Cutting ‘the Rev.’ out of a key Ravens executive’s work

If you number yourself among the millions and millions of Americans who follow the National Football League, then you know that this coming week is one of the most interesting, important and traumatic times of the year. It’s the time when “The Turk” walks the hallways at NFL camps, delivering the horrible news to players that they have been cut from the final rosters that teams take into the new season.

For many players, it represents the quick end of a dream or, at the very least, a severe setback. For journeyman players, it can mean the end a career or, at best, a time of radical life changes that can involve quick moves to a new location for their families or separation from loved ones they leave temporarily leave behind, because there’s no time to sell homes, change schools, etc.

What can NFL teams do to help men deal with all of this trauma? Or how about the flip side: What can be done to help young men handle the fact that they are now millionaires, with all of the attention and temptations that come with that amazing life change?

At the center of that maelstrom is a professional who is usually referred to as the “director of player development,” a job that is only growing in importance in the days when everything NFL players do in public or in private is subject to mass-media and social-media dissection to an unprecedented degree.

The Baltimore Sun recently ran a massive profile of Harry Swayne, the former NFL great who fills that role for the world-champion Ravens. The article argues that Swayne — simply stated — is a nationally known superstar in this crucial role, with a four-tiered player development program that is a model for others. Here’s some key background material:

Swayne is 48 years old and 55 pounds lighter than he was during a playing career that included a stint at starting right tackle on the Ravens’ Super Bowl XXXV team. These days, he is in his fourth year as the Ravens’ director of player development, a role that calls for Swayne to build relationships not only with players, coaches, team executives and their families, but also with corporate sponsors and business and community leaders.

It’s a tireless, yet rewarding job that has come under scrutiny recently with the slew of offseason arrests of NFL players, most notably the murder charge against former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez. The arrests, including one involving linebacker Rolando McClain, who retired less than a month after joining the Ravens, have spurred questions about the level of responsibility NFL teams have in recognizing and preventing destructive off-the-field behavior.

Swayne didn’t comment on individual cases, but he was more than willing to address what he feels is the biggest misconception about player development directors.

“If there is a problem off the field with players — and there always is and always has been — [people say] what’s going on with player development?” Swayne said. “One thing we are not is behaviorists. In my line of work and this is for all 32 player engagement directors, we don’t babysit 20-something-year-olds. They are going to do what 20-something-year-olds do across all cultural groups, across this whole country. Their parents can’t keep them from going out and doing some stupid stuff. Certainly, the player development director isn’t going to be able to either.

“But in that same respect, what we are is proactive individuals who like to approach things where it puts us out in front of some cloudy decisions before they even get an opportunity to make a bad choice. All 32 player engagement directors kind of have that approach.”

And what does the NFL think of this man, who strives to help the Ravens find the right kinds of players for the climate in the team’s locker room?

“People ask if I can give them information, what should the structure look like, how much involvement should this individual have, who should they report to. I just tell them, ‘I’d like for you to speak to Harry Swayne, who is in Baltimore.’ That’s the winning model,” said Troy Vincent, the 15-year NFL cornerback who runs the NFL Player Engagement Organization. “He has it all. He’s the benchmark.”

Now, what I am suggesting is that this is story is about ethics, morality, sin, wisdom, life changes, patience and a whole lot of other subjects — as opposed to being just another sports story. And what makes it GetReligion material?

As it turns out, all one needs to do to answer that question is run a basic Internet search for this man’s name and biography. That’s when you will find out that — Associated Press Stylebook be damned — the man the Sun team is writing about is actually the Rev. Harry Swayne and he is an ordained minister (and on the staff of Messiah Community Church in the greater Baltimore area) in addition to his work with the Ravens.

Does his faith have anything to do with his football-related role? How did he get into this line of work?

Well, there must be a story in there somewhere or, at least the team at The Colorado Springs Gazette thought so a few years ago. This passage jumped out at me:

When Swayne was with the Ravens, the team chaplain asked if he would consider becoming a minister. Swayne said no before the question was finished. But the idea lingered, and one day he mentioned it to his wife.

“She shocked me when she said, ‘Yeah, I can see it,’” Swayne said. “That got the ball rolling.’”

Swayne became an ordained minister, and in 2003 he was hired as Chicago’s team chaplain. Swayne said many of his former teammates are shocked he has that position.

“I don’t remember him being religious at all,” said Allen Aldridge, a linebacker on the 1997 Broncos and a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes during his career. “But you never know.”

Interesting. So the man’s turn back to faith and then to the ministry also has a Baltimore connection. You know, that might interest many local readers.

So, how far did readers need to go into this Sun piece to find out about this side of Swayne’s life and career, information that is clearly relevant in a feature about his work in helping guide, shape and, in some cases, redeem the lives and careers of NFL players?

Near the very, very end of the story there is this, quoting ex-NFL player Tyrone Keys:

“Harry has been called to be in the ministry, and this is his ministry. This is his lane,” Keys said. “He’s definitely in his calling.”

At least once a year, Vincent brings up the question to Swayne: “Is this where you want to be?”

“I say that because I see other great things in him because he touches so many different areas,” Vincent said. “If he wanted to go directly into human resources, he could do that. He understands employee policy, employee law. He understands the community, the importance of fans, the corporate interests. I think there is a greater thing for Harry. The sky is the limit.”

Swayne, though, loves the relationships he’s built. … During a 40-minute interview, he acknowledged that he initially had no visions of becoming a player development director. He was more than happy in Chicago, where he spent five seasons as the Bears’ team chaplain. …

So the Rev. Harry Swayne has, in his role as an ordained minister, previously worked as an NFL team chaplain?

My journalistic question: Quite a few players and leaders in the Ravens organizations are very outspoken about the role that religious faith plays in their lives and their careers. However, in story after story, the Sun team either ignores or downplays this part of the story (another recent example here). Why is that?

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.


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