Sports reporters turning to God

ray lewisThe domain of sports reporting often overlaps into religion, and appropriately so. The best sports reporting focuses on people, and people are often religious.

I always find it interesting when sports reporters decide to put the religion issue front and center. Was the religious element front and center in the subject’s life? Or is religion front and center in the reporter’s life? Or a combination of the two?

Two religion-in-sports stories caught our attention recently. First, GetReligion reader Bill Caraher pointed us to last week’s Sports Illustrated cover piece on Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis. The cover art is clear on what this piece is about, and anyone who has a scant idea of Ray Lewis’s background would understand the clashing of symbols and stories.

Where to start with this piece? Caraher suggests that we look at the end, which contains some not so subtle language that I think nips at the idea that journalists often see the athletes they cover as some type of modern-day heroes whose stories have the potential to change lives:

“What do y’all want me to do, seriously?” Lewis says of his critics. “The thing you’ve praised me for — being a courageous leader — is the same thing y’all trying to crucify me for now. I’m doing what you want, to say, ‘Dammit, I’m not going to put up with this!’ and suddenly [the team] said, ‘Ray wanted to talk about money.’ I never played this game for money, but now I do?”

Yes, there’s that word again: crucify. It’s no slip. Lewis won’t go so far as to call himself the Second Coming, but he’s close to believing himself a prophet of sorts, and if martyrdom is the price, so be it. “God has me to do what people are afraid to do: tell the truth,” he says. “Yes, racism does exist. Hatred exists every day. I’m not afraid. The worst thing that could happen to me — and I don’t see it as the worst — is to be killed and go to heaven.”

Delusional? Maybe. There are many who won’t take kindly to Ray Lewis, of all people, telling them how to live. After Baltimore’s season-opening win at Tampa Bay this season, three of Lewis’s sons were standing outside the Ravens’ locker room, their dad’s name and number on their backs. A woman walked up to their mother and, speaking just above their heads, hissed, “I can’t believe you let your kids wear that murderer’s jersey.”

It’s a story of a redeemed and reformed modern-day athlete that focuses as much on Lewis’ religious convictions as his own self-absorption and hero status. Lewis is the one who is booed when he enters stadiums. Lewis is the one who has reformed his life by turning to God. The story is sadly more about Lewis than it is about God.

Revelation 195Stepping over to the National Basketball Association, ESPN.com’s Sam Alipour got to spend some time with Lamar Odom of the Los Angeles Lakers, who has his own redemption story to tell.

While this piece deals with some random theological issues, it’s largely because Odom’s new line of T-shirts were deemed controversial by Alipour, who took issue with the shirt’s image of Jesus Christ.

I wouldn’t want to get in a street fight with the dude whose image is emblazed on Lamar Odom’s soon to be unveiled T-shirt line. And that’s partly because it’s the image of The Dude, himself. Jesus, with “white like wool” hair, eyes of “blazing fire” and feet — or, in this case, face — of “burnished bronze.” So, is it extreme? According to Odom’s interpretation of Revelation, Chapter 1, Verses 14 and 15, it’s accurate.

. . . “The book says his hair was ‘white like wool,’ which doesn’t sound like long stringy hair to me,” he explains. “It doesn’t talk about blue eyes. Hopefully, these shirts will be a big-time history lesson as well. The description of Jesus in the Bible is never used. He made people nervous, scared. He didn’t look ordinary.”

What, eyeballs of raging fire aren’t ordinary?

“Yeah, the first thing people say is why’s there fire in his eyes? It’s kind of demonic,” Odom admits. “But if you read the Bible verse, I don’t think the Son of Man will be too happy when he returns. The world has been flipped upside down.”

Well, that’s interesting. It’s also interesting that Alipour never made it clear what Odom’s beliefs are. We just know he is spiritual. And that’s great, if that’s all he is, except he decided to skip over a major religion issues that could have produced some interesting, or maybe not so interesting, commentary on the potential intersection of Islam and Christianity in Odom’s life:

Odom has made it his mission to educate himself on the world’s religions, including enlisting the guidance of a Muslim cleric and family friend to learn about Islam. The lesson was driven home when Odom visited Istanbul, Turkey, during the ’04 Olympics.

“There’s unity in Istanbul, where 99 percent are Muslim,” Odom says. “In America, we’re divided, even within Christianity. Presbyterians, Catholics, Baptists — there’s no unity. Too often, religion means infighting and holy wars and territory.”

It’s great to focus on Odom’s depiction of “The Dude” on T-shirts, but if we don’t know what Odom actually believes, we’re all left hanging.

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  • Don Neuendorf

    You know, I always thought of Samson as a jock. And that was before I became aware of some of what passes for religion in the sporting world. If that cover pic of Lewis isn’t PhotoShopped, that is if he actually posed that way, then it’s pretty tough to take his reformation seriously. Why should we take it seriously if HE doesn’t?

    This makes me think of that phrase that Rush Limbaugh likes to use, “talent on loan from Gaaawww…duh!” And that’s the way that a believer in the Creator of the Universe models his faith?

    Journalists who cover these guys surely can’t be gullible enough to cast them in the Bible-hero role. I have to believe they’re doing that because they know their subscribers buy the magazine looking for that kind of thing. So they play it up. Then… when they suffer any moral failure (and here especially including those athletes who had a sincere and heartfelt faith) then they milk the shock for all its worth.

    Maybe the best point of comparison for this circus is Championship Wrestling. You can never quite be sure when the player is putting on an act and when he’s the real deal. But who cares? It’s all about the show.

  • Hans

    Of course, you also have TO’s comments about how he is misunderstood like Jesus. Does anybody remember when Tupac put out that album under the name Machiavelli, with an image of Tupac himself being crucified, accompanied with a sticker disclaimer that this image was in no way meant to disrespect Christ? Also, wasn’t there a Nas (was it Nas?) video a few years ago that featured him being crucified as well?

    This rather odd take on the final beatitude–which conveniently manages to forget that the persecution that comes is on account of following Christ and not on account of being a butt-munch–seems to transcend sports. I’d imagine that the First Church of Morally Compromised Egotists Toting their Spiritualistic Supremacy, which houses this doctrine, has members in all walks of life. Wasn’t their first pope John Lennon, by the way?

    I wasn’t able to read the article, but I’m sure part of the juicy allure is that there’s great, um, is drama the right word?, in Ray Lewis’s spiritual journey considering he basically killed a guy and got away with it. I recognize that such conflict makes for good reading. But it also runs the risk of presenting a rather poor image of what the faith is for most Christians in times of trouble.

    Coach Tony Dungy and Middle Linebacker Gary Brackett, both of my beloved Indianapolis Colts, have each clung to their faith in times of immense personal crosses. And real ones, not some supposed cross of people in the media saying mean things about you during a contract dispute. There may be more sensationalism with Ray Lewis, but there are much worthwhile stories with people such as Dungy and Brackett.

  • dpulliam

    Hans, aside from the fact that I am a huge Indianapolis Colts fan, I would have to agree with you that Dungy and Brackett have exhibited a much more consistent faith than most others in professional sports. And their stories have been adequately told, so I don’t have much to complain about there.

  • Eric Weiss

    The Greek text reads:

    “the and head of-him and the hairs white (feminine plural nominative to agree with ‘hairs’) as (KJV Greek text: “as-if”) wool white (neuter singular nominative to agree with ‘wool’) as snow.”

    To put it into better English:

    “And His head and [His] hair(s) [were] white as white wool, as snow.”

    The second “white” has to go with “wool” and not with “snow,” as “snow” is a feminine noun and “white” is in its neuter form so as to agree with “wool.”

    (One could also translate it as: “And His head and [His] white hair(s) [were] as white wool, as snow,” but that is not probable, because John would not have said “His white hair(s)” unless he had previously mentioned or described His hair as being white.)

    Thus it’s the hair’s color, not its texture, that St. John described.


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