Sporting statements, sacred and profane

April 19, 2013

 

By Paul McMullen

pmcmullen@CatholicReview.org

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 the
gold medal.

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 alert.

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 Marian devotion.

“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 my façade.”

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 “Republicans wear
sneakers too.”

“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.