Sportswriters don’t get religion

colts prayingThe National Football League’s 2008 regular season is underway, and once again the issue of religion is sliding through the cracks of the league’s public image control machine. For starters, The Indianapolis Star kicked off the 2008 season with a nice front-page feature on Indianapolis Colts head coach Tony Dungy as a run-up to that night’s season opener.

The story by Mark Montieth, who typically writes about basketball and the NBA, is local. The headline reminds us all that Dungy is still a man of faith, if we somehow forgot after his post-Super Bowl talk and his book publicity tour. The final section of the multi-section story, and the most interesting, deals with the “few complaints” about Dungy’s frequent mentions of his faith:

Religion can be a divisive subject, and any publicly expressed opinion on it is likely to draw criticism. Dungy, grandson of a Baptist minister, isn’t immune.

Some people thinks he blurs the line between church and football by crediting God for victories, as he did after the Super Bowl.

Rick Telander, a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, counted 10 references to “God,” “Lord” or “Christian” in Dungy’s post-game remarks after the Super Bowl and objected to Dungy stating that he and Bears coach Lovie Smith were “Christian coaches showing you can win doing it the Lord’s way.”

“Where does the sports teaching end and the proselytizing begin?” Telander wrote.

Maybe Telander is still sore over the events earlier this year in Miami, but aren’t there better things to complain about regarding the NFL than Dungy’s frequent Jesus-is-the-center-of-my-life remarks? Maybe Dungy has something good going for him and he wants to share it? There is little evidence that league officials are concerned about Dungy’s frequent mentioning of his faith, but if they are, their priorities are out of sorts.

I’m glad Montieth mentioned this issue in the news story, because the facts show that for the most part these complaints are sour grapes.

faith in footballChristianity Today took on the subject in its most recent cover story by Mark Moring, asking whether the NFL is fumbling religion. The story focuses on the cease-and-desist order sent to an Indianapolis church regarding its Super Bowl party plans, the league’s efforts in the 1990s to discourage players from gathering midfield after games to pray and the league’s policies on not wearing anything but league gear, which resulted in a player being fined for wearing a baseball cap that had a cross on it:

When its public image is threatened, the NFL is quick to do damage control. Still, are these just isolated incidents? Or does the league have a begrudging acceptance of Christians — and Christianity? …

Generally, the NFL has no problem with players “loving God with their lives.” But talking about Jesus Christ can be trickier. Several Christian players said the league would prefer that its players act like Christians, but not necessarily say they’re Christians.

“The NFL certainly adores the manner in which Christians walk,” said Bears team chaplain Harry Swayne, who played in the league for 14 years. “But they surely wish we’d do less proselytizing, absolutely.”

Good questions are raised about the league’s policies, but the most revealing quotes come from some sports journalists who cover the league:

Post-game prayer huddles — where players from both teams gather to kneel at midfield—became popular around 1990. That’s when Sports Illustrated columnist Rick Reilly penned a blistering commentary, saying that the prayer huddles were offensive to people of other faiths and that he didn’t want players to “shove their religion down my throat.”

Peter King, a Sports Illustrated senior writer who has covered the league for nearly two decades, said he sometimes tires of players bringing up their faith after a game. “To be honest with you, people like me just totally ignore that, because we’re not writing about religion,” King said. “We’re not writing about somebody’s Christianity. Once the questions veer off into game-oriented things, that’s when I start taking notes.”

King isn’t down on Christians. Some of his favorite players — including Dilfer and Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner — are believers. King lauds them as men of integrity, and added that Smith and Dungy “are among the most moral men you will ever find.”

What does that tell us about “people like” Peter King? I hope most journalists don’t “just totally ignore” things that coaches bring up after a football game. Does King speak for other sports journalists when he says this? I hope not.

I am not convinced that the league is anything but what it says it is on religious issues. As the NFL’s spokesman says, the league has no policies restricting players or coaches from expressing their faith within the uniform policies and onfield conduct rules. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a story here.

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  • Chris Bolinger

    I am a big fan of sportswriter Terry Pluto, who recently went from the Akron Beacon Journal to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Pluto gets religion. When he spoke at my church a few years ago, I asked him a question about pro athletes and their professions of faith. I can’t remember his answer exactly, and I don’t want to misquote him, but my recollection is that he said to be careful not to take a player’s profession of faith at face value. In other words, it is somewhat fashionable to be a Christian professional athlete.

    When I hear an athlete start an interview with, “I want to thank my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ”, I assume that the athlete has been instructed to “give glory to God first”. I can see how such practices are tiresome to some reporters, and I am not surprised that those reporters tune out until the athlete starts talking, well, like an athlete. (Of course, coaches and agents train athletes on how to answer reporters’ questions, but that’s a different topic.)

    A reporter has to identify those athletes and coaches whose faith permeates their lives. Dungy is an obvious example. If a reporter can’t distinguish between a Dungy and any old sports figure who throws God a bone when his team wins and never mentions God otherwise, then the reporter doesn’t get religion. Many sports reporters, like other reporters, don’t. That’s why you have this blog.

  • Undergroundpewster

    I have a priest who “doesn’t get” sports. Now you show me that sports reporters don’t get religion. The ghost in the story is the question of how the NFL and its sponsors feel about open displays of religion.
    As a sidebar, if the NFL is down on religion, how come they allow the Saints to play each week? Maybe the NFL likes to see the Saints lose and has set up this whole complex conspiracy to bash religion. People used to say Pete Rozell hated the Saints. Current theories on why the New Orleans Saints have never won a Super Bowl are more religion based. One theory holds that God wants his Saints to be dead before they win their glory. Another theory involves martyrdom and being eaten by wild animals (Bears, Lions, Panthers etc.) in the arena. Perhaps a sports writer out there will someday get religion and be able to write “Long suffering Saints raised to glory.”

  • Julia

    The folks here in the St Louis area got really tired of Kurt Warner constantly giving God the credit when the team won. He was also frequently on PSAs for a local Christian church. It was just over-kill and turned people off. Interesting that he never mentioned the Lord when the team lost or he played badly.

    I don’t fault reporters for not “getting religion” if you mean not mentioning the player’s faith and his religious speeches. They are writing about sports, not religious affiliations and beliefs. With Kurt Warner, however, it did eventially became part of the story because he was constantly talking about his faith and it was getting tiresome – that was the story – how irritated people were getting with him, players and fans. He was aggressively proselytizing and that’s not why people watch sports.

    I don’t have any problem with prayer circles after the game, but why should a reporter be covering them? I don’t think there is any reporting about quickie signs of the cross or wearing of crosses – those are personal to the player and are not intrusive advertisements for one’s church. No need to cover that kind of thing on the sports page or TV.

  • Julia

    As far as the “Saints” go – there is no proselytizing associated with the team’s name. It’s from the song “When the Saints go Marching In” which is often associated with New Orleans. Nothing more to it. It’s analagous to the St Louis “Blues” hockey team – the name is from a song associated with the town. Nobody from the Saints team is crediting novenas when the team wins a game.

    Are you inferring that the San Diego “Padres” are proselytizing with their name? San Diego happens to be the site of one of the many missions founded all along the Pacific coast by Spanish priests AKA Padres. It’s part of the history of the settling of California when it was Spanish. Nobody is crediting Padre Junipero Serra with team wins nor are they lighting candles to him on TV after successful games.

    Fans don’t want religious preaching from sports figures any more than they want political advice from rock stars and movie actors. At least the fans I know are of that opinion.

  • Undergroundpewster

    The naming of the New Orleans Saints after the song “When the Saints go Marching In” is another urban legend. Official legend is that the team was born on all Saints Day Nov. 1, 1966. I was there at the time, and I have developed my own theory. Many names were suggested by the public and “Saints” was chosen by John Mecom Jr. at the time people were thinking “Mahn he crazy!” Everyone knew you should name a team after a ferocious beast if you hoped to inspire your football players to go out and beat up another team. We all said it would never work to have the coach try to give a pep talk by saying, “Now go out there and play like Saints!” Mr. Mecom and the sportscasters of the day Wayne Mack and Hap Glaudi explained that the city had so many churches, the saints’ days were always honored, so many streets were named after saints, and St. Louis Cathedral was a symbol of the city that the name made sense to them. A few of us knew of course that the team was named after the St. Martins Saints sports teams (a small Episcopal school just down the road from the Saints training camp on David drive).

  • Peggy

    One year later to Julia,

    I’ve been away for a decade, but in the 80s and probably prior, it was tradition for the organist to play “When the Saints Go Marching In” at the end of a game or maybe of a period as well, since “Saints” is a blues song. As you say the team name is from song called “St Louis Blues.”