Sporting statements, sacred and profane
April 19, 2013
By Paul McMullen
High-profile sporting events have long been an inviting
platform for someone looking to make a statement.
Terrorism as we know it began at the Munich Olympics in
1972, when 11 Israeli athletes and coaches were taken hostage and killed by
Palestinians. Four years earlier, in Mexico City, two black sprinters from the United
States were banished from the Olympic Village after protesting on the medal
podium about racism.
The marathon was a celebration of humanity’s perseverance
– until 2004 at the Athens Olympics, when a deranged former priest from Ireland
barged onto the course and pushed a front-running Brazilian, ending his bid for
Now we have the Boston Marathon, the world’s most iconic
footrace, shaken by the worst terrorist act on U.S. soil since 9/11. The
carnage is replayed on our digital screens, field trips are canceled for
schoolchildren too young to remember the Twin Towers, and all are on a heightened
Contrast all that hate and horror with the words a
college lacrosse coach uses in May, the month of Mary, when the ESPN cameras
are on and sportswriters take note of his every word.
“First thing I want to do is thank our Lord and his
Blessed Mother for this great opportunity.”
Win or lose, in the press conferences that follow NCAA
tournament games, that message is typical for Bill Tierney.
From 1992 to 2002, when Tierney’s Princeton University
team went 6-2 in NCAA finals, it was a compelling moment most Memorial Days,
when the college championship game is played.
An entrepreneur in search of a new challenge, Tierney
became the coach at the University of Denver after the 2009 season. Just as he
had done at Princeton, he made the Pioneers into a national power, one that
reached the NCAA semifinals in 2011.
Tierney was an assistant coach at Johns Hopkins
University in the 1980s, has long made camp and recruiting stops here and was
back in Baltimore April 13, when Denver scored a big overtime win at Loyola
University Maryland, the defending NCAA champion.
Three days earlier, Tierney reluctantly talked about the
very public profession of his Catholic faith.
“When I thank the Blessed Mother and her son, I do so
knowing what a great sinner I am,” Tierney said. “If I have achieved anything
that others might think is successful; if I have done anything good, I realize
that I’ve been blessed. Therefore, I must give thanks.”
Skeptics who have seen Tierney, 61, work officials with a
zeal somewhere between Mike Krzyzewski and Earl Weaver might find his words
hypocritical, but his roots and the duality of his nature underscore his unique
“My Dad was a GI, and drove a beer truck,” said Tierney.
“My Mom was a school nurse. Anyone who knows me knows that both are a part of
Tierney grew up on Long Island, and returned there after
college to teach at St. Bernard School, “P.E. on Monday, Thursday and Friday,
remedial math on Tuesday and Wednesday, when the gym was being used for bingo.”
Tierney said that “Growing up, I was rather shy and
quiet, and worried about peer pressure.”
He was not an obvious candidate to risk alienation in a
sports marketplace in which golfers and stock-car drivers are plastered with
logos and Michael Jordan famously refused to endorse a politician, saying that
“This,” Tierney said, “is a challenge for me.”
In an arena in which the word sacrifice is overused,
however, his bow to Jesus and Mary brings welcome perspective.
Paul McMullen is managing editor of the Catholic Review.