ESPN spots a ghost in the Seattle-Russell Wilson lovefest

Some GetReligion readers may have noticed that there is a big football game later today.

One of the teams involved in the Super Bowl this year is the Seattle Seahawks and, as always, the team’s quarterback — in this case second-year starter Russell Wilson — is getting quite a bit of attention, for a variety of reasons.

First of all, Wilson is short by NFL standards, standing only 5-foot-11. Second, he is one of those guys who walks into a room and is instantly recognized as a leader, sort of like my all-time sports heroes Bill Russell and Mike Singletary.

Finally, Wilson is rather open about his Christian faith and beliefs, although his style is more subdued than a Tim Tebow.

To no one’s surprise, ESPN produced a major feature on Wilson this week, running under the headline: “The adoration of Russell Wilson.” As is common with this kind of story, it opens with a long anecdote telling how Wilson quietly got involved in the lives of Kristina and Dave Quick and, in particular, their five-pound newborn son Franklin and his “imperfect, broken heart.” After one crisis, there is a tense, risky 10-hour surgery.

This leads to the transition into the body of the article:

The weeks and months to come would be critical. A few days later, Quick was half asleep next to his son when a stranger walked into the room. For a moment, Quick wasn’t sure if he was dreaming or imagining things. But then the stranger, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, did something the Quicks will never forget.

He hugged them. He told the Quicks he and his wife, Ashton, had heard about Franklin, and they’d been thinking about him a lot. They’d been praying for him every day. They just wanted to stop by and let the Quicks know they were pulling for Franklin.

“I think I probably experienced about 10 different emotions,” Quick says. “Shock, disbelief, but most of all, pure genuine joy. For someone of his stature to do that is just amazing. For 20 minutes, he enabled us to not think about everything we were going through. He greeted us like we were family. I’d heard about these visits, that it was something he liked to do, but you see him walk through that door and you know he’s the real deal. He is truth.”

What does a star athlete really mean to the city where he plays? It’s a complicated question, and the truth is, the answer varies depending on the market and the athlete.

Here’s the key to this story. I assumed this would be a pretty basic God-card story about an athlete who — like a Robert Griffin III — has consistently tried to express his faith through public service. I expected the ESPN team to somehow deal with the obvious subject, which is Wilson’s Christian faith.

However, I wondered if the article would take on the other religious issue in this story — Seattle and the Pacific Northwest.

For, you see, Seattle has long been identified as the cutting edge on post-Christian American life, the national capital of the “nones,” the religiously unaffiliated people who are a rising force in our culture. It’s an oh-so liberal area when it comes to lifestyle issues of all kinds.

Seattle is not supposed to embrace a conservative Christian like Wilson. So there is something going on.

I am happy to report that the ESPN team not only spotted this ghost, it took it seriously in the second half of the report. But before we get there, let’s go back to that hospital for a moment. This is a long report and it took the time to let readers know that Wilson is not your ordinary NFL star who is making a photo-op visit during a charity drive. This is a key part of his life:

Eve Kopp was skeptical when she first heard about the Seahawks rookie who called Seattle Children’s Hospital, unsolicited, asking if there was anything he could do to help. Could he and his wife come by and spend some time with patients? Kopp felt she’d done this dance with professional athletes before, and it frequently resulted in a few awkward, superficial photo ops and eventual disappointment. Most of the staff had never even heard of Russell Wilson. At the time, he was just a third-string quarterback, fresh out of the University of Wisconsin.

“We didn’t believe it at first,” says Kopp, the director of corporate annual giving for the hospital’s foundation. “Some athletes have it written into their contracts to do charity appearances, and so it’s easy for them to select Seattle Children. It might even be part of a requirement from the team. Typically, we see them once and that’s about it. We figured with Russell, we’d see him once or twice, and then never again.”

Wilson, however, kept showing up, every Tuesday. He enjoyed what the hospital initially set up for him, goofing around with a big group of kids in a playroom. But what he really wanted, he admitted, was to spend time with families in one-on-one settings. Something that would allow him to have real conversations with them, if only for 30 minutes. Kopp was stunned. And thrilled. …

Wilson explained that he’d lost his father, Harrison, to complications from diabetes in 2010, and seeing his dad struggle with the disease for several years meant he wasn’t uncomfortable in hospitals. As long as it was OK, he’d like to keep coming back, keep meeting families and spending time with even the sickest kids, week after week. Even as his football responsibilities grew, he kept coming back for what the hospital soon dubbed as Blue Tuesdays, a play off the team colors. He didn’t want publicity, he preferred to keep it relatively quiet. …

Now with that in mind, it is now time to turn to how Wilson’s faith has been received by the region’s skeptics. There are some groaners in here, but it’s important that the ESPN team did not ignore this topic.

For a few Seahawks fans, the quasi-deification of the quarterback has almost reached uncomfortable levels. Wilson has been very outspoken about his Christian faith, and a few eyebrows have been raised over his apparent friendship with controversial Seattle pastor Mark Driscoll of the Mars Hill megachurch. Driscoll, among other contentious opinions, recently tweeted his belief that all non-Christians are going to hell.

Wait a minute: Driscoll is controversial because he is not — shocking! — a Universalist? Might there other issues at play here?

“I’m a pretty cynical media observer, and with he and Sherman, there have almost been these pro wrestling style narratives created around them,” says Seahawks fan Chris Hong. “Russell Wilson is the face, and Richard Sherman is the heel, and every story spins out from those two places. I think Russell Wilson is fine, but I find it very problematic that he hangs out with guys like Mark Driscoll. That just skeeves me out. It’s a little too far to the evangelical right than I, as a liberal Seattleite, feel comfortable with. I think people are so happy about the Seahawks they’re choosing to pretend he’s not hanging out with the Mars Hill folks.”

In other words, some tolerant folks in all-tolerant Seattle are willing to tolerate Wilson’s Christian beliefs as long as the team is winning? Sweet.

Of course I would have like to have seen ESPN dig into that topic a bit more and even ask Wilson to address it.

But, at this point, it’s amazing when a prestige media outlet even covers the basics and sees the most obvious of religion ghosts in this kind of story.

So a nice attempt. Not a touchdown, but a timely field goal.

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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.

  • Brett

    The story reads like it was written by someone who did some homework about both his subject and his subject’s context, and was curious enough about some of what he found out to follow up on it rather than assume he knew everything before he started writing. Good find.

    • tmatt

      Every now and then, the pros act like pros. Even when religion is involved.

      • Brett

        If only such occasions were dog-bites-man stories… ;-)

  • Ryan Baker

    Our pastor commented on this very issue a few weeks back. There is a tension in Seattle on this issue. Wilson recently distributed some videos where he and some of the other Seahawks discuss their faith, which was not received especially well. Ultimately, though, as long as the Seahawks are winning (like tonight, hooray!) he can say what he likes.

    • Lindamaeb

      it was only not well received by some. But it was very well received by others. If a person is not allowed to speak of his faith then that is just wrong. If people have a problem with it, then that is their problem….

  • Matt

    Mark Driscoll skeeves me out, and I’m a Reformed evangelical. Just sayin’.

    • Matt

      That was, perhaps, too flippant of me. I’ll try again:
      Driscoll goes out of his way to be provocative. You’re right, Tmatt, to point out the typical allergy to Hell and to say that a more well-rounded background on Driscoll would be appropriate, but some of the hostility evident in this article might not be simply doctrinal. To put it another way, I’d like to think that someone like Tim Keller (from the same theological tradition as Driscoll, but quite different in tone) would not provoke quite the same knee-jerk reaction.

  • Lindamaeb

    thing is, many long time seattlites and Seahawks fans find ZERO problem with Wilson and Driscoll realationship and welcome the refreshing real talk from Wilson. That’s the thing about Seattle..we’re diverse and so is our team.

  • Suzanne Krause

    I’m an atheist and I don’t really care that Russell Wilson is uber-religious. He is grateful for his god and not shy about praising said god, but unlike some (e.g., Tebow), he doesn’t go around saying that everyone should have his same beliefs, or that his god “favored” one team over another.

    As a Seahawk fan since the beginning, I kind of wish Russell weren’t so religious, just because I’m /not/. But his religiosity doesn’t bother me at all, nor does it bother my many non-Christian (theist and atheist) friends. We’re okay with it. It would be awesome if he one day found Logic instead of Jesus, though… I’m not above saying that. ;)

    • Bob

      If you would take the time to just investigate Jesus, you’d find he is perfect logic. Congrats to the Seahawks and Russell Wilson, from a Packer fan.

      • http://ourgirlsclub.blogspot.com/ Ginny Bain Allen

        Congratulations from a Peyton Manning fan! :)

  • Soldier

    Atheist smoke the crack pipe.


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