Last week Tiger Woods won the Arnold Palmer Invitational and regained his title as the No. 1 golfer in the world, a title he had lost in 2010 after the consequences of his adulterous lifestyle caught up with him and affected his "game.” His faithful endorser Nike was quick to celebrate Woods’s return to the top with an ad stating, “Winning Takes Care of Everything” (pictured). Many PGA fans understood this message to mean that winning is all that really matters. Forget Tiger’s problems off the golf course; his game is back.
Tragically, today it seems that too many athletes, endorsers, and fans share this sentiment. Athletes are no longer held accountable as role models off the field as well as on it. Success in their respective sports reigns supreme. As long as they are winning, what they do in their personal lives is not important. This is tragic, because many fans look to them as role models—even in their personal lives—whether they like it or not. Pope John Paul II, an avid athlete himself, brought attention to this matter in an address to young athletes:
[P]eople tend to extol you as heroes, as human models who inspire ideals of life and action, especially among youth. And this fact places you at the center of a particular social and ethical problem. You are observed by many people and expected to be outstanding figures not only during athletic competitions but also when you are off the sport field. You are asked to be examples of human virtue, apart from your accomplishments of physical strength and endurance.
The main reason for this should be obvious. As role models, athletes are particularly susceptible to leading others astray in life. They are susceptible to giving scandal. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains: “Scandal is an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil. The person who gives scandal becomes his neighbor's tempter. He damages virtue and integrity; he may even draw his brother into spiritual death” (CCC 2284). Thus, athletes have a duty to their fans to lead lives of virtue because their fans may tend to emulate them. Being good examples to their fans is part of the loving care that is due them (cf. Matt. 19:19).
But even beyond a duty to their fans, athletes have a duty to themselves to not allow their successes to overshadow what is truly most important in their lives. There is a goal far greater than being the best at what they do in this temporal life, and that goal must always remain in focus. John Paul II went on to explain this in his address:
[T]here are certain values in your life which cannot be forgotten. These values will set you on that clear track which has to be followed in order for you to reach life’s ultimate goal.
Primary among them is the religious meaning of human existence. Sport, as you well know, is an activity that involves more than the movement of the body: it demands the use of intelligence and the disciplining of the will. It reveals, in other words, the wonderful structure of the human person created by God as a spiritual being, a unity of body and spirit. . . .
May this truth never be overlooked or set aside in the world of sport, but may it always shine forth clearly. For athletic activity is never separated from the activities of the spirit.
If athletes succeed at sports but overlook or set aside spiritual matters, where does that leave them? I’m reminded of Jesus’ words, “For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life?” (Matt. 16:26). And where does that leave sports? John Paul II continued:
If sport is reduced to the cult of the human body, forgetting the primacy of the spirit, or if it were to hinder your moral and intellectual development, or result in your serving less than noble aims, then it would lose its true significance and, in the long run, it would become even harmful to your healthy and full growth as human persons. You are true athletes when you prepare yourselves not only by training your bodies but also by constantly engaging the spiritual dimensions of your person for a harmonious development of all your human talents.
Athletes like San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers seem to understand John Paul II’s message. We should pray for such understanding among all athletes because, in the long run, winning really doesn’t take care of everything.