Getting faith into SI story of patient D-League hoops star

Once again, I realize that the world of GetReligion readers seems to contain a stunningly low percentage of sports fans, especially in comparison with the American public as a whole. Nevertheless, I follow sports quite closely and I have always been fascinated by the unusually high percentage of sports stories that include faith angles.

Most of the time — take the whole Baltimore Sun ignoring Ravens religion-angles thrend — my GetReligion posts on sports have been rather negative. You know the kind of story I’m talking about. A sports star plays the God card or offers a highly specific comment about the role of faith in his or her life and a journalists never looks into the details or offers any context for these words.

The negative tone is so common, in fact, that people drop me notes from time to time wanting to know if anyone covering sports ever gets one of these stories right. Well, remember that amazing Sports Illustrated story about the great UCLA hoops patriarch John Wooden and the challenge he faced, and met, learning to embrace the great center Lew Alcindor as he made his pilgrimage into Islam and became Kareem Abdul Jabbar?

Well, now a member of the SI staff — one Lee Jenkins — has provided another wonderful example of getting the faith-angle right. This time around, we’re talking about a back-of-the-book feature about a player who is just as obscure as Jabbar is famous. The man’s name is Ron Howard of the Fort Wayne, Ind., Mad Ants franchise in the NBA’s Development League and he recently broke the career scoring record for a player in this minor-league circuit.

As Jenkins states it (heads of fans up great sports flicks):

On March 29, Howard sank yet another pull-up from the left wing at Allen County War Memorial Coliseum. The game stopped. The crowd of 4,024 stood for three minutes. Fans sobbed. Joyner ran to the parking lot and fetched the carrot cake with cream-cheese icing, cooling in her car. Howard’s 4,254th point set a D-League record, recalling Crash Davis’s 247th home run. “A dubious kind of honor,” Crash says in the bush league classic Bull Durham. “I think it’d be great,” Annie Savoy replies. “The Sporting News should know.”

Like Crash Davis, Howard has been to the Show, if only for a sip of coffee. After his first year in Fort Wayne he signed with the Bucks and played in the preseason. When they released him, coach Scott Skiles said, “You’re good enough for the NBA.” Since then the D-League has reported 235 call-ups, but none for Howard.

Now, as it turns out, that carrot cake and the fan named Cindy Joyner are in the story’s short, lovely lede — which offers the first hint at the religion angle in this piece:

The night he made history, Mr. Mad Ant drove back to the seminary and ate carrot cake.

The dessert was a gift from Cindy Joyner, who bought season tickets seven years ago, when the NBA’s Development League awarded an expansion franchise to her hometown of Fort Wayne, Ind. The team was dubbed the Mad Ants after the city’s namesake, Gen. Mad Anthony Wayne, and there were open tryouts to fill the roster. More than 120 hoop dreamers showed up at Indiana Tech in October 2007, paying $150 a head. Ron Howard, an unemployed 24-year-old living in a Chicago apartment with his wife and daughter, was an hour late.

“Who arrives an hour late?” recalls Howard, confused by the time change between Chicago and Fort Wayne. “I was too embarrassed to go in.”

Back to the seminary?

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No ghosts in this SI look at Wooden, Alcindor/Abdul Jabbar

Week after week, month after month, year after year, I write GetReligion posts in which I fault mainstream sportswriters for looking the other way when they encounter religious facts and themes related to the lives of amateur and professional athletes.

Some reporters ignore or radically downplay the religious elements in the lives of important athletes and coaches (hello, Ravens-beat editors at The Baltimore Sun). Then there are journalists who allow athletes to flash the God-card in the language of a story, but then never follow up on those faith claims (hello Michael Vick) when it comes to digging out the facts (follow the money, follow the hours on the clock) about their lives in the real world. Where’s the basic journalism?

Often, after the publication of one of these God-and-sports posts, I hear from people who say that I am constantly pointing out the bad, without showing positive examples of coverage that gets the faith element of one of these stories right, combining religious symbolism, facts, etc., into one A-plus package.

Well, here’s one. The other day Sports Illustrated offered a long-read drawn from the biography of UCLA hoops legend John Wooden (“Wooden: A Coach’s Life“) written by veteran reporter Seth Davis. This particular chunk of the book was summed up in the headline, “The Wizard and the Giant.”

Which giant? In this case we are talking about the great 7-foot-2 Lew Alcindor, who was arguably the greatest college big man — ever.

Now, younger readers may say, “Lew Alcindor? Don’t you mean Kareem Abdul Jabbar?”

Precisely.

A that’s the subject that this story captures so well. It shows, in clear human terms, how one of the greatest coaches who ever lived, who was also a traditional Christian, learned to adapt to changes in the life of his greatest player, as he went through the process of converting to Islam.

Also, as you would expect, Wooden attracted excellent players to UCLA who shared his Christian faith, along with hoops stars from across the nation who had no active faith at all.

This created a unique atmosphere, and a unique challenge. This is precisely what reporter Davis captures in his story.

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There’s that Baltimore Ravens faith ghost — again

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The Baltimore Ravens have been playing some really, really wild football games in recent weeks, a few with endings that several commentators have been tempted to call “miraculous.”

Sort of like that playoff game last year in frozen Mile-High Stadium in Denver (sorry, about that M.Z. Hemingway).

Anyway, head coach John Harbaugh was asked, in a recent press conference, to name the X factor behind his team. Here’s how ESPN.com reported the response:

“The thing I love about our football team is that we are a team of faith,” coach John Harbaugh said. “We believe. We trust. Because of that, we’ll fight. We will run the race right down to the end. That’s something that our football team does. I’m very proud of them for that.”

There are times when special moments define special teams, just like the times when the Ravens converted the fourth-and-29 in San Diego and delivered the Mile High Miracle last season. These Ravens are building quite a portfolio of “never say never” moments.

Two weeks ago, the Ravens beat the Pittsburgh Steelers, 22-20, by stopping a two-point conversion with 1:03 remaining. Last week, the Ravens outlasted the Minnesota Vikings, 29-26, by scoring three touchdowns in the final 2:05, including the winning 9-yard touchdown pass to Marlon Brown with 4 seconds left.

OK, you probably didn’t need all of those gridiron details, but I thought they were relevant.

Here in Charm City, the newspaper that lands in my front yard eventually printed that quotation, like this:

“We’re playing our best football right now and we’re going to have to continue to improve with what we have in front of us down the stretch,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “You look at our football team and the thing I love about our football team is that we are a team of faith. We believe. We trust. Because of that, we’ll fight. We will run the race right down to the end, that’s something that our football team does. I’m very proud of them for that.”

Now, that faith language is rather generic sports talk, methinks. What struck me was a football coach using that interesting language connecting this faith factor to finishing a “race,” as opposed to a football game.

That sounded rather familiar, coming from the organizer (or endorser) of the weekly Ravens Bible studies.

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A ghost in Rolando McClain’s stunning flight from the NFL

There is no way to read ESPN’s disturbing magazine feature about linebacker Rolando McClain without asking whether — to choose a snarky metaphor — his mental and emotional elevator is capable of stopping at all the right floors in the building.

It seems wise that this troubled millionaire elected to retire from the game at the age of 24, rather than end up on the wrong side of a rap sheet in which someone was dead. You know, like the infamous case involving Aaron Hernandez of the New England Patriots. It seems appropriate that he fled back to the classrooms of the University of Alabama, seeking some sense of peace and familiarity far from the hyper competitive and tempting world of the National Football League.

So he’s doing better. But his revved up personal engine is still firing on some troubling cylinders, as this long passage makes clear.

In this scene, McClain is out killing time, cruising and relaxing with Marquis “Pup” Maze, a former college teammate:

Pup exits the freeway. Most buildings are boarded up and lined with bars. He stops at a red light, next to a car cranking music. McClain perks up, itching for a bass-off. He’s having a little fun or flirting with trouble, depending on how you look at it. From the back middle seat, he stretches his leg so that his toes hug the stereo knob, turning it up until the truck vibrates. The light turns green and both cars zip off the line, thumping and speeding through neighborhood streets. It’s easy to see how they could be pulled over and trouble could escalate, the familiar slippery slope. But Pup peels right as the other car drives away.

They pull up to McAlpine Recreation Center. McClain exits the truck, urinates in the parking lot, then buries a dip in his lip. “Game time! Gotta load up!”

Inside, the gym is packed. McClain’s team is up first, and he plays basketball like you’d expect a linebacker would, relentlessly banging, with perhaps a little too much confidence in shooting NBA 3s. His team loses, and everyone piles back into the truck for the ride home. This time, McClain drives. He misses a freeway entrance, then pulls into the wrong lane of traffic, hoping to hop a curb. He seems to recognize quickly that this is a poor decision. He stops hard, then reverses into an intersection in the middle of traffic. Maze jokes that he wants to live to see his son that night. McClain laughs, blazing away.

On I-59, McClain speeds and weaves between lanes. His seat belt is off. He reads texts. Still, he considers this no more reckless than retiring from football and putting up walls between himself and everyone else: I’ve got it.

I included that long passage to make it perfectly clear that, while there are improvements that McClain has made in his life, he is still struggling with familiar demons. Oh, and he hopes to be back in the NFL next year, after passing up a chance for a comeback with the Baltimore Ravens.

So what, pray tell, does this have to do with GetReligion?

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Another haunted story about Ravens locker room faith

At this point, fans who pay close attention to the Baltimore Ravens are contemplating a deep moral and religious question. No, I am not referring to the sins being committed on a weekly basis by the offensive linemen who are allegedly blocking for quarterback Joe Flacco.

No, the bigger question is this: Who dominates the locker room, the party players associated with the recent “party bus” incident, with that strong supporting role played by a stripper named Sweet Pea, or the inner core of religious believers who are clearly being pulled into the organization or retained as leaders by head coach John “give me some mighty men” Harbaugh?

As the defending Super Bowl champions attempt to get their act together on the field, it’s clear that there are questions that need to be answered in the locker room.

Do the reporters and editors of The Baltimore Sun see what is going on?

I honestly do not know. I do know that, in story after story, the folks that operate the newspaper that lands in my front yard demonstrate that they are tone deaf when it comes to writing about the lives of the many religious believers who are playing key roles in the Ravens locker room. Tone deaf? What other explanation is there for this trend in which the religious role in players’ personal lives is either ignored or downplayed in story after story? Want to see a few examples, just from the past 12 months? Then click here, here, here, here and here.

The latest story in this haunted series focuses on safety James Ihedigbo, who — against strong odds — has emerged as a leader on the Ravens defense. It’s important to know that his family is from Nigeria.

Thus, this crucial transition in the story:

After bouncing around the NFL for a couple of years and surviving another training camp competition, Ihedigbo is thriving as a starter for the Ravens. The 29-year-old is providing sound coverage, reliable tackling and leadership for a younger group of defensive backs that lost a pair of veteran mentors in Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard this past offseason.

“James has been kind of the glue back there,” coach John Harbaugh said.

Fighting to keep a dream alive is nothing new for him or for the Ihedigbo family. Decades before, Ihedigbo learned about perseverance and the power of faith from his parents.

The Ihedigbos, Apollos and Rose, left Nigeria and came to the United States in 1979, settling in Amherst, Mass. Two of their five children were born there, including their youngest son, James.

OK, there’s the faith word. Now what’s the story, in terms of the journalistic facts?

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Sun does it again: Ghost in the Ngata and Suggs friendship

Are you ready for some football!

GetReligion readers: What?!?

So, the National Football League season starts tonight with the world-champion Baltimore Ravens returning (due to a baseball schedule issue here in Charm City) to Denver to play the other beloved team of my heart, the Broncos.

As you would expect, this means that the team at The Baltimore Sun needed to churn out another lengthy news feature in which an obvious religion angle (a “ghost” in other words) was buried if not ignored altogether. This appears to be a Sun specialty.

In this case, the story focuses on the unlikely friendship between two radically different Pro Bowl-level members of the Ravens defense, massive nose tackle Haloti Ngata and linebacker Terrell Suggs.

The key is that Ngata is the straightest of straight arrows and Suggs has lived a rather colorful personal history, to understate the issue. Thus this key passage:

Of Tongan descent, Ngata’s activity of choice is a quiet night with his wife, Christina, and their two young boys. He lets loose on occasion with his teammates, but he never appears comfortable or content in front of reporters.

Meanwhile, Suggs — or “Sizzle,” as his teammates call him — is a movie and music buff who doesn’t shy away from the nightlife. While Ngata “just likes to be quiet,” Suggs’ voice reverberates everywhere. Yet the two are inseparable, especially, Ngata says, at the team facility, where “I can’t go by myself to do anything or he can’t, and if one of us does, we get on each other pretty bad.”

“If I told my wife I was with Haloti, she wouldn’t worry about a thing,” Suggs said. “She’d say, ‘All right, you guys have fun.’ He’s a real good person to be around, especially if you want to stay out of trouble. The man doesn’t even curse. Haloti is a big teddy bear, and everybody knows he’s an amazing family man. But when Haloti is in pads and he has a helmet on, there’s no more gentle giant. He’s ferocious.”

Hint, hint. And later on readers learn more about this dynamic:

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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?

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Sun sheds very little light on new linebacker’s faith

If you know anything about the Baltimore Ravens, then you probably know something about the complex legacy left behind by retired linebacker Ray Lewis, a sure fire first ballot Hall of Famer.

When it came to his religious beliefs, Lewis was loud and proud to the point of driving some fans a bit nuts. I think there were some local and national journalists who were tired of his God’s linebacker sermons, as well.

Anyway, Lewis has retired and one of the big stories going into the upcoming NFL season is who will try to take his place, both on the field and in the locker room. One of the team’s top draft picks was Kansas State University linebacker Arthur Brown, who is often described as soft-spoken. A recent piece by The Baltimore Sun also suggested that it’s impossible to understand what makes this young man tick without knowing something about his — wait for it — spiritual side.

Once again, the sort-of-God card was right there in the lede:

The uplifting sounds of gospel music provide Ravens rookie inside linebacker Arthur Brown a release from the grind of football.

The second-round draft pick from Kansas State is bespectacled and soft-spoken, cultivating a professorial look off the field as he frequently wears a tie, slacks and dress shoes. During his spare time, the 23-year-old can be found playing the piano or whipping up his favorite meal of salmon and sweet potatoes.

Brown’s personality away from the game, though, is a contrast to his aggressive nature on the field.

“If you don’t know Arthur and see him on the field, you would think he’s an absolute maniac,” said Ravens rookie outside linebacker Meshak Williams, Brown’s former Kansas State teammate. “Arthur is a good person, very spiritual and one of the best friends I ever had. When he plays football, he just changes his personality. He flies around and brings an intensity to the whole defense.”

So this young man is going to play gospel music in the locker room? Or he plays it at home? Also, note the suggestion that his piano skills allow him to perform as well as to listen. There’s more to this young man than a set of colorful headphones, in other words.

And, once again, remember that we are talking about the man who is trying — on multiple levels — to step into the shoes of Ray Lewis.

So it’s going to be pretty important for this story to nail down some actual facts about his religious beliefs, as opposed to settling for vague generalities. Right?

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