Captain Francis: The Pope and Sports

We learn much about life by winning and striving to win, but we also learn much by losing according to the rules

“All the best, then, to the Italian Sports Center on its 70th anniversary! And best wishes to all of you! I heard before that you made me your captain: thank you.”

— Pope Francis, “To Members of the Sports Assocations for the 70th Anniversary of the Foundation o fthe CSI (Italian Sports Center)”, St. Peter’s Square, June 7, 2014 (L’Osservatore Romano, English, June 13, 2014)


The English edition of L’Osservatore Romano for June 13th featured three photos. One is of Pope Francis watching a young girl gymnast. The second is in St. Peter’s Square itself, on which a green carpet has been laid; on it are several other older women gymnasts. Finally, the Holy Father is pictured in the center of a soccer team with its manager and coach. The boys in blue jerseys look like late high school or early college age players. The pope is in the middle, next to the goalie, who is in orange.

The sub-title to the talk is this: “Don’t Approach Life on the Defensive or Settle for a Tie.” I read this advice during the World Cup matches; in fact just as the German-USA contest ended in a 1-0 German win. The Pope, I am sure, knows more about soccer than I do. But I must say that the essence of soccer is precisely the genius and drama of defense. A tie is better than a loss, so worth fighting for. “Tie-breakers,” overtime, extra points, and shoot-outs were all invented because the world cannot stand a tie! Even soccer cannot stand it at the highest levels.

I have always respected the world soccer rules for not yielding to the high-gunner, high numbers tendencies of our football and, especially, basketball rules. If we Americans ever controlled soccer rules, we would, to assure more scoring, institute a “back court” rule. No ball could go back across the center line once crossed. Next we would put in a shot clock in which we would award a free kick to the opponent of any team that did not take a shot at the goal every two minutes.

The greatness of soccer is precisely the difficulty in making even a single goal because of the genius and artistry of defense. In addition, soccer referees generally let the game go on. They do not call fouls every other play. Moreover, the on-going nature of the 90-minute-long game allows no time-outs for advertising. Our 60-minute-long football games take three or more hours to play; our forty-five minute basketball games take two hours.

All popes speak to athletes. I recall Pius XII doing so, as well as Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI. Pope Francis took the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the Italian National Olympic Committee to invite boys and girls to the Vatican. Evidently, St. Peter’s became, as the Pope watched, something of a “playground,” as he put it.

Francis suggested that there three paths that young boys and girls could take both to grow up and keep out of trouble—the way of education, the way of sports, and the way of work. These “ways,” I presume, are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, any worthy life would include all three. “Sports are a means to education.” I would not put it quite that way as it makes of sports something other than what they are. But it is true that we learn much about ourselves, about justice and injustice, and about how things ought to proceed in sports.

The pope maintains that, if the young follow these three paths, “There wouldn’t be dependencies: no drugs, no alcohol.” Many schools themselves these days, however, have to fight to be “drug free,” and not all succeed. Indeed, the center of dope traffic is often in or around schools. School, sports, and jobs, the Pope explains, lead the young “forward.” He rightly adds that “It is important, boys and girls, that sports remain a game.” This is right.

The Pope then uses this game image to encourage the young to “challenge” themselves “in the quest for good in both Church and society, without fear, with courage and enthusiasm.” One cannot but be struck by the enthusiasm that we witness during the World Cup matches. Many are tempted to say that this is only an ephemeral glory, which it is, but it a real glory nonetheless.

Sports, more than almost anything else, make clear to so many normal ways what is meant by winning and losing, what is meant by striving to win, and what it means to celebrate. “Don’t settle for a mediocre ‘tie’, give it your best, spend your life on what really matters and lasts forever.” As I said, “tie” games are in fact sometimes the most dramatic and hard-fought. But we still want to “win.” It seems clear that the desire for winning in games has some higher implication about it. We are also, at the same time, involved in a greater game, one that lasts not ninety minutes, but forever.


The Pope emphasizes the comradeship of games. We learn on teams to “accept” one another. Francis touches on the difficult problem that all coaches and players have to deal with, namely, “Do we let everyone play, even if they are not very good?” The dramas of the world’s “Rudy’s” are well known—the kid who sits on the bench most of the time.

Teams have first teams, second teams, and sometimes third and fourth teams. In my day, the third team was usually what we called “live bait” for varsity practice to prepare for the next game. Yet, if the best do not play, we usually do not win. If we only let the best play, the others never get a chance to show what they can do. “I invite all managers and coaches to be, above all, accepting, capable of holding the door open to give each one, even the less fortunate, and an opportunity to express himself.” The perennial problem for coaches is how to follow this sage advice without losing.

The Pope even notes the importance of receiving a team “jersey,” as a sign of belonging to the team. The worldwide diffusion of T-shirts and jerseys of various sports from basketball and football, to soccer, baseball, and hockey, is visible everywhere. Not just players but fans by the thousands wear Ohio State jerseys or Juventus or 49er T-shirts. Belonging, as we see in the World Cup, NCAA finals, the Super Bowl, Wimbledon, or the U.S. Open includes more than the individuals who actually play the game. “And you, boys and girls, who experience joy when you receive your jerseys, the sign of belonging to your team, you are called to behave like true athletes, worthy of the jerseys that you wear.” I suspect the same talk could be given about Roman collars!

Francis next touches the idea of “teamwork,” playing with a team. “No individualism! No playing for yourselves.” Actually, golf and tennis, sports usually played by individuals, still have the notion of playing to win by the rules. There is a scene in The Great Gatsby of a young woman golfer who, in a tournament, probably cheated by moving the ball in her favor. It was rightly taken as a revealing sign of character.

The Pope warned the group about the athlete who is only in it for himself, for his own glory. Francis tells of a phrase in his homeland that describes this type: “The guy wants to devour the ball all by himself.” We used to call him a “ball-hog.” “To belong to a sports club means to reject every form of selfishness and isolation; it is an opportunity to encounter and be with others….”

He notices how many missionaries found sports a valuable way to contact the youth under their charges. He also mentions that many parishes and schools have sports facilities that have been important to them. (However, he does not mention Notre Dame.) The Pope thinks that sports should be integrated into Christian living.

Francis evidently was made an honorary “captain” of Italian sports clubs, but he is not shown wearing a jersey or ball cap. “I recommend that everyone get to play,” he adds, “not just the best, but everyone, with the advantages and limitations that each one has….” This sounds like what was called the Danish system, wherein everyone gets a ribbon, even if he comes in last. In one sense, every team includes those who are just learning to play. They will be varsity later on. If you play them before they are good enough, however, you lose. The principle of playing everyone risks the very essence of any game, the playing to win. If we just play to play, just to get exercise, there is no real game.

The emphasis in these reflections by Pope Francis is on “going forward,” getting better, but also on letting everyone play. The scene of the little kid who sits on the bench all through school is ever poignant. But another side of sports that, I think, is well to emphasize. What does it means to lose, to not be the best? In so many ways, learning to lose is far more important than learning to win.

If sixty-eight teams are eligible for the NCAA tournament, sixty-seven go home losers. We learn much of life by winning and striving to win, but we also learn much by losing, by losing according to the rules. “Cheaters always choke,” as we used to chide. But most losers are not cheaters. One of the great aspects of games is that no game can be played if there are no losers.

Human life itself is ultimately about losing it. In this sense, I think, sports are apt images of glory and defeat, and yes, of glory in defeat. If we win by cheating, we do not win. If we lose by playing well, in a real sense we win. We played the game the best we could as it should be played. We retain that honor that is symbolized by the shaking of the hand, the pat on the back. We recognize that someone is better than we are. Those who do not play so well are still worthy. Indeed, they are probably victors in other areas—education, work, public life.

“Always remember these three paths: school, sports, and job opportunities. Seek this always. And I assure you that this road won’t lead to drug and alcohol dependency and other vices.” “Captain” Francis is definitely an optimist!

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About James V. Schall, S.J. 180 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019) taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of over thirty books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His of his last books included On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018) and The Politics of Heaven and Hell: Christian Themes from Classical, Medieval, and Modern Political Philosophy (Ignatius, 2020).