Can I get a witness?

JamesDid you all catch Frank DeFord’s rather pretentious defense of sportswriting in the Washington Post Book World Sunday? I love Frank DeFord and listen to him all the time on NPR and watch him on (the best sports show out there) HBO’s RealSports with Bryant Gumbel. I also love sportswriting. I’ll never forget the transformative experience that was reading Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes while on a transcontinental flight.

But not only did DeFord violate my rule against more than one French word in a paragraph, he told too many too-perfect stories. He acts like sportswriting is some derided ghetto when most folks think that the sports pages have the liveliest writing in newspapers across the land. Case in point is the Washington Post‘s Mike Wise and his excellent analysis of Nike’s new ad campaign that uses religious ideas to sell shoes:

At the Olivet Institutional Baptist Church on Quincy Avenue, on the fringes of East Cleveland, the guest minister’s voice rose with fervor on Sunday morning.

“We worship at the cathedral of entertainment,” warned Peter Matthews, “where athletes and rock stars are high priests and high priestesses.”

The pastor looked prescient if you drove 15 minutes toward downtown. An entire building’s facade is dedicated to a black-and-white mural of LeBron James. The basketball is held aloft like a torch pointed toward the heavens.

“We Are All Witnesses,” reads the most visible symbol of Nike’s ad campaign for James, Cleveland’s 21-year-old wunderkind, the NBA’s best young player since Magic Johnson.

The intersection of sports and religion is an area not mined enough. Last year Thomas Herrion, the offensive guard for the 49ers, collapsed and died after a preseason game. His casket was draped not in a baptismal pall but in a blanket with his team logo. And not that it ended well, but I found it interesting that stranded New Orleans residents were told to find sanctuary in the Superdome. Dell deChant, a professor of religion at the University of South Florida, has written a bit about the religious role sports play in our culture. Wise provides examples of the intersections:

Sports Illustrated christened James “the Chosen One” when he was 16 years old, which explains the large tattoo on his back. He also goes by “the Golden Child,” and “King James.”

The unabridged version, of course.

LeBron is not coached as much he is “shepherded” by Mike Brown. LeBron also did not lead the Cavs to the playoffs for the first time in eight years. No, he took them to the promised land.

The Cavs team store is not yet selling nativity scenes with Bron-Bron in a manger, but it’s only April.

Nice. The piece is enjoyable and thoughtful. And largely because of Wise’s original reporting — in a church no less! I wish more non-Godbeat reporters would see the value in considering the religious stories in their areas of coverage.

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  • http://www.geocities.com/hohjohn John L. Hoh, Jr.

    In Wisconsin the Packers have been an unofficial religion for decades. During football season the early services are better-attended than later services. There was even a paraphrase of the Lord’s Prayer with “Our Favre, who art in Lambeau, Brett be they name…” I think one fan even dresses as “St. Vince,” with full bishop regalia.

    And now that LeBron James has broken the ranks of high schoolers getting national attention, the “Milwaukee Journal Sentinel” just did a piece an an eighth-grader starting to get attention from college scouts and coaches.

  • http://www.geocities.com/hohjohn John L. Hoh, Jr.

    Related to this vein, the af2 (Arena Football 2) Birmingham Steeldogs will have a “Bible Night” in which the uniforms will feature Bible passages. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on 4/25/2006 also featured this and added that 40 teams in 5 leagues (yes, even the Atlanta Braves!) are doing something similar (called “Faith Nights”). Of course the coverage is not too in-depth–no reaction from anyone who might actually be opposed to this.

    http://steeldogs.com/scripts/newsdisplay.asp?record_no=6594

    http://pandagon.net/2006/04/19/gridiron-bible-beating/

    http://www.arenafan.com/news/?page=origcol&writer=104&article=1981

    http://www.usatoday.com/sports/baseball/minors/2005-07-21-faith-night_x.htm

    John


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