Yes, sports journalism is important

sports sectionIn the last GetReligion blog post that fit into the “sports” category, I engaged with a much appreciated regular reader in the comment section about the importance of sports journalism and religion. I want to expand upon those thoughts here and highlight yet another sports story that is sure to catch the comment section on fire douse the comment section with water.

Our posts on sports don’t get the most comments or much attention, but that doesn’t mean sports aren’t important or interesting in terms of journalists spotting or missing religion ghosts in their coverage. Sports coverage is a major part of journalism, and we can’t ignore the impact of large media outlets such as ESPN and Sports Illustrated and of course your local sports sections.

I’ve found that sports writers often get religion in a way that is rarely seen in other news sections. Other times the subject is ignored or skimmed over. Then there is Peter King who says he ignores athletes when they bring up religion because he gets tired of it, and sports writers report on “game-oriented” things, not Christianity.

The same reader who commented on the last sports-related post brought to our attention an ESPN story that exemplifies great reporting on a story about an individual who has been through a truly harrowing experience and lives with the consequences everyday:

It’s been precisely a year since a 2 1/2-inch spherical titanium shell shattered Henniger’s face, turning Security Service Field into a makeshift battlefield scene, and a glance in the mirror is all it takes to remind him that his life will never be the same. For 17 years, he’s been the main community link for the Triple-A Colorado Springs Sky Sox — the senior vice president of marketing, on-field master of ceremonies and goodwill ambassador for the franchise.

Now he’s a survivor in the truest sense of the word.

The story goes on for nearly 4,000 words. It is hard not to be moved by the story of recover, courage and at the very end, faith:

True to character, Henniger is quick to find the positive amid his travails. His ordeal has strengthened his faith in God and increased his appreciation for his family. He’s grateful to his doctors, nurses and therapists as well as the soldiers and DeLeon for saving his life. And he’s humbled and a bit perplexed by the attention he’s received while military men and women in distress — paraplegics and quadriplegics — so often suffer in silence. He plans to take an active role in Wounded Warriors, an organization that supports the families of injured or deceased soldiers.

Each day when he wakes up, Henniger recalls the advice he received from a Craig Hospital nurse early in his rehabilitation.

“You have a choice,” the nurse told him. “You can get better or you can be bitter, but you can’t be both.”

He made his choice a long time ago.

In what other area of the modern journalism world would a reporter with an audience reach like’s commit that level of resources to tell this type of story? Sports journalists have the benefit of possessing a greater opportunity to tell human-interest stories like these. But it also means that they have work that much harder to get the religion part of the story right.

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  • Chris Bolinger

    The blog post’s link to the story is broken. Here’s a working link.

    Here’s a quote from Henniger on “I remember when I first came out of [the coma],” Henniger said. “I thanked God for being alive and I thanked Him for my accident. I don’t know where it’s taken me or why it happened, but I’m open to the growth spiritually. It’s interesting because there are so many people at the hospital who have the same attitude that I do. They learn about themselves and relationships. It’s fascinating what happens to people after near-death experiences.”

    It would have been nice to see ESPN’s Crasnick give the topic of faith more than a single sentence. It is a minor flaw in an otherwise terrific story.

  • Catherina

    I noticed traces in an earlier New York Times story on David Tyree, and a Washington Post article on The Wizards’ Butler — both also talking about their move from crime to sports and the effect of faith in both lives.

    From the Times:

    Then one day, for no reason in particular, Tyree went to the Bethel Church of Love and Praise in Bloomfield, N.J. He sat in the back, about a month after the arrest.

    A woman started singing before the congregation, her voice, loud and passionate, filling the room. As Tyree listened, he felt her joy and realized he had none. He lowered his head into his hands and started crying, first sniffles, then sobs lasting 25 minutes.

    “I’m a successful player in the N.F.L., having what most people would desire for their lives,” Tyree said. “I’m at the pinnacle of sports. But I had no joy. I had no peace. My life was obviously in disarray.”

    From the Post:

    Butler decided that he’d never be in that position again. He read Bible verses his grandmother, Margaret Butler, had sent him. Butler said he was drawn mostly to 1 Corinthians 13:11, which reads, “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”

    One small window, sandwiched between steel bars, lit his room. Butler could peer out and see a basketball court.

    “God puts stuff in front of you for a reason,” he said. “That was my ticket out.” . . .

    . . . Last August, a fourth member of Butler’s original group of friends, Antonio Strong, also was shot and killed.

    “You see all that and you see people before they die, it’s a question you ask yourself, like ‘Why did God spare me like this, when I was out doing the same thing?’ I can’t stand going home and having to bury one of my friends. This gotta stop,” he said.

    “I just try to live life, live it the right way, live every day like it’s your last. Seeing all the crazy stuff in the world, you’ve got to truly, truly take advantage of the time you’re given here.”

    In September, Butler gave away about 700 coats to children at Gilmore Middle School in Racine after doing the same thing at a different school a year earlier. He also has given away bicycles and held a basketball camp. Such efforts led Racine Mayor Gary Becker to proclaim June 8 “Caron Butler Day.” Emotional during much of the ceremony, Butler finally broke down, openly weeping upon receiving a plaque from Becker.