A ‘lousy night’ for atheists?

josh hamiltonWhen Josh Hamilton talks about the impact of “God’s grace” on his life, reporters and commentators cannot ignore it. Back in January, there was a flurry of coverage of the Major League Baseball slugger’s amazing life turnaround, much of which focused on the role of faith. Those watching the ESPN broadcast of Hamilton’s ridiculously amazing performance in last night’s All-Star Home Run Derby would have had trouble missing the fact that God played a rather significant role in the mere fact that Hamilton is still swinging a bat today.

Many Internet boards and blogs are buzzing over a broadcaster’s statement that it was “a lousy night to be an atheist.” I do not know how this statement makes any logical or theological sense, particularly since Hamilton failed to win the contest. I am sure the atheists, who had every right to enjoy Hamilton’s athletic performance, are not too pleased with the comment either. Are all atheists presumed to be incapable of finding enjoyment in hearing about the role religion played in turning a person’s life around?

At best, the comment was a rhetorical device for an ESPN broadcaster who seemed at a loss for words to describe both Hamilton’s performance and his remarkable life turnaround.

Aside from the comment about atheists, ESPN included some of Hamilton’s own personal testimony from previously recorded interviews, and the broadcasters made a series of references to the role faith played in turning his life around. The broadcast has left an array of impressions regarding ESPN’s handling of Hamilton’s faith. From what I saw (unfortunately only Hamilton’s first round set of homers), most of the comments touched lightly, but frequently, on the role Hamilton’s faith played in his life. Others saw it differently:

[I]t is painfully obvious that ESPN does not get religion, either in print or on the air. During the Home Run Derby at the All Star Game, Josh Hamilton mentioned God, his faith in God, how God had made a difference in his life, etc. every time someone from ESPN put a microphone in his face. ESPN consistently, and deliberately, changed the subject.

At times, it was almost comical. One commentator quoted a Hamilton teammate as saying that Hamilton is an “evangelist” and then tried to explain the term without any reference to Hamilton’s faith. Another commentator said that Hamilton makes sure that he has a “buddy” when he goes out in public to avoid succumbing to temptations. I guess that “buddy” is the religion-neutral term for “accountability partner.”

ESPN needs to employ one person who gets religion. Desperately.

If you saw the derby Monday night, particularly the later rounds, feel free to leave us with your impressions of how the broadcast handled the subject of Hamilton’s faith.

The ESPN broadcast aside, the print media and the Internet have also been covering Hamilton’s story of faith in the aftermath of his impressive display of athletic prowess. Here is an article titled “Josh Hamilton: A Story of Faith” from the Bleacher Report, an open source sports news network:

When confronted about his former drug addiction, Hamilton simply says, “It’s a God thing.” Hamilton is not shy about his story, he talks to groups and fans at different functions about how Christianity has brought his life from drugs to what it is now.

The song that plays when Hamilton steps to the plate in Texas is, “Saved The Day” by the Christian group, Phillips, Craig & Dean.

One way or another, the news account by The Associated Press managed to neglect any significant mention of Hamilton’s faith other than his quote that he feels “blessed” to be playing baseball again and that his recovery story was an “incredible tale of redemption” that made national news this year. Why would a straightforward news account avoid using words that more directly describe the faith-aspect of Hamilton’s story?

The Baltimore Sun was more direct about Hamilton’s faith-based recovery story:

New York — Despite losing in last night’s Home Run Derby final, the legend of Josh Hamilton keeps growing.

The Texas Rangers’ 27-year-old outfielder is not only a budding superstar who leads the majors with 95 RBIs.

He’s not just a born-again Christian and recovering addict who publicly speaks about overcoming his demons.

And he’s more than a Home Run Derby record holder.

He’s also a soothsayer.

The Sun‘s coverage is an example of how a journalist can appropriately mention the significance of faith in a rather short story. By using direct language, the 10-paragraph news story conveys Hamilton’s story of faith rather accurately.

There is an appropriate time and place to cover an individual’s faith in an in-depth format. While the morning-after story is rarely the place for this type of coverage of any subject beyond the box score, an appropriate choice of words (“born-again Christian” and “demons”) can convey a significant amount of information and meaning in a short amount of space.

Photo of Josh Hamilton used under a Wikimedia Commons license.

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  • http://none Matthew Vorwald

    Actually, ESPN referred to Josh’s “buddy” correctly… it was not a quasi-religious reference. Rather, it referenced the ACTUAL, PHYSICAL HUMAN BEING who accompanies Josh on the road and other destinations. This, of course, is Jerry Narron’s brother, who has become a strong shoulder for Josh during his times of temptation.

    You actually have quite a bit going for your argument, and I agree with most of it. But don’t try to make points where they don’t exist.

  • http://www.redletterbelievers.blogspot.com David

    Josh’s story is pretty amazing.

    I even blogged about it here.

    One blogger has said that the only reason he is getting all this praise is because of his color. Sheesh.

    Why does the press struggle to describe a guy who is motiviated and saved by his faith? I guess that’s why this blog exists!

    I would be honored if you commented at Red Letter Believers

  • Chris Bolinger

    What is the most amazing thing about Josh Hamilton’s story? According to ESPN baseball expert Peter Gammons during last night’s Home Run Derby, it is the fact that Hamilton can hit major league pitching after a three-year layoff. I lost a lot of respect for Gammons last night. On the air and in his blog, he insisted on bringing up some obscure Nancy Reagan quote, as if it somehow is relevant to the story of someone who probably was in kindergarten when Reagan left office. Gammons refrained from any mention of Hamilton’s faith or how his relationship with God has been instrumental in kicking a drug habit that was so huge that it consumed a $4 million signing bonus.

    I missed the comment about atheists and, frankly, any real exploration of Hamilton’s story of faith. What struck me was how ESPN interviewers simply dropped the ball, again and again, every time Hamilton mentioned God. It was pitiful.

  • http://n/a Malcolm

    As an atheist, this comment was a bit offensive to me, but more importantly, it was a reflection of today’s style of sports coverage. The game is diluted by a collossal amount of advertisement, and to make room for more ads, the networks seem to draw out the broadcast at both the beginning and the end of the event with nonsensical chatter.

    I agree with many of your points about religion and ESPN’s inability to understand it. I’d like to add to the fact that they don’t seem to understand atheism either. It seems to me that Josh Hamilton credited Jesus for his accomplishments last night, which makes little sense after he lost the homerun derby by hitting nearly 20 more homeruns than Justin Morneau. Maybe Hamilton doesn’t understand faith either…

  • Julia

    On an earlier thread a commenter observed that this blog is very heavy on Obama, Episcopalians and abortion. The guy left out sports figures giving thanks to God for homeruns and touchdowns.

    Why is this such a big deal with athletes? The press is covering this stuff more than you are admitting. The guy was allowed to say his piece; why does there need to be a play-by-play of it? In St Louis, for years Kurt Warner was all over the media crediting God for his success as a quarterback.

    Is all this religious connection with sports a carry-over from college programs like the Fellowship of Christian Atheletes? You don’t see lawyers and stockbrokers getting press coverage making speeches about God being responsible for their success. And you don’t see God getting blamed when things go well, either.

    The MSM may not get it, but non-Evangelicals don’t really get it either. Is it connected to “muscular Christianity”?
    I’d like to see an in-depth article about the phenomenon of athletics being so tied to religion. Lots of people don’t understand that.

  • Julia

    Should have said:

    And you don’t see God getting blamed when things don’t go well, either.

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=2677 dpulliam

    Julia: I agree sports gets too much attention in our society, but it seems to be what the public demands so the media gives. My opinion is that if we’re going to have so much media coverage of sports, why can’t religion be part of it? It’s part of or society and people’s lives, right? Why don’t reporters ask athletes more in-depth questions about their statements of faith? I wish they would ask questions like that more often. I’ve seen plenty of athletes thank God after tragic defeats by the way.

    As a side note to this and whether or not ESPN did a good job of covering Hamilton’s, I asked a number of people on my church softball game tonight who watched Hamilton’s performance and only one of them was aware of his religious story. Go figure.

  • Theresa K.

    “… You don’t see lawyers and stockbrokers getting press coverage making speeches about God being responsible for their success. And you don’t see God getting blamed when things go well, either.”

    Good points, Julia! I agree. The silent witness of faith in Christ ALWAYS impacts people more deeply than obligatory lip-service to God tacked on to the front or back of a person’s comments. It’s great that Hamilton’s publicly gives props to Jesus and I’m thankful for his continued recovery, but here in Minnesota Joe Mauer’s reputation as a steady character and Catholic Christian throughout his whole life also gives great witness to the saving power of Jesus Christ. Joe didn’t mention it, so it is understandable that reporters didn’t ask him.

  • Mimi

    You know, I heard the comment, but I’d really only been watching for about two seconds when it was said, so I had no context. I actually didn’t even have any idea that Hamilton had been through what he’d been through, or that he was Christian.

  • benjdm

    I do not know how this statement makes any logical or theological sense

    Me either. I’m a fairly outspoken atheist and I find the comment too strange and nonsensical to figure out if I should be offended or not.

    I chalk it up to someone struggling to come up with something to say on live TV.

  • Chris Bolinger

    It seems to me that Josh Hamilton credited Jesus for his accomplishments last night…

    It would help if you read the story of Josh Hamilton before commenting. I understand that ESPN did its best to keep everyone in the dark as to why Hamilton thanks God at every opportunity.

    sports figures giving thanks to God for homeruns and touchdowns

    That’s a gross oversimplification of why the typical pro athlete thanks God and completely off-the-charts wrong for Hamilton.

  • Chris Bolinger

    You don’t see lawyers and stockbrokers getting press coverage making speeches about God being responsible for their success.

    This analogy would make sense if:
    * Millions of kids dreamed about becoming lawyers and stockbrokers and, from an early age, practiced many hours a day to pursue that dream
    * Less than 0.001% of those who had the dream ever realized it and were paid millions of dollars a year, often without completing college
    * Lawyers and stockbrokers performed their jobs in front of tens of thousands of people who each paid $50-$200 to see it, and millions more on TV and the Internet, a sizable percentage of whom bet on the outcome of what the lawyers and stockbrokers did
    * There were magazines and TV networks devoted to the exploits of lawyers and stockbrokers, with instant replays of every key move that they make and interviews with them on every conceivable subject

    I could go on and on.

    The more relevant analogy for pro athletes would be Hollywood stars, although it can be argued that many of them have not dedicated nearly as much effort to honing their craft as athletes have. So why don’t we hear much about the spiritual lives of Hollywood stars?

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  • Dave G.

    Malcolm makes a fair and good point. First, this is sports journalism we’re talking about. Second, if the media so often does a job on religion, why should we assume it does any better on atheism? It’s been said that there are a whole lot of non-religious folks in the media. Or at least that’s the general impression. But just because a person isn’t religious, doesn’t mean they are a tried and true atheist resulting from years of contemplation, study, and reflection. It could be they just never bothered – one way or another. And I suppose that could cause just as much mischief as it does in the world of religion.

  • Brian L

    Matthew (#1) – an “accountability partner” is what many “born again” people call the actual, physical human being that “holds them accountable” to the godly standards they profess.

    This term sounds appropriate to the situation you describe and is the most likely phrase to be used by those people who have this kind of relationship. If so in this case, then the reporter in question changed the term to “buddy.” The implied question of Mr. Pulliam’s anonymous “others” is a fair one.

  • Sherry

    When she won an Emmy, Kathy Griffin proclaimed that “Jesus didn’t have a thing to do with it”

    Then it was cut from the re-broadcast because Christians were offended.

    Well, I’m offended that children die in pain and squalor throughout the world everyday. I’m offended that we have maimed, brain damaged troops coming back from Iraq. And Josh Hamilton is so arrogant and self-centered and so sure he is “special” in “God’s” eyes?