There’s that Baltimore Ravens faith ghost — again

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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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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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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Dang it, that Ravens executive keeps spouting Godtalk

http://youtu.be/hk46MJr00Ew

I get the feeling that many of The Baltimore Sun folks are starting to get tired of the Baltimore Ravens talking about God.

The other day, one of my favorite Sun writers wrote a story about executive O.J. Brigance, a former linebacker who continues to work for the team despite being ravaged by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. His story has often been told, but in a Super Bowl week it is being told again.

Why? Here’s the symbolic detail lede:

He was a mighty presence when the Baltimore Ravens won Super Bowl XXXV, a warrior who busted a wedge to make the first tackle that day and went on to make four more. If current coach John Harbaugh is to be believed, even then he was the toughest man in football.

Today O.J. Brigance has limbs that hang limp, his muscles withered. He can move only his lips and eyes and must use a computer to speak. The team’s director of player engagement is in his fifth year of battling amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a lethal and incurable illness.

Yet as his second Super Bowl looms, Brigance, 43, appears stronger than ever, and that lifts the title contenders.

“There aren’t enough words to describe what that man means to me and to this team,” punter Sam Koch said. “Just seeing ‘Juice’ here with a smile on his face is inspiring. If I have to choose a word for him, it would be ‘powerful.'”

Now, I am not sure that I have much to say — in terms of negatives — about the content of this story.

Nevertheless, there was a phrase in this piece that kind of rubbed me the wrong way. Yes, it’s linked to Godtalk about the essential faith element that must be included in this story, along with the strength of his marriage.

Why “must” the faith element be included?

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Faith and that grieving Ravens wide receiver

http://youtu.be/jC8D42_B2WA

The Baltimore Ravens won a grudge match with the New England Patriots the other night because star wide receiver Torrey Smith made the decision to take the field hours after he learned about the death of his 19-year-old younger brother. The two were especially close, since Torrey had served as a father figure after his father abandoned the family.

This was one of those sports stories in which the God card was played early and often, but — of course — in as vague a manner as possible. Here’s a sample or two of the language used in the Baltimore Sun second-day story on this angle of the game:

Smith was intent on honoring his 19-year-old brother, Tevin Jones, pointing to the sky after a 25-yard touchdown in the second quarter, and finishing with a team-high six receptions for 127 yards.

Kneeling in the end zone, Smith said a prayer during the fourth quarter.

“It was tough emotionally,” said Smith, who was excused from practice Monday to be with his family and is expected to return Tuesday. “I didn’t know how I would hold up. This is new territory for me personally. I never really had to deal with a death in the family, let alone my brother.”

To add depth to this story, the Sun team sought out — long distance — a sports psychologist to discuss how athletes hold up under this kind of stress. Let me emphasize that this interview yielded some interesting, and valid, material.

Life and death transcend sports, but athletes often decide to be with their teammates, a second family of sorts, when tragedy strikes. How Smith excelled after his brother died in a single-vehicle accident when his motorcycle struck a utility pole, is remarkable, according to Dr. Joel Fish of The Center for Sports Psychology in Philadelphia.

“It clearly takes a tremendous level of will and motivation and character to dedicate your performance to a loved one to honor their loss,” Fish said in a telephone interview. “The tribute can allow someone to harness those emotions and channel them. Not everyone can do it.

“The stress is amazing, and it’s not about strength and toughness. It’s important to recognize that everybody responds differently to these kinds of tragedies. This is a tribute to dedicating our moments to someone, connecting and elevating our focus.”

Strength. Toughness. Character. Focus.

How about faith?

I was left wondering if, in the crucial moments before the game, Smith had taken part in some kind of worship service that allowed his teammates to surround and support him. Most, if not all, NFL teams allow a chaplain to lead voluntary services of this kind. Did the Ravens hold such a service before this game? It so, that’s a crucial detail in this story.

Oh, by the way, who is the Ravens chaplain? Did he talk to Smith? At one point, the Rev. Rod Hairston filled that role. Would the chaplain have consented to an interview?

It is clear that some members of the Ravens team approached Smith and discussed this crisis in terms of faith and prayer. We know that because the Sun included this short reference:

Two years ago, Ravens free safety Ed Reed boarded a private jet to return home to his family when his younger brother Brian Reed was reported missing after jumping into the Mississippi River after being chased by police. …

“When I went through losing my brother, being around these guys really helped,” Reed said. “Everybody is mourning and trying to figure out what happens. I gave [Smith] a psalm. We don’t know our time, none of us. …”

The reference to the psalm is interesting. As it turns out, Reed did address that issue with the press. CNN reported:

Smith received words of encouragement from everyone inside the club and around the globe. … Inside the clubhouse, safety Ed Reed, who lost his brother in 2011, gave Smith a psalm that he hoped would help him through the tough time.

“God’s in control, and God has a plan bigger than ours. We don’t know our time, none of us. We all experience the same things, so I just told him that we’re here for him; I’m here for him,” Reed said, recalling his conversation with Smith to reporters after the game. “I can relate to him. I told him we get so caught up, like our pastor said today, in the physical and what we see. I still talk to my (late) brother to this day because I know there’s much more to us than just being here. I told him that he could still have those conversations. Just know that he’s in a much better place.”

There was a pastor involved in this story? Really? Who knew?

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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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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