ESPN gets Irvin and his ‘threshing floor’ sermon

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Hey! Time for another GetReligion post about religious issues in sports coverage! Can you hear the cheers from the crowd?

Anyway, we have been known to criticize reporters and editors, from time to time, for playing the God card in sports stories (athletes talk about God a lot) and then failing to deliver any content that puts journalistic muscle behind the faith claims. Or an athlete brings up faith in a key quote about his or her life and then reporters just drop it like a hot frying pan.

GetReligion readers have been know to say that we complain about the bad in this news niche, then ignore the good.

So, folks, here is a tmatt post noting that the ESPN team took on some highly charged faith material in a story about the rise and fall and rise of Hall of Fame wide receiver Michael Irvin and just nailed all the details down just right.

The story digs into the roots of Irvin’s deeply confessional speech at his Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony, a speech that changed how athlete’s with messed up lives can handle that moment in the spotlight. Faith is a huge and VERY specific part of the story and Eli Saslow delivers the goods.

You have to read the story, but here is just a taste. The key is a biblical image — that of a man being challenged and purified like wheat on a threshing floor. Here’s part of the overture in this wonderful piece:

Irvin spent months preparing obsessively for this moment, just as he had prepared to play in three Super Bowls during his career as a wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys. He hired a language coach to improve his vocabulary. He did enunciation exercises in the shower while the steam opened his lungs. He watched and rewatched tapes of his most embarrassing public comments outside of courtrooms and locker rooms, reliving the many moments when “a self-sabotage with words” left him humiliated.

The only thing he hadn’t yet done was settle on a speech. He had sketched out two possibilities and recorded parts of each of them. Nobody had heard either from beginning to end. Even alone in front of a mirror, Irvin never had the nerve to practice them straight through.

The first version was a boilerplate acceptance speech, a resume list of football achievements and expected thank-yous — a safe way to cement a Hall of Fame reputation.

The second version was a speech less about football than about the self-described “scars and regrets” of a man with one of sports’ most complicated legacies. It was an admission of failure in marriage and in fatherhood. It was a declaration of faith. It was a public risk by a man whose public risks had rarely worked out.

You really need to read it all.

If I started highlighting all of the key parts of this piece (I didn’t even get to the threshing floor hook) the post would go on and on. So read it. If you like good long reads, read it. If you love good feature writing about sports, read it. If you like detailed journalism about remarkable human lives, read it.

Bravo, ESPN. We criticize that sports empire quite a bit, around here. But this story truly gets the religion details right. Yes, it’s long, but just read it all.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Evanston2

    Super. Thanks.

  • http://friarsfires.blogspot.com Brett

    Yes — thanks for the story. Both because I’m glad I read it and because it’s an excellent example of what we ought to find when good reporters write stories that rest on religious themes.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Great article. Thanks for highlighting it. Here’s Irvin’s speech: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=srges9G6SV0

  • Harris

    On a similar feel-good note, there was a fine AP report on Jason Avant, published on December 25. Another story of transformation, a grandmother’s prayer and church. this is from Fox (I read the same story in the NY Times)


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