Pod people: Russell Wilson, ghosts, 10 years of GetReligion

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Let’s do this one backwards.

In a perfect world, the easy way to do mainstream news criticism is to find a really bad example of a problem and then, a few days later, find an example of an equally important news outlet that managed to do the story right.

In this case, we are talking about one of those GetReligion ghosts, a religion angle woven into a major news story — yet missed by reporters and editors working on the story. For the past 10 years, spotting ghosts has been one of the primary duties of your GetReligionistas.

Hours before the Super Bowl, I posted an item praising the ESPN.com team for a feature story about the life, work and faith of Seattle Seahawk quarterback Russell Wilson. Thanks, by the way, to the 20,000-plus readers who passed that post along in social media.

First of all, the creators of this story did the obvious, which is discuss the connections between Wilson’s Christian faith — which he talks about all of the time — and his life on and off the gridiron, focusing on his behind-the-scenes work as a real volunteer in a children’s hospital. That was the easy ghost to spot, one that 99 percent of the people writing profiles of Wilson (and the influence of his late father) manage to see.

However, in addition to that almost non-ghost ghost, the ESPN team went deeper and touched on a more subtle question: How are folks in the highly secular Pacific Northwest, in Seattle the Mecca of the so-called “nones,” handling the fact that this new Seahawk hero is a young, charismatic, African-American evangelical?

Now, I didn’t think ESPN nailed down that angle of the story, but I was impressed that this elite newsroom raised the question and made the attempt.

So three cheers. High fives all around.

As it turns out, that post on the ghosts in the Wilson story was where “Crossroads” podcast host Todd Wilken wanted to start out this week in our conversation. Click here to tune that in.

That’s where we started, but that isn’t where we ended up.

Like I said earlier, that whole ghost concept was crucial to the founding of GetReligion 10 years ago. We were also determined to try to defend the mainstream press to some of its critics, as well as offer our own criticisms of the media’s sins of omission and commission. However, defending the press — especially The New York Times — is becoming more difficult, when it comes to mainstream coverage of the so-called “culture war” issues. Click here for more on that.

And to top it off, I ran into another pre-Super Bowl Wilson feature that I had missed that had been cranked out by an equally elite newsroom — The Washington Post. This one ran under this rather obvious headline: “Super Bowl 2014: Russell Wilson follows his dad’s advice, takes uncommon path to big game.”

It starts with a picture of Wilson and his father Harrison taken during the quarterback’s high-school days at the Collegiate School in Richmond.

When the picture was taken, Wilson was a football and baseball player for Collegiate, a young man divided between two loves and an ambition to someday play both sports professionally. After his senior season, the Baltimore Orioles drafted him in the 41st round to play second base, offering a $1 million contract. He considered it, knowing he’d be trading his football dreams for money. Instead, his dad — known as Harry — asked him to make a promise that would alter football history: attend college and graduate, playing both his beloved sports. Professional sports, he told him, could wait.

Harry Wilson, the son of educators, was living with adult-onset diabetes. His vision was disappearing and his health was deteriorating. But he wanted his son to earn his degree. Russell had heard for years about how the family valued education and about Harry’s father, who was once the president of Norfolk State University and whose sons had become attorneys. With an education, Harry told his son, who knew what greater opportunities — bigger even than a million-dollar bonus — were possible?

Young Russell agreed, making the pledge and turning down the Orioles. And like when they let their hair grow, the father and son could experience this together, too. He signed in 2007 to attend North Carolina State, where he’d play baseball and football, beginning an unexpected journey to the Seattle Seahawks and the Super Bowl.

In other words, this is the familiar story of the father and his son and the ties that bound them together. Only this time there was one crucial element of the story that was missing. Totally missing.

In other words, this feature told the story of Wilson and his late father, but without discussing the faith element that both men considered to be at the heart of the story. How rare was this omission? What do you have to do, journalistically speaking, to miss that angle? The bottom line: You have to ignore Russell Wilson’s perspective on his own life and on the life and legacy of his father.

OK, to the word “devotion” appears once.

Wilson signed with Wisconsin, but after batting .228 with three home runs and 15 stolen bases with the Class A Asheville Tourists in 2011, he quit baseball and repaid much of his signing bonus. He had been an interesting baseball prospect, but his devotion to two sports had already cost him in football; now it was clear his swing hadn’t developed because he didn’t practice baseball year-round.

“I decided: What do I want to do with the rest of my life?” Wilson said. “I had this passion, I had this fire to play the game of football. And I knew that I could do it.”

Trust me, there is more to the story than that — as ESPN and dozens of other media outlets have shown.

The ghosts are still out there, folks.

Enjoy the podcast.

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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.


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