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Creighton, Vatican host conference exploring ‘care for the whole athlete’

Jun 20, 2024
3 min Read
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A nearly decade-old tradition originally launched by Pope Francis made its way to Creighton University’s Omaha campus, June 17-19.

The 2024 Sport at the Service of Humanity (SSH) Conference, hosted in collaboration between Creighton and the Vatican Dicastery for Culture and Education, featured remarks from professional athletes, student-athletes, coaches, government officials, entrepreneurs, executives, clergy, and more. Participants discussed ways both sport and spirituality can create positive change.

“The power of sport, like faith, bridges differences,” Creighton President the Rev. Daniel S. Hendrickson, SJ, PhD, said. “It is a unifying factor that can bring people together. Sport and faith have the great ability to influence cultures by shaping the individuals they engage.”

SSH was launched in October 2016 during the First Global Conference on Faith and Sport at the Vatican. Since then, the conference has been hosted by several higher education institutions, including four other Catholic universities and three BIG EAST schools. 

“We extend our profound gratitude to Fr. Hendrickson and the Creighton University faculty and staff for hosting this year’s Vatican Sport at the Service of Humanity conference,” said Val Ackerman, commissioner of the BIG EAST Conference. “The mission of this initiative continues to resonate deeply with our conference, particularly our nine Catholic universities, as it aligns with our schools’ missions of fostering the athletic, intellectual and spiritual development of our student-athletes and leverages the intersection of faith and sport to drive positive societal change.” 

Val Ackerman and Daniel Hendrickson, SJ
Val Ackerman, commissioner of the BIG EAST Conference, left, and the Rev. Daniel S. Hendrickson, SJ, PhD, Creighton president, speak at the conference.

The 2024 SSH Conference began with a welcome and opening session that included remarks from Fr. Hendrickson, Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen, Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert, and the Most Rev. George Lucas, archbishop of the Archdiocese of Omaha. This year’s schedule allowed presenters and guests to see the communal aspects of sport through the lens of the NCAA Men’s College World Series (CWS), which was hosted concurrently at Charles Schwab Field. The eight-team NCAA men’s baseball tournament has been held in Omaha for more than 70 years with Creighton serving as host.

“For nearly 150 years now, Creighton has prepared students to be future leaders in business and government and family and faith who remain engaged in our community and contribute a great deal to [the city’s] success,” Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert said. “This week of course, Creighton and Omaha are hosts for the NCAA Men’s College World Series, which brings great athletic competition to Omaha and thousands of visitors to our great and growing city.” 

Topics addressed included the importance of representation in women’s programs, faith as a grounding force for executives in professional sports, the importance of embracing failure to move forward, the growing need for mental health among student-athletes, the need for access to sport for underserved communities and more. A consistent reflection among the presentations was the concept “live like you play” or, in many cases, “play like you live.”

Sport and faith have the great ability to influence cultures by shaping the individuals they engage.
— Daniel S. Hendrickson, SJ, PhD, Creighton President

“I’ve always felt like I was my best version of a basketball player when there wasn't the pressure that you have to get it right [that] you have to make the shot,” said Creighton alumnus Kyle Korver, BA’03, who also spent 17 seasons playing in the NBA and is currently assistant general manager of the Atlanta Hawks. “The most beautiful thing in all humanity is when humans use their good strengths and their natural selves to honor and create good for other people.”

In addition to Korver, presenters at SSH included: 

  • Kirsten Bernthal Booth, Creighton volleyball head coach 
  • Diane Mendenhall, president of the Omaha Supernovas professional volleyball team 
  • Val Ackerman, BIG EAST commissioner 
  • Bishop Paul Tighe, secretary of the Vatican Dicastery for Culture and Education 
  • Brett Maher, NFL placekicker 
  • Clete Blakeman, attorney at law for Carlson & Blakeman, LLP, and NFL referee 
  • David Eades, former presenter at BBC World News and board chair for SSH 
  • Kevin Melcher, executive director and founder of SAVE (Students Activities Value Education) 

In one of the more exciting announcements of the conference, Creighton previewed a new “Sport at the Service of Humanity” eight-week graduate course that is already available to apply for. The offering will be open to non-degree-seeking students and incorporated as a for-credit elective for degree-seeking students; it is a first for Creighton and the SSH. 

With the conclusion of the conference coinciding with Juneteenth federal holiday, the culmination of the days-worth of sessions highlighted the importance of equitable access to opportunity in sport and in life. This sentiment will continue on when the conference is held once again next year.

“By design, this SSH Conference facilitated the continuation of impactful dialogue, and surfaced insights at the intersection of sport and faith,” said Philip Leopold, CEO and executive director of the Sport at the Service of Humanity Foundation. “Together with Creighton and their guests, SSH will now push forward with a full fresh dose of inspiration.”