How to report on a life of faith

dungyThe news of the death of James Dungy, son of Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy, came from left field Thursday morning and hit a community that lived and breathed news of its pro football team. Appropriately, The Indianapolis Star fired up its reporting engines and published a half-dozen stories covering the variety of angles, not the least of which was how this news would impact the recently undefeated football team.

The weight of the news was only moderated due to the fact that the team had lost five days earlier, ending an undefeated season. As Dungy left the team Thursday to be with his family, team officials seemed to repeat one word more than any other: faith. In the world of cynical sportswriters, no one failed to acknowledge that Dungy was a man of faith.

Local Star sports columnist Bob Kravitz weighed in with an excellent a column that summarized nearly everyone who associated with Dungy either as a fan or as a friend:

In Dungy’s life, service to God and his family rate as his two most important jobs, with his role of a football coach a distant third. From the moment he arrived on the scene as the head coach in Tampa Bay, Dungy has promoted faith-based initiatives that were aimed at turning men into solid, nurturing fathers. That’s what makes this so horribly ironic, so painfully difficult to comprehend.

It’s the hard lesson of parenthood you never want to learn: Sometimes, you can do everything right and it’s still not enough.

“I’ve learned many things from coach Dungy,” linebacker David Thornton said. “About fatherhood, about being a man of faith, about being a man of integrity.”

Prior to losing last week to the San Diego Chargers, commentators, in urging Dungy to push his team to go 16-0, would use the phrase “immortality” to describe how the Colts team would supposedly be rememebered if they went undefeated. Despite such promised aspirations, Dungy refused to buy into it and continued his mantra that winning the Super Bowl was the team’s mark of excellence. Perhaps Dungy’s knowledge of what it means to have true immortality kept him from getting carried away with the undefeated hype?

None of it matters any more to Dungy, not the streak, the season or even football. And even though it was in the back of every reporter’s mind, the question on how this could affect the team in the playoffs was not prominent in any of the articles or player’s statements. They all knew that football no longer mattered.

No one ever doubted Dungy’s faith and his dedication to his family and for this reason the news was all the more shocking and heart-felt.

In what I feel was a poor news decision, the Star ran this article on a Web site with an identity that the newspaper at the time of publication could not verify:

A profile on a popular free Internet community under the name James Dungy, with a photo of the Indianapolis Colts coach’s eldest son and apparent first-person narrative from him, told a different story.

The site contained pictures of handguns, marijuana, stacks of cash, gang signs and sexual positions. Heroes listed included “the D.C. Snipers.” It could not be verified that the site was created by Dungy, and it was taken offline Thursday afternoon.

Many friends were shocked at the site, in which Dungy appeared wearing a bandana over his nose and mouth beside text condemning the police.

Despite the fact that someone close to James Dungy stated that the Web site was a front, Star editors publicize the Web site in an article about what they believed to be a troubled person. No doubt James Dungy had problems and most likely committed suicide, but does that mean you run with a story associating him with a Web site when they cannot be 100 percent sure that it was his?

What’s next for this story? Dungy has talked in the past of retiring and going into prison ministry and spending more time with his family. Was James Dungy the child he wished he had spent more time with? Much of this will be Dungy’s decision to reveal. He is entitled to a certain amount of privacy, especially if he chooses to retire.

I have no doubt that the Star‘s sports department will continue to report the religious angle to this tragic story. They’ve done it before and it’s because religion is something they get.

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  • Chris H

    I think the real reason (ghost) GetReligion.org should be covering in/for this story is the double standard that exists between different public figures.

    The head coach has all the best people lauding him and his faith, with minimal editorial disparaging from the media.

    Yet this is very much not the case for elected officials, to wit, the first example that comes to mind – there are probably others, too.

  • David N

    Agree. It seems like those covering the story “get (the Dungys’) religion.” As a long-time Vikings fan, I’ve been aware of Tony’s reputation from his earliest coaching days in Minnesota. I think the key has been the consistency of his faith, his integrity and that he lets his actions speak louder than his words. Of course, the horror of this tragedy seems to make people (including journalists) more sensitive to those involved (with the apparent exception of those referred to about the web site). While there is still much to unfold about this situation, Dungy himself admits that he is no different than anyone else in terms of raising a family, dealing with hard relationship issues, etc. All of us stand in need of grace and mercy no matter how easy or difficult our circumstances appear. Peace on earth, good will to all and God’s comfort to those dealing with particularly hard circumstances (and may we, His followers participate in His administration of that comfort this season and always).

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  • http://www.newpantagruel.com DK

    The double standard is somewhat reasonable. Since there is no such thing as neutrality, reporting is implicit advocacy or criticism. As long as Dungy isn’t “political” about his religion, it’s cool because it’s benign and possibly good. Guys like Reggie White are in a different category.

    Why was it a poor decision to mention James Dungy’s blog?