ESPN offers faith-free version of Isaiah Austin’s testimony

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If you care about what is happening in modern, multi-platform journalism then you have to pay close attention to trends at ESPN — even if you don’t care much about sports. If you care about the media habits of mainstream American males, especially young males, then you really have to dig into ESPN.

This brings me to the emotional highlight of last night’s NBA draft.

If you know anything about life in evangelical churches — white, black, Latino, whatever — then you know what it means to say that someone “has a testimony.” That means that something intensely spiritual has happened in their life and they just have to talk about it.

If you watch a documentary about the Civil Rights Movement and someone shouts “testify!” at the preacher, they are not talking about legal testimony. They are saying, “Preach it!”

Well, former Baylor University center Isaiah Austin has a “testimony” right now. He has been through a life-and-death wringer and he wants to talk about it. Thus, the top of the following ESPN report:

NEW YORK – Between the 15th and 16th picks in Thursday night’s draft came a very special selection by the NBA.

Commissioner Adam Silver announced at that point that the NBA would let Isaiah Austin fulfill the dream of every young player, making him a ceremonial pick.

Just over a week ago, the sophomore center from Baylor was diagnosed with Marfan syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that affects the heart. It ended his playing career. The illness was discovered during a physical for the draft. …

The crowd at Barclays Center rose to its feet as Austin, sitting in the waiting area with most of the first-round picks, hugged family members and put on a generic NBA cap. He went up to the stage and posed with Silver, just as all the drafts picks do when they are called.

Wait, there’s one more amazing detail:

During the season, the 7-foot-1 Austin revealed he had a prosthetic right eye after multiple operations couldn’t repair a detached retina.

Austin, expected to be a high pick when healthy, said he felt he has “a great story to share.” He said Baylor coach Scott Drew has already offered him a coaching position with the Bears.

So he has a “great story to tell.” That’s another way, in Christian speak, to say that he has a testimony. So what’s the bottom line at ESPN?

Here’s the end of the report:

Austin is already spreading his message of perseverance.

“I want people to know they can push through anything, because I’ve done it,” he said. “I just want them to know they have the power within themselves to do it if they keep faith and a positive attitude.”

There is a tiny hint of faith there. So how does that contrast with what the young man actually said, in TV interviews and at his “God’s Child” Twitter account? What is his story about, from his point of view?

If you care about the explicitly faith-oriented parts of this story, if is a good thing that there were news reports in other media. Here is key part of a Chicago Tribune story, built out of wire-service information:

Before the 16th pick, Silver paused to tell Austin’s story and say that the NBA was symbolically drafting him. Austin donned a cap with an NBA logo and trotted on stage for a hug and photo with the commissioner, just like draft picks before and after him that night.

“It’s one of the biggest blessings of my life,” Austin said of being drafted. “When one door closes, God opens another one. I’m gonna dream again. I’m going to share my story with as many people as I can.”

And later:

Despite all the setbacks, and now permanent end to his playing career, Austin was insistent his love of basketball was not going anywhere.

“It’s my love and it’s my passion,” Austin said. “I just can’t thank God enough for my family and my friends (who) are backing me up with this.”

That’s a quick dip into the ocean of God-language used by this strong young man.

Does that matter, in terms of what ESPN published and what it did not publish? Does it matter that his testimony was, well, edited down to a secular slice of hope and generic inspiration?

I don’t know. Does Austin’s view of his own life and trials matter? Why not let him testify just a bit?

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.

  • deann47

    To answer the question, “Why not let him testify just a bit?” I’ll share the conversation I had with a prominent ESPN journalist while promoting my book about NASCAR and hope. The journo and I met when I was covering the sport for a 2008 Christianity Today cover story on faith-professing NASCAR drivers. I asked if he’d be willing to review the book, offer a quote or mention it on his blog. He told me that ESPN policy is to not delve into matters of religion or politics. After I explained that my book was about NASCAR and hope, he indicated that’d possibly be okay [though I never did get the quote, etc]. That being the network’s policy, it seems that the only option for covering Austin is one that doesn’t deal with his religious faith. Hope is fine. Perseverance also great. But ESPN’s own constitutional wall of separation, however, will permanently hamstring any attempt to do justice to Austin ‘s testimony.


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