The case of the buried lead

bsg buried treasure2If the news is buried, is it really news? Certainly, if GetReligion points it out.

The Boston Globe‘s Amalie Benjamin profiles the “comeback victory” of New England Patriots linebacker Don Davis. Nice bit of reporting and writing, but as our reader Mark pointed out in a letter to the paper’s ombudsman, the article’s real news was buried deep inside the yarn.

But first, here’s the nut graph of the article:

His playbook was gone, left behind in New Orleans, as the Saints had requested. He had been released that November day in 1998, a linebacker sent out into the unforgiving abyss that greets NFL castoffs. He hitched the U-Haul to the Mustang and drove, his tears obscuring the highway.

What am I going to do with my life? How am I going to recover? Who am I?

He had no answers.

”I drove straight from New Orleans to Kansas City with my phone off and nothing but hate and anger and sadness,” said Davis. ”Those 14 hours, I would say, were critical. That’s when everything came to a head. That’s when I really needed that time to look at me and see who I was and what I was planning on doing. I really had no idea, outside of football, who I was.”

He made no plans, had no unsettling thoughts of how and when, but suicide was in his mind.

Tremendous reporting, excellent narrative, but it’s not until the 35th paragraph do we read what Mark believes to be the hook of the story:

Those eyes, ever shifting, have caught only one player with the potential to hit the depths he experienced. Davis, deeply religious, thanks God that the player didn’t act.

I’m with Mark in that this aspect of Davis’ life certainly deserved a bit of digging. I can’t imagine that this is all Benjamin knew of Davis’ religious beliefs. Otherwise how would Benjamin be able to write that he was “deeply religious”? The problem is that that assertion is not backed up and leaves the reader hanging.

And here is what our reader Mark wrote to Benjamin and the ombudsman:

Here’s a man whose life was in the pits, but seven years later is a calm, mature leader on a championship football team. What made the difference? What produced this life change? How did this transformation take place? What people, conversations, or organizations assisted him? We get nary a whisper of answers to these questions — except those two words, “deeply religious.”

I am reasonably certain that that Don told you quite clearly what his salvation was, and I don’t think it was sleep (para. 10). By failing to let him tell us also you not only didn’t address the basic 5 Ws of journalism but also did your readers a grave disservice.

We’ll see if the ombudsman gets back to Mark on this, but I am curious why this aspect of the story was buried. I don’t know whether the religious aspect of his life belong in the lead, but certainly questions were unanswered.

Other sportswriters have no problem covering sports figures’ faith. Indianapolis Star sportswriters covering the Colts often cite head coach Tony Dungy’s deep faith. Here’s an example in coverage leading up to his 100th win:

“He was a huge reason why I came here,” [Pro Bowl defensive tackle Corey] Simon said. “He doesn’t allow the game to run his life. Family is very important to him and his faith in God and his relationship with Jesus Christ is very important to him, and those are two things that I value very highly in a person, especially a person who’s going to be my coach.

Could this just be an East Coast media thing?

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  • ralphg

    The religion aspect was buried because the reporter does not grok it.

    Also, I wonder if there is a backlash against faith in sports. I mean, how hypocritical is it when a player thanks God for winning. What do relifious players on the losing team say?

  • Bob Smietana

    The Patriots are an interesting study in religion and sports. Scott Pioli, who’s in charge of drafting and signing players (and twice won the NFL exec. of the year award) has said the team looks for (along with ability) the three Fs in a player: football, family, and faith. They don’t care which order, but those are the priorities they look for.

    On the other hand, players are remarkably closed mouthed about faith. Their walk the walk, don’t talk the talk, approach, fits in NE, where, unlike the Midwest, people don’t talk as much about faith in public. The best line of the piece on Davis came where he said that he didn’t want his life to be remembered as “suicide to Superbowl.”

    The Globe ran a long feature on the Red Sox, who apparenly have one of the highest level on chapel attendance in MLB, but outside of Curt Schilling, don’t talk much about it. When asked if God wanted the Sox to win last year, relief pitcher Mike Meyers said, “”I don’t know what he thinks. If I knew that, I’d be God.”

  • Herb Ely

    We read 15 paragraphs into this Washington Post story about Bunny Greenhouse to find that “She is broad-shouldered, elegant, devoutly Christian. Mrs. Greenhouse’s story is an up from poverty story for a woman now out of favor with the US Army Corps of engineers. It is a story about integrity and an attempt to oppose wasteful spending by Halliburton in the run-up to the war in Iraq. Writer Neely Tucker tells a good story about her heroism. She fails consider how Mrs. Greenhouse’s faith and family might have formed her.

  • MJBubba

    It is not surprising that sports figures or anyone else in Boston would be reticent to discuss their faith. Religion in Boston is bad manners. I spent a year in Boston and found it to be bereft of public religion, compared to my southern homeland. In fact, I found that, in my office, nearly half the workers were Christians, but each one felt very alone, not knowing that they had company. Boston had sucked the life out of the fellowship of believers.

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  • Michael

    Scott Pioli, who’s in charge of drafting and signing players (and twice won the NFL exec. of the year award) has said the team looks for (along with ability) the three Fs in a player: football, family, and faith. They don’t care which order, but those are the priorities they look for.

    Further evidence that professional athletes live in a different world than everyone else. In what other workplace would “family and faith” be proper criterion for hiring someone? These are football players, not ministers.

  • Mark D.

    I received a reply from the reporter, and have invited her to join this conversation directly.

  • Lucas Sayre

    Daniel, I think you are probably onto something here, but it is not certain. The focus of the article is the importance of having people in your life: friends, family, teammates, etc. The quotes from the article show that Davis emphasizes this to some degree and this is why he tries to be there for other players.

    Davis’s faith may have played a role, but it may not have played much of one either. He may have been quite faithful even when he was depressed and contemplating suicide. The two are not mutually exclusive, even though perfect faith would preclude suicidal thoughts.

    This highlights the assumption you make in the post.

    As to Michael’s comment, I could not disagree more. Faith brings with it inspiration. I played football at a Catholic high school, and I know that the faith of the players did two things: first, it bred team unity and community, and second, it gave us motivation to play for something greater than ourselves.

    I think this motivation can apply in careers and the job world, in addition to sports.

    Family, additionally, helps make a person stable, and thus a better worker or sports player.

  • Bob Smietana

    Michael’s comment that professional athletes live in another world is more true that he knows.

    In what other profession do you take 53 people, make them practically live together for 7-8 months, with coaches running them into the ground and dictating their every action, then send them out onto of field to beat another team senseless for three hours.

    Faith and family promote the kind of stability needed to thrive in that environment. Michael Holley’s entertaining book, Patriot Reign, gives an insider’s look at life with the Pat, and it’s an intense place. These coaches expect perfection, and woe to anyone who messes up.

  • Michael

    All of that may be true, but athiests and agnostics and single people can obtain perfection on the football field. There’s nothing so unique about faith and family that should make them job requirements.

  • Lucas Sayre

    Michael, neither I nor Scott Pioli said that it is 100% impossible to be a good football player without faith and family.

    However, when they are two factors which lean towards talent on the field as well as team unity and strength, then it makes sense that an organization might want to make them priorities.

  • Michael

    Replace “faith and family” with “white and wealthy” and see whether it still seems like a proper priority for making hiring decisions.

  • Lucas Sayre

    White or black, poor or wealthy, having strong faith and being involved in a family are factors that lead to a person being stable and towards team unity.

    Obviously if that person stinks at football, then they still won’t be an asset to the team. All factors must be balanced.

    Furthermore, faith must be considered on a subjective and individual basis. It would not be enough that a prospective player merely assign himself to a religion. As a coach, I’d want to get to know the person on a more personal level.

    Race and wealth, even if they are as you imply factors that might lead towards stability, are group factors, and do not by themselves indicate a person’s stability or team-friendliness.

    Your analogy would only hold if Scott said that he wanted people who belonged to a Christian church. But that isn’t what he said.

  • Michael

    do not by themselves indicate a person’s stability or team-friendliness.

    And neither do faith and family. Fred Phelps has a strong faith and family, but he’s probably neither stable or a good team player. And how does all this God-talk sound to Muslims in the NFL? or single men? or gays?

    I really do understand this idea that football players need a level of cohesiveness (although, arguably, a group of corporate executives may spend more time together than football players and you surely couldn’t use “faith and family” as hiring criteria in corporate America). But professional sports has a uniquely close tie to religion that we shouldn’t dismiss as harmless.

  • Lucas Sayre

    Michael, neither I nor Scott ever mentioned “God” or a specific religion. Faith can include many religious beliefs.

    You took out a small quote of mine, but you missed the core of my argument, which was that a manager of a team has to look at a person on an individual level to determine the role of faith and family in their lives. It would be absurd to say that a manager cannot or should not take these factors into account in an interview. And these factors transcend race, so the mere fact that a person is of a certain race or of certain wealth, is not demonstrative.

    There is nothing in this framework which would preclude gays or Muslims. I cannot speak for Scott, but if I were a manager, I could recognize the faith of a Muslim or the family ties of a gay man, just as easily as I could of a Christian or a straight man.

    Your assumptions are telling.

  • Michael

    Faith can include many religious beliefs.

    But in professional sports, faith is almost always conservative Christianity. The tension between Evangelicals and non-Evangelicals in the locker room has been probed by sports reporters who raised the concerns of Muslims and Jews, for instance, who felt ostracized in the NFL by white owners and managers who were committed Christians.

    To not think that “faith and family” doesn’t mean a conservative Christian take on those terms may be a telling assumption, but denying it seems to be a telling naivete.

  • Lucas Sayre

    I’m sure what you say is sometimes the case, but you have no evidence to suggest it is with Scott.

    The realm of religion is not entirely as it used to be. For instance, Catholics and hard-line protestants used to be much more conflictual with each other and unwelcoming. I think those attitudes are fading. I think such is also the case between Christians and other religions to a certain extent.

  • Russ Pulliam

    I thought your point about coverage of Tony Dungy in contrast to the Boston example was interesting. It is hard for reporters to find the right language for these changes in our lives. Some just are not comfortable writing about it. I Cor. 2:14 may be a factor for some reporters, though I sense more reporters today are seeing some sense of need to become more familiar with the issues in salvation even if it does not always strike a bell with their own experience.

  • Bob Smietana


    If you followed the Pats at all (and as a New Englander by birth I do), you’d know that the team does not speak in conservative Christian tones, nor talk much about their faith. Some of the team leaders (ie, Tom Brady) are Catholic, but the whole faith and family thing is very much under the service. You won’t find, however, guys who’ve been arrested, or taking wild sex-filled boat rides (like in Minnneapolis) or mouthing off to the media, or complaining about anything in general. They seem to want people who 1) can play football, 2) are stable, and 3) are well behaved.

    The team’s owner is Jewish and very open about his belief in character and hard work and his responsibility to the community. If his management team were discriminating by recruiting only conservative Christians, he’d likely raise some hell about it.