Professor explores faith, sport connection

Father Patrick Kelly, as pictured on the Detroit Mercy website.


For hundreds of years, sports and religion have been an extremely influential part of human culture and society, and to the Detroit Mercy associate professor Father Patrick Kelly, SJ, these things have always been connected.

These issues have been central to Kelly’s research and writing. Kelly has authored two books related to Catholicism and sports, and he teaches the course “Sport and Spiritual Traditions.”

Sports were an incredibly large part of who he was as a kid all the way until college, where he played football at Grand Valley State University.

While in college, Kelly connected with his faith and started to wonder how sports fit into his life.

“I asked if I was supposed to put sports behind me,” said Kelly. “I couldn’t separate the two. Sports have helped my growth.”

As he continued his training as a Jesuit at Detroit Mercy and as a doctoral student, Kelly wondered what would constitute a Catholic approach to sports.

To answer his questions, he turned to St. Thomas Aquinas, who argued humans need play and recreation.

Catholic schools have used Aquinas’ reasoning for centuries, giving children time and place to play, allowing them to enjoy sport.

But how does this connect to the modern world? How have these ideas been adapted into modern culture?

Kelly believes the “play” element is disappearing from sports, especially at the youth level, where kids are most impressionable.

“Sports are being used as a means to an end,” said Kelly. “Because of the amount of specializing, you have kids dropping out of sports. It’s not fun for them anymore.”

This breakdown of the enjoyment can be seen at all levels of sport, as well, he said.

The elite and high level of play suffers from the need for success, he believes.

“One way you can see the element of play receding is by how many people are cheating,” said Kelly. “Sports have become connected to an external good and a need to win.”

Because of money and fame, many people will stop at nothing to become the best and win, even if that means removing the enjoyment of the sport, he said.

This overuse of the body has led to more serious injuries from a younger demographic, he added: Kids are putting their bodies on the line.

This has a Jesuit connection for Kelly.

“The dignity of the person should be front and center,” said Kelly. “A person does not exist to serve the sport, the sport should exist to serve the person.”

This can be looked at as a larger cultural issue as well, not just in sports, he said. External goods may have become more meaningful than intrinsic rewards.

A culture surrounding money, fame and success has led to sports being treated as means to an end rather than a chance to play and find enjoyment and losing a spiritual aspect of the game, Kelly said.