, and are still accountable for a full university course load. Ventura credits U of T for teaching him time management skills.

“It was tough for me at first,” Ventura added, “but it was a huge wake-up call, and it got me to where I am today.”

Ventura’s main inspiration seems to come from his parents. They gave him motivation to be the first in the family to earn a university degree, while simultaneously urging him onto the ice.

“When I started hockey, I couldn’t skate, so it was really frustrating,” Ventura explained. “My dad eventually forced me, and I’m glad he did.”

After learning to tie his laces, Ventura skated on up to the Ontario Hockey League (ohl). From 2004–2006, he played with the
Ontario Junior A Hockey League’s Wexford Raiders. In 2007, he played for the Newmarket Hurricanes. From 2006–2008, Ventura also competed with the Toronto Jr. Canadiens; then he hit the ice with the Blues. During the 111 games he played as a Varsity Blue, he scored 57 goals and had 45 assists.

“My favourite U of T memory was scoring 4 goals in 1 game against Guelph,” Ventura recalls. Playing on the Blues was a good experience.”

While playing with the Brampton Beasts, his game plan on the ice of the Powerade Centre lies in the hands of head coach Mark DeSantis.

“[Kyle] is the guy who will get under the skin of our opponents,” DeSantis told The Brampton Guardian. “That’s what will create his space as an agitator.”

“Agitator” is a nickname that Ventura knows well.

“That’s typically the way I play,” he agrees. “I like to get under the guys’ skin and score a few goals while I’m at it.”

Keeping his physicality in check, however, has been a battle of its own. During Ventura’s second year playing for the Wexford Raiders, he spent 101 minutes in the penalty box. Experience has taught him “to focus aggression elsewhere on the ice and harness more body contact.”

“I play hard. I hate losing. I’ll do whatever it takes to win; that’s what I want to show the Beasts,” said Ventura.

U of T engaged in legal battle over Pan Am pool site

Sued for $2 million over extra construction work, university counter-suing for $150,000

The University of Toronto is being sued for $2 million over extra construction work done on the site of Scarborough campus’s Pan Am Sports Centre, which will host an athletic complex that includes two Olympic-sized pools. York Excavating & Grading Ltd. and Green For Life (GFL) environmental group claim that the university should pay for additional labour, materials, and equipment expended on the project. York and GFL have also sued the City of Toronto for $3.7 million, and the engineering firm Conestoga-Rovers & Associates (CRA) Ltd. for $1.6 million.

The city alleges that the additional cost to York and GFL’s current $29.5 million contract is unwarranted. The company, which began work on the project in April 2011, was scheduled to finish excavating the 12.5-hectare site by the end of that year. After two extensions, the project was completed in June 2012. Additional construction work occurred during this extension period. In the city’s opinion, this prevents the companies from making any monetary claims.

Both the university and the CRA believe that the companies’ claims are unjustified. U of T has counter-sued for $150,000. The university declined comment on the lawsuits.

The Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre (TPASC) is still being constructed at Military Trail and Morningside Avenue. The scheduled completion date for the athletics facility is during the summer of 2014. The facility will be open for students and the public by the university’s fall 2014 semester, and will be used during the Pan Am 2015 games.

The TPASC will cost $205 million, and will be jointly paid for by the City of Toronto and the university. Due to a 2010 levy, University of Toronto Scarborough students will pay a cumulative $30 million toward the project, spread over 25 years, through their student fees.

The lawsuit over the TPASC has raised larger concerns about the university’s role in the Pan Am games. The university will be constructing several facilities for the 2015 games, including the Pan Am Field Hockey Centre on the St. George campus. Varsity Stadium will be used as a venue for the archery competition.

University of Toronto athletics should consider redistributing sports funding

Playing fair with intercollegiate athletes

University of Toronto athletics should consider redistributing sports funding

For the first time in 20 years, the University of Toronto’s Varsity Blues football team managed to finish its season with a 4–4 record. While the team has still not achieved a winning season for many years, there are now signs that the organization is well on its way to a successful revival. The changes in the win column have largely been brought about by University of Toronto Athletics, which is working to improve the program by hiring a savvy and accomplished coaching staff and striving for stronger player recruitment. That impending success story is balanced by less well-funded programs, whose lack of success is set to result not in increased assistance and effort from the university, but in the loss of intercollegiate status and the Varsity Blues name.

The review of the university’s sports model that is accompanying the ongoing review of the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education will affect any program that falls under the faculty, not just intercollegiate sports. The criteria to be used for the revision of the current sports model was made public last year. At that time, affected teams and individuals were offered the opportunity to meet with Beth Ali, director of intercollegiate sport, for a 90-minute consultation to react to and express concerns about the remodel.

The remodel is multifaceted and addresses 14 areas within the faculty. It proposes to make substantive changes, ranging from the manner in which sporting organizations such as the Canadian Intercollegiate Sport (CIS) and Ontario University Athletics (OUA) rank the sports in question, and the financial costs incurred by the athletes, to the frequency and severity of injury to players in the sport, and the success of individual athletes on provincial, national, and international scales.

There is a sound basis for each of these criteria, but affected athletes have objected to the way they are being applied to various teams and groups. As The Varsity reported last year, the women’s rugby team has expressed concern about a lack of training facilities available to them on campus. Rather than providing the team with the facilities they need to be competitive, or the time to use other facilities on campus, the administration is considering reclassifying the team as an intramural sport. The remodel seems to be penalizing teams that the university currently does not provide sufficient support for, rather than attempting to rectify the problems that these teams are facing.

Ali has said that “U of T used to have many, many examples [of top athletes competing at U of T], and our lack of success has diminished our ability to produce athletes like that in all of our sports.” Ali and the Varsity Blues’ office seem to be ignorant to the fact that students are attracted to U of T for its academic reputation, rather than its athletic one. A student whose criteria in choosing a university include its athletic programs would be better served applying to almost any American university; even if they were to stay in Canada, U of T is hardly an athletic powerhouse.

There is an inherent contradiction in the current plan for U of T’s athletic programs. The impending remodel evidently places a premium on a team or individual athlete’s successes if it is looking to demote varsity programs that are struggling to compete — except in the case of the football team, which has been a perennial disappointment for the past two decades, where the department seems willing to spare no expense to help the team get its head above water. Only now, after 20 years of continued focus and effort, is the football team showing signs of life. One is left to wonder: Why would U of T choose to focus on a select few teams, rather than invest in programs that are struggling without necessary resources? Teams like women’s rugby have trouble competing because they cannot attract, retain, or develop top-tier talent without the resources or facilities they need. Rather than reclassifying programs that cannot reach their full potential without investment, U of T Athletics should consider redistributing sports funding.

Football is not the only sport likely to score poorly in a number of categories on the model that will not face demotion. Men’s hockey requires a large medical, equipment, and event staff; players have a high injury rate, both in terms of frequency and severity; the team has not seen significant success for several years, and has had few or no provincially or nationally ranked players on its roster in that time. Nevertheless, the chances that the team will face damaging changes under the new model are slim, due no doubt to the prominence of the sport in this country.

The remodel seems to give preference to the “big” sports — football, hockey, soccer, field hockey, volleyball, basketball, track and field, and swimming. Meanwhile, the women’s golf and men’s baseball teams have both won back-to-back OUA championships, and the badminton teams are consistently very successful, yet receive little attention and funding in comparison to those with bigger public profiles.

Many varsity teams are completely self-funded and self-driven, meaning that they have to do a significant portion of their administrative work themselves; these are the teams being threatened with a downgrade by the sports remodel. Meanwhile, sports that receive a high level of attention do not always perform in a way that reflects the time, money, and effort put into them.

U of T should try to mould its system such that it does not punish teams that already function without much assistance from athletics staff. If, as it claims, the university hopes to attract a range of strong student-athletes who are both academically and athletically gifted, the solution is to provide a range of teams that are properly funded and supported on a relatively equally footing. The currently proposed sports remodel does not meet these goals.

Russia’s deep internal divide

Political differences are to blame for civil rights issues, but is an Olympic boycott the right approach?

Russia’s deep internal divide

The initial reaction of many in the West to Russian President Vladimir Putin signing laws to ban homosexual propaganda was outrage. Soon thereafter, many began to talk about boycotting the upcoming Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics. To do so would be the height of foolishness and serve only to further the cause of illiberalism in Russia.

Russia has become increasingly polarized between an emerging urban elite — whose values can easily be recognized in Canada — and a more rural traditional population  for whom conservative mores hold far greater sway.

NANCY JI/THE VARSITY

NANCY JI/THE VARSITY

When Putin was first elected, he was welcomed by all as the answer to the chaos of Boris Yeltsin’s administration. As time has gone on, the West has become increasingly frustrated with Putin’s hard-line defense of Russian interests internationally. Meanwhile, Russia’s more liberal middle classes have become more and more frustrated by the corruption in Russian society.

Putin has therefore come to rely increasingly on an unsophisticated rural class for popular support. Putin’s cultivation of an ultra-masculine image for himself is clearly an effort to appeal to this class. Whether driving a truck across Siberia or shooting tigers, Putin constantly attempts to portray himself as a defender of traditional Russian culture and values against the United States.

Western intervention and commentary has continually irked both Putin and his conservative political base. The passage of the Magnitsky Act by the United States Congress, designed to bring the corruption and lack of justice in Russia to light, appears to that country’s conservatives as an attempt by a recent enemy to meddle in Russia’s affairs. Meanwhile, efforts in the West to brand Putin as a tin pot dictator, along the lines of Muammar Gaddafi or Kim Jong-un, and efforts by the U.S. to encourage dissent within Russia have threatened the continued survival of Putin’s government. Forced by this challenge to shore up support while increasingly seeing the US as against him, Putin has had to fight tooth and nail against America’s efforts.

Putin seeks to maintain his position in power, while gaining international support for himself and for Russia as an influential force in world affairs. While the liberal classes in Russia will not support Putin regardless of his actions, Russia’s rural conservatives are only likely to care about issues of traditional morality when they are forced to pay attention, such as following the recent arrest of the band Pussy Riot for playing offensive music in a church, or the recent talk of boycotting the Sochi Olympics. Like Putin, the conservatives are interested in furthering Russia’s respectability and influence in the world.

Canada has a special role to play; while the conservative base upon which Putin depends still harbors deep suspicions about the United States and many Western European countries, Canada and Russia have many shared interests. The Arctic, for instance, has become a new battleground in international diplomacy. By working to reach accords with Russia on issues like Arctic sovereignty and access to the newly opening Northeast and Northwest Passages, ordinary Russians can begin to see the West as a partner to work with and learn from, rather than as an enemy to oppose. While the recent news out of Russia is deeply disturbing and should be addressed, walking away from the Olympic games is not the best way for the West to demonstrate its dissatisfaction. Boycotting the games would be perceived as a Western affront to traditional Russian morals. The West could accomplish more by focusing on what they have in common with Russia to bring the country forward, rather than denying the opportunity to have conversation.

 

Jeffrey Schulman is a first-year student at Trinity College.

Behind the scenes at the Athletic Centre

Behind the scenes at the Athletic Centre

Offering all sorts of activities from aquafit and martial arts to strength training, U of T Athletics provides a wide variety of fitness options for its student body. Yet, while many students are aware of what the Athletic Centre offers, few recognize the people that make it all possible. With a large student population constantly at the centre’s doors, both the faculty and programming departments require a large amount of effort.

Take Alex Vickers, for example. Every day, Vickers makes sure that all the pumps of the aquatic facility are functioning and that the leaks are plugged. Vickers, as one of two assistant facility managers of the pool, works to maintain the aquatic facilities, including all the lifeguards and pool operations, on an everyday basis.

The Varsity pool plays host to a number of provincial meets every year. CAROLYN LEVETT/THE VARSITY

The Varsity pool plays host to a number of provincial meets every year. CAROLYN LEVETT/THE VARSITY

Considering the importance of aquatic facilities to U of T athletics, it is no small wonder that the pool is almost always booked for student athletes. “We have swim meets happening starting in October quite frequently, and that’s an exciting draw to the aquatic area. Water polo and diving are always happening,” Vickers explains. “It’s quite fun to see people doing flips and turns off the 5-metre tower.”

Aside from student athletes, the Athletic Centre also rents out its 25-yard pool to smaller programs and clubs. Vickers himself has had some interesting experiences on that matter. “We use that area for our women only programming that allows us to close the blinds to the area so that it is away from public view. Because of that, a number of years ago we hosted the U of T Naturists [a nudist group], who would rent the pool and come swimming,” recalls Vickers. “That was definitely an interesting use of the facility,” he adds with a chuckle.

That being said, managing the pool can be quite a daunting task. Part of the reason being the age of the pool itself, which was built over 30 years ago. Despite the extra work necessary to maintain it, the pool’s managers are up for the task. As Vickers notes: “We’re proud to have a final product that the user sees that looks immaculate in our opinion. We’re happy about the safety we provide and the programs that we’re able to offer, and I think it’s certainly one of the premier pools in Ontario.”

The Athletic Centre field house is the hub of the facility. CAROLYN LEVETT/THE VARSITY

The Athletic Centre field house is the hub of the facility. CAROLYN LEVETT/THE VARSITY

Likewise, Will Kopplin, the assistant manager of physical activity for both the Athletic Centre and Varsity Centre has his own part to play. Broadly speaking, Kopplin’s work involves providing opportunity and promoting physical activity on campus for students. As such, Kopplin strives to connect with students as much as possible through campus events, including the Zombie Skate at Varsity Centre last week. “We usually expect 150 students out to those kind of events, and it’s a good opportunity for me to interact with them,” he points out.

Having worked with the university for over six years, Kopplin realizes that there is a significant amount of work that goes into preparing for each academic year. “There’s a very large team that is involved in all kinds of things that students will not see,” he explains.

One of the main things that students will never see behind the scenes is the scheduling process, where the bulk of the work lies. “We meet every other week in order to accomplish that, starting a year prior,” he says. “The resources here at the university for athletics are at this point somewhat limited, [and] we’re expanding all the time. So we are scheduling facilitates a year in advance to make sure that we are maximizing the resources that we have and providing the most opportunities for students.”

Intramurals take place in various ares of the Athletic Centre.

Intramurals take place in various ares of the Athletic Centre.

When asked whether he enjoys his job despite its difficulties, Kopplin replied: “Absolutely, it’s a great place to work. Keeps me fresh and active, and hopefully I’m able to pass that on to the students as well.”

For students wishing to explore new interests while reaping the many benefits of staying fit and healthy, the Athletic Centre is open seven days a week and available to all U of T students.

Baseball and softball voted down in Olympic bid

In 1904, baseball made its first appearance in the Olympic Games. The sport was played off and on in the Olympics for decades following its initial appearance, and in 1992 it became an official sport in the Summer Olympics, after its global popularity was recognized.

NANCY JI/THE VARSITY

Softball has had a shorter run in the Olympics, only having existed as an Olympic sport from 1996–2008. Its presence provided what the Olympic Committee saw as the female alternative to baseball. Although softball is more popular among women than baseball, women across the globe also play baseball — while men play fastpitch, a version of softball offered in the Olympics.

Kids from New York to Nigeria and Santa Domingo to Tokyo now grow up with these sports, playing their own versions of them with the materials accessible to them. In third-world countries, kids use sticks and stones as bats and balls, and make baseball gloves out of milk cartons — the type of glove with which Blue Jays shortstop Jose Reyes got his start. It is estimated that 137 countries and 62 million players worldwide — 7.5 million of which are children outside of North America — are currently participating in organized forms of baseball and/or softball.

Baseball’s popularity is growing exponentially in Japan. The country is producing MLB all-stars, and it has its own professional men’s and women’s baseball and softball leagues. This would seem to indicate that these sports belong in Japan’s Olympic Games. Despite the country’s joint bid for the sports through the World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC) in the Play Ball 2020 campaign, Tokyo will not be hosting them in its country’s Olympic Games.

Marek Deska, pitcher for the Varsity Blues’ baseball team and pitcher for the Polish national team, explained that the decision is, “pretty disappointing. Baseball has become such an international game, and it’s a shame that it won’t be included in the Olympics. It’s strange to see Japan, a huge supporter of baseball and softball, not include the two sports in their own Olympic Games.”

On September 8, the bid was voted down, and wrestling was the chosen sport to be reinstated to the games after winning the bid in the first round of voting. Wrestling received 49 of the 95 total votes cast, while the baseball/softball bid only received 24 — just edging out squash, which received 22. Wrestling’s presence in the Olympics, which was at risk because of its unpopularity in the 2012 London Olympics, was removed from the lineup in February. Before being removed, wrestling’s status as an Olympic sport dated back to over 3,000 years.

Frosh take over Rogers Centre to cheer on Argos

Frosh take over Rogers Centre to cheer on Argos

On Tuesday, September 3, thousands of frosh and their leaders attended the Toronto Argonauts` game against the Montreal Alouettes. After squandering an early 8–0 lead, the Argos fell 20–8 to Montreal.

Not only were U of T students in attendance, they were involved in the event in a number of ways from its beginning to end. To begin the night, frosh and their leaders lined the field to cheer on the Argos, and defend the Argos` logo in the middle of the field from the opponents from Montreal who surrounded the engineering frosh.

Just before the game, 12 students — eight from the faculty of music and four from Innis college —  formed a choir that sang the national anthem. “I commissioned the arrangement from a student composer a month beforehand and sent it out for singers to learn before coming in,” said fourth year music CTEP student and faculty of music co-coordinator Peter Nash. The composer was a second year composition student, Sarah Basciano.

“It was a great opportunity for our students to sing for a big event, and we hope to start a tradition of it,” said Nash.

Through the rest of the game, U of T students were selected to play games on the jumbotron, win prizes, and win seat upgrades.

The Argos appeared to be starting off strong, scoring eight points before the Alouettes got on the board. After a missed field goal by Argos kicker, Noel Prefontaine, they were up by a single point. With 5:21 left in the quarter, Zach Collaros successfully completed a 34-yard pass to John Chiles. With Prefontaine`s successful field goal, Toronto raised their lead to 8–0. However, they failed to score again after this point.

Less than four minutes into the second, Sean Whyte scored a field goal to put Montreal on the board. Later in the quarter, they added to the lead with 28-yard touchdown with a pass from Tanner Marsh to Arland Bruce, coming after Argos defender Jalil Carter was called for illegal contact on a receiver. Whyte kicked a successful field goal to follow to put Montreal ahead of the Argos 10­–8. With another field goal by the Alouettes in the third quarter, and another three-point field goal in the fourth, Montreal took a 20–8 lead and maintained it.

The Argos struggled, losing yards consistently. Starting quarterback Collaros and last year`s CFL player of the year Chad Owens fell with injuries multiple times throughout the game, having to leave the field, unable to assist their team for large periods of time.

Despite the loss, U of T frosh were introduced to one of Toronto’s most successful sports teams, and were welcomed to the city with special emphasis and programming for the large portion of new students in attendance at the game.