Reporters: Don’t crush Gabby Douglas’s interesting story

Sports reporters write stories very quickly, feeding editors literally on deadline. My sports reporter husband jokes that political reporters stress out maybe once a year during election nights when nearly every weekend has at least two election-like nights for sports. In many ways, they have been doing what Twitter users are now figuring out, how to report reactions professionally as you experience them before writing the big picture piece later.

Often you need at least a day or two to let something really sink in, to figure out what sets each athlete or athletic feat apart from one another. In an interesting way, sports reporters are trained to think both on the fly and then later on a deeper level, analyzing what made that particular moment special.

As soon as gymnast Gabby Douglas won the gold medal earlier this week, it was clear she could be set for life. Assuming she has good people around her, she will long be a spokeswoman for something, someone or practically whatever she wants. She should be set financially and she is well loved by many. It’s hard to beat that, an all-American story to rally around.

Stories like Douglas’s, though, seem to make sports journalists queazy. It’s too easy. It’s too predictable. They’ve seen it before. They don’t like anything that seems too packaged. Everything from her stunning performance to her beautiful smile to the audience’s immediate love for her is just too convenient, it seems.

But when you dig deeper than just the stats, there’s something else going on. Her mother gave her up to go live in Iowa with another family so she could train with Olympian gymnast Shawn Johnson’s coach. There are obviously stories about her race and hair and other aspects that set her apart. Her mom filed for bankruptcy earlier this year. The story really does have several angles for sports reporters to take, if they want them.

As Anthea Butler points out, it can’t be too shocking that Douglas would attribute her win to God. Really, it isn’t. Many, many excellent athletes are also religious. So what do we do with the faith angle, if many athletes are religious and give thanks to a higher power for accomplishments? Sports journalists hear and see this all the time, and then they watch many of the same athletes crash and burn and they’re not sure what to believe anymore. Christian athletes would probably attribute it to humankind’s fallen human nature, that of course people will crash and burn and then rely on God to pick them up again.

Let’s take ESPN’s initial piece right after her win, which highlighted her race as a point of uniqueness.

From the start, Douglas shattered the mold of the uber-intense gymnast who isolates herself in a shrink-wrapped, uniform Olympic bubble. Not Douglas. She was a personality, a bit of a rebel, who laughed often and became easily distracted. She was different, and not just because she is the first African-American to win the individual all-around gold medal.

“I hope I inspire people,” she said. “That would be cool.”

Her race is certainly a big part of the story, no doubt about it. But it seems, from the words that she said and the tweets that she tweeted, that faith is core to her identity. She said, “I just give all the glory to God. It’s kind of a win-win situation: the glory goes up to Him and the blessings come down to me,” not something about her race. The quote used in the piece where she says, “I hope I inspire people,” would be doing a disservice to her if it were only about race. Douglas is much more than her race, and by not including her mentions of faith and how she presents herself, sports reporters do a disservice to the audience who want to really understanding all sides.

Just because many athletes are religious, that doesn’t mean each faith angle is cliche just because we think we’ve seen or read it before. If we dig as deeply as we do into her stats, we’ll probably find details about her Christian faith, whether she belongs to a specific church, whether her biological mother and her mother in Iowa also have similar religious beliefs and other details.

Clicking around, I found a YouTube interview with Gabby Douglas at Valley Church on her faith and time spent while training in Des Moines. Sure, this might be too specific for NBC to air on its primetime show, but hinting that there are more details will give people the cues to look up more on the Internet. Really, people are Googling for these details, just as much as other people are googling for information about her hair.

Please let us know if you see links to either specific blogs that uncover details or any good or bad mainstream coverage that’s catching on or missing the larger picture. I’m waiting to read the longview pieces that will go into detail about her faith, because I know there’s an audience looking for them.

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  • Rebecca

    I guess I don’t see how the religious angles to her story are being missed. Like you noted, many-if not most-successful athletes/actors/whatever give credit to God. Are we saying she’s a more “genuine” person of faith than others?

    I am confused. I don’t watch NBC’s coverage of the Olympics, or read the sports pages for an in-depth look at the religion of every athlete who mentions God. Are we talking about her very American religion–Evangelical Protestantism? Are you saying that is getting short shrift? Or are you worried it will?

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Rebecca, sorry for any confusion. This might not be “mainstream,” but I would guess it resonates with sports reporters: “The gold medalist is a teenager of deep faith and gratitude — and that can be a little unnerving”

    As we have mentioned in the past, sports reporters don’t seem to care if an athlete attributes wins to God or talk about their faith. They tend to do this with everyone from Tony Dungy to Josh Hamilton (until he falls).

    I can’t judge whether or not her faith is genuine. I would hope that reporters would report things about where she goes to church, what her family does religiously, etc. As I mentioned, details about her faith might be too specific for NBC to air on its primetime show, but I would hope that someone in Sports Illustrated would pick up on this as much as they’ve picked up on her race. The inspiration she’s providing doesn’t seem to just be about her race. Does that make sense?

  • Terrie Bittner

    I agree that her faith ought to be given more attention. It’s an essential part of what shapes her.

    I am puzzled by the reference to her “biological mother and her mother in Iowa.” I am not aware her mother gave her up for adoption–I was under the impression she merely went to live with them, a common practice among potential Olympians. It doesn’t make the new family her real family. I think we need to be careful about referring to her mother as her biological mother, as it suggests she isn’t a real mother who raised her and cared for her. She certainly did all of that until two years ago. She is her other, not just her biological mother. And now, maybe Gabby can afford to move her mother to Iowa with her.

  • Nicole Neroulias

    Eh, I’m OK with glossing over the faith of our athletes. In addition to the points you’ve made about where to draw the line — given that so many athletes praise God when things work out for them — we’re barely getting decent TV coverage of Olympic gymnastics, from a purely athletic perspective, as it is! Plus, if you’re going to delve into Gabby Douglas’ Christianity, you’d also have to explore Aly Raisman’s Judaism (her floor exercise was to “Hava Nagila”), Jordyn Weiber’s Catholicism (her mother clutched a rosary during the routines), etc.. And then you could get into the faith angles on the other teams, particuarly Russia’s Orthodox-Muslim Aliya Mustafina, etc.

    In other words, this isn’t a “crushed” religion story, unless you’re going to make the case that most news stories have religion ghosts that get overlooked. Which, OK. But the mainstream media have plenty of other angles to cover with Olympic athletes, not to mention other news going on in the world this week.

  • Mollie

    CNN’s Belief Blog has found interesting ways to not gloss over the faith of athletes. Here’s the latest example I came across — nice use of multi-media.