Scarecrow journalism

scarecrow2 usermythThe concept of “religious rights” makes a walk-on appearance in a recent Los Angeles Times article — only to be yanked unceremoniously off the stage.

In advance of November’s vote on Proposition 8, Maura Dolan and Jessica Garrison wrote a long, detailed article arguing that California’s role as a gay rights leader, the fruit of a long campaign in in the legislature and the courts, will not be changed by a vote to bar gay marriage.

Only a few paragraphs into their story, Dolan and Garrison bring in a conservative voice:

The changes have delighted some Californians and alarmed others.

Gay rights have been expanded in “little bites that people found hard to argue with at the time,” said Matt McReynolds, staff attorney of the conservative Pacific Justice Institute. “And all of a sudden, we are at a point where gay rights trump religious rights.”

They do?

Readers curious about what McReynolds meant by “religious rights” never have a chance to find out. When he reappears in one other paragraph, near the end of the story, the quote from him doesn’t address that issue at all.

You can read anything into the concept of “religious rights” that you want to — and because the writers never allow him to explain himself, many readers probably do.

In an article replete with the voices of gay rights activists and legislators, it would have been helpful, as well as fair, to allow a few more quotes representing the thousands of voters likely to turn out to support Proposition 8 in November.

In an otherwise informed summary of California’s history of recent gay rights advocacy, this spectral appearance qualifies as straw-man journalism.

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Fasting during football and Ramadan

Eid Ul-Fitr mealThe Baltimore Sun had a pretty solid article last week about the challenges Muslim athletes face during the month of Ramadan, where fasting during daylight hours is a priority. In reading this article, I wonder whether other local newspapers have covered the issue last month. My local newspaper hasn’t to my knowledge, but let me know if you are aware of other local stories that appeared in September.

The one thing the article emphasizes is that the water and food fast is just about mandatory. There are exceptions for sickness or travel, but the article also notes that there are options for young athletes who are about the keel over on the football field:

Neither said he has ever felt in real physical danger, such as suffering from serious dehydration or heat exhaustion. Both said under serious circumstances, it is permissible to break the fast. Toure said he never has, but Suleiman did on a warm, humid Friday two weeks ago.

“A pain started creeping up from my gut, and it crept up to my chest,” said Suleiman, 17. “I felt like when you’ve eaten a lot or you have to burp real badly, but it just kept building to the point where I was starting to heave when I was breathing … so I said some prayers for having to break it a little bit early. After that, I ate a PowerBar and had some Powerade. After a while, I felt better.”

Coaches and athletic trainers are especially vigilant with fasting athletes, watching for signs of trouble.

“When it’s real hot, because he can’t even technically drink water — he can rinse his mouth out and that’s about all – we watch what we have him doing,” Oakland Mills football coach Jim Riss said. “We’re looking for signs of heat exhaustion, like a cold, clammy sweat, upset stomach, all that stuff. We check with him regularly, and we try not to push him too hard.

There was another great example of Ramadan coming up in this article about an Ohio State University football player Nader Abdallah. Back in January, The Washington Post had a broader article on some of the unusual challenges female Muslim athletes face, which includes last month’s Ramadan fast.

The last thing to consider that this article could have addressed is whether there are parallels in other faith traditions. The first example that came to my mind is the Commandment regarding resting on the Sabbath and its portrayal in the great movie Chariots of Fire. For various reasons, this does not seem to be much of an issue these days, although I remember some news articles regarding Utah Mormons being concerned about attending Sunday Utah Jazz basketball games when they were in the NBA Finals back in the 1990s (losing consistently to Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls). Are there others I am missing?

Image of the Eid Ul-Fitr meal, a Muslim holiday that marks the end of Ramadan, used under a Wikimedia Commons license.

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Religion-sports story of the week

AbdallahThe “game of the week” in college football this weekend brings gridiron fans a match-up between the Ohio State Buckeyes and the USC Trojans. Tucked in the middle of all the sports news hype around this story is what maybe one of the first Palestinians to play in “major-college college football.”

The Columbus Dispatch ran what is a disappointingly short “Meet a Buckeye” feature where senior defensive tackle Nader Abdallah talked briefly about his faith, how it impacts his personal life and athletic ability and the fascinating impact it seems to have on his teammates:

Q As the team’s only Muslim, do you enjoy educating your teammates about your faith?

A Over the offseason, coach (Jim) Tressel asked me to bring Muslim Hadiths (written traditions of the prophet Muhammad) and quotes from the Quran to put in his Winners Manual (book). He wanted me to enlighten the team about my spirituality, and it was great, because a lot of guys got to learn different things. I had guys coming up to me all the time asking me, “Hey, can you bring more stuff in? I would love to learn about this.” I’m happy I was able to open the horizons of some of these guys.
Q I’ve heard you say you’re the first Palestinian to play major-college college football.

A That’s great for me and my community, and I’ve got so many fans across the country and across the world that are rooting for me. So just being able to be out there and represent Palestine and being able to represent being a Muslim, it’s really inspiring to me.

Q Do you get interview requests from Palestinian media?

A Oh, definitely. I’ve got arabnews.com always getting into contact with me.

Q Is it difficult dealing with Ramadan fasting during the season like this?

A Today (Tuesday) out there it was like 92 degrees, and it was hard, but you’ve just got to stay focused. If I do miss a day and I feel like I’m dehydrated and I feel like I’m going to pass out, I obviously break it (the fast). But I have to make it up at the end of the month.

Unfortunately I most likely won’t be watching the game (on ABC at 8 p.m. EST), but if any readers do catch what could be one of the best early-season college football match-ups in awhile, please let me know if Abdallah’s name comes up and whether or not the announces discuss his personal faith.

What is also interesting about Abdallah is that he was known as a “good character” recruit for the school’s football program in the sense that he wasn’t going to be the party-all-night, get-in-trouble-with-the-lawtype of players that sports fans hear more and more about these days.

I would also like to know more about the religious views of Buckeys coach Jim Tressel, but that is probably an issue for an entire separate story.

Hopefully this 6’5″ 300 pound defensive tackle makes it to the NFL next year because I am hoping sports fans get to know more about him and how his faith influences his life and play on the field.

Photo courtesy of OhioStateBuckeyes.com

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Hammon’s mission to Russia

becky hammonBefore the Olympics wrap up, we must highlight a story that has been covered primarily by newspaper columnists. Becky Hammon, a WNBA player for the San Antonio Silver Stars from South Dakota, signed up to play with the Russian Olympic basketball team after she received a four-year contract worth $2 million to play with one of the country’s professional teams. This meant accepting Russian citizenship, marching into the Olympic Stadium under the Russian flag and wearing the Russian uniform.

This has not made everyone happy. Some critics are asking if she is a traitor. Others are asking whether she is just a good American capitalist. However, there seems to be a religion ghost that everyone is ignoring.

A reader of ours reports that in a post-medals interview, the first thing she did was acknowledge her personal Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The reader also found an article about Hammon from earlier this summer where she is quoted saying the following:

“I didn’t say no to USA Basketball,” Hammon recently told the Houston Chronicle. “The option for me to play for USA Basketball really wasn’t an option. … I don’t think people would be as upset if I was playing for Switzerland. God loves Russia just as much as God loves America.”

If that quote isn’t enough to suggest that there is something deeper going on in Hammon’s life regarding religious faith, see this column:

Hammon, though, insists economics weren’t the determining factor in what she characterizes as a “soul-searching” process. It was about the Olympic opportunity she didn’t have in America.

Was the opportunity purely an athletic decision? Or does Hammon have a bigger mission in mind in going to Russia to play basketball? Here on Saturday The Los Angeles Times writes that “Hammon never intended to make a political statement. She simply wanted to play basketball in the Olympics.” Somehow, I doubt that is the entire story.

Photo of Hammon shooting a basketball during her visit to Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota, February 2002, used under a Wikimedia Commons license.

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Missing that other half of the clubhouse

quad city baseball stadiumAn article’s headline sometimes gives away the strength or weakness of a story. This example, from an article in the Quad City Times (Iowa) on the impact religion has on organized sports, gave me little hope that it would have much substance.

The choice of words — “Strong men, stronger faith: Religion plays central role in many local athletes’ lives” — states the obvious. Of course religion plays a central role in the lives of some athletes. So may television or beer.

To my surprise, once I arrived at the eighth paragraph of the very long lead, my interest sparked:

Ten River Bandits follow Chambers into a small equipment room. They sit in folding chairs. On one end of the room is 2007 first-round draft pick Pete Kozma. The other end has manager Steve Dillard.

All eyes are looking up to an older man who does the team’s weekly chapel service. He softly asks the players to bow their heads in prayer.

The rest of the players stay in the clubhouse watching the ballgame. For 15 minutes a week, the clubhouse is split into two groups: One that shows its faith and another that chooses not to.

What I expected to follow in this rather lengthy article (just over 1,200 words) was a serious discussion of how religion can play a role — positive and negative — in organized sports. Unfortunately, we only get hints of the perspective that religion can play a controversial role. At least for some. However, they were apparently not interviewed for this story or willing to be quoted:

Raterink is one of the athletes who said he believes religion is talked about more often in the locker room than many would think.

Raterink said he believes his gift from God is football. He said he understands people might not agree with his faith, but that doesn’t bother him.

“Sure, everybody doesn’t agree on religion, but that’s OK,” Raterink said. “People might be a little taken aback, but I see guys playing for more than wins and losses.”

Allan Ross, the executive director at the Jewish Federation of the Quad-Cities, said he believes religion is being translated into sports more than ever before.

“I think religion is being extended to the playing field more than ever before,” he said. “It’s gaining in popularity and will continue. It doesn’t matter what athletes believe in. Religion will give them more inner strength to compete.”

A sidebar to this story examines the challenges athletes face in expressing their faith. According to this article, some fans and athletes declined to speak on the record “about their dislike of religious athletes,” while others expressed the view that religion has “nothing to do with sports” and that they should stay separate. The rest of the sidebar explains away this point of view with quotes from a Fellowship of Christian Athletes official and the local baseball team’s manager.

Here is my sense of this story. Open expression of religious faith is on the rise in the Quad Cities for a variety of factors that are reasonably explained in these articles. This is a good story to tell. However, there is another side of that story in any American community. There are those in the community who do not appreciate the rise of religious faith in sports. However, they do not want to talk about it for one reason or another. That factor is rather significant.

This is the side of the story I was hoping to find when I read the paragraph about how religion divided the baseball team’s clubhouse. The issue often goes missing when sports reporters look at religion. Accusations of insincerity are easily thrown at those who are openly religious. Vague suggestions that there are those frustrated when they see religion involved in sports are also easy to make. Reporting on this aspect is much more difficult but must be done if journalists are going to adequately cover the role of religion in sports.

Photo of the Quad-Cities River Bandits Modern Woodmen Park picturesquely located on the bank of the Mississippi river taken by the author of this post in the summer of 2003.

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Nope, no religion in the protests

0129943150085Is it just me, or do the NBC announcers sound a bit tense during these first few days of the Olympics, whenever they are talking about issues linked to human rights or even the environment?

As young master Daniel noted the other day, religious issues have been part of these tension all along. President Bush went out of his way to spotlight religious liberty issues, but he was only scratching the surface.

If you don’t believe me, check out this Washington Post advance report from late last week. Just look at the opening paragraphs and count the religious ghosts.

China’s intense efforts to block any protest that would mar the Olympic Games were challenged … by foreign activists equally bent on diverting attention to issues as varied as Tibetan independence, the crisis in Darfur and religious freedom.

Two American and two British protesters slipped through a smothering Olympic security net, climbed a pair of lampposts and unfurled banners demanding freedom for Tibet near the new stadium where the Beijing Games are to open. … In Tiananmen Square, three American Christian activists spoke out against China’s rights record and protested its population control policies.

The story focuses most of its attention on Tibet, which is understandable. That is the story that is close at hand, the one drawing the widest array of protests.

Just how tense is this issue at the moment? Check this out:

To prevent such protests inside their own borders, Chinese authorities recently threatened to take away one female activist’s two babies as she tried to enter the country. A Tibetan woman surnamed Kemo was returning to China on July 18 after nearly two years in the United States, where she had had two children. She was stopped by a passport control officer, escorted to an interrogation room and asked whether she had ever participated in political protests.

“Yes, but a long time ago,” Kemo said she replied, speaking on the condition that her first name not be used. Officers then showed her computer printouts of photos of her participating at various U.S. protests. “You are lying to us,” an officer told her.

This is political, of course. But it is impossible to skip the religious content in the Tibet crisis. The same goes for Sudan and Darfur.

You know that some Christian activists are going to take stands during the games. Will we see this on television? What happens if the protesters are actual athletes? Another Washington Post report noted:

Sanya Richards envisions 91,000 fans at Beijing National Stadium and millions more on television watching her cross the finish line first in the 400 meters later this month. Immediately afterward, Richards said, she plans to kneel, say a quick prayer and then point skyward in spiritual appreciation. …

Richards is among the athletes who openly display their faith on the playing field, and feel the two are inextricably linked. Whether through a prayer or symbolic gesture, they use competition as a pulpit, sharing their belief with thousands of spectators.

So here is my request. Has anyone seen a clear story that explains the restrictions under which American announcers are operating?

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The triumph of Lopez Lomong

main24The media run so many of those tear-jerking profiles of hardships Olympic athletes overcome that they lose their effect after a few days. But there’s at least one story that resonates deeply. Lopez Lomong, a Sudanese “Lost Boy” and a member of the anti-genocide group Team Darfur, certainly suffered more than most in his 23 years.

The entire story of the Lost Boys is filled with religious ghosts. Considered the most badly traumatized children of war ever examined, the 27,000 boys were displaced or orphaned during a civil war that killed millions of people. Most of the boys came from the Christian region of Sudan and were persecuted by those in the largely Muslim northern Sudan.

Lomong’s story in particular is an amazing triumph and also full of religious angles. He was kidnapped while attending Mass and frequently talks about his faith and God’s plan for his life. It was somewhat surprising to see how many stories completely neglected any discussion of Lomong’s religious background. This beautiful story by Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post, using the hook of Lomong’s selection by teammates to carry the United States flag in the opening ceremony, ever-so-slightly references it:

During a Sunday morning Mass 17 years ago, the 6-year-old Lomong, along with about 100 other children, was taken at gunpoint from his parents, driven away blindfolded in a truck and dumped in a cramped, windowless, one-room prison full of boys. There, they were fed millet full of barely visible sand, which prevented proper digestion, and, within days, gradually led to the death of boy after boy.

“They would go to sleep and never stand up again. ‘Tomorrow will be my day,’ ” Lomong said. “But I had three angels.” They were slightly older boys who told him to eat just enough of the death gruel to stay alive, but not enough to kill himself. After three weeks, the older trio discovered a hole in a fence. At midnight, crawling while guards talked, stopping when they fell silent, then crawling until they were outside the compound, the four boys began to run. “That is where my race started,” Lomong said.

Despite one boy holding each of his hands as they fled, Lomong nonetheless battered his legs on so many trees and thorns “that’s why they still look like such a mess . . . We ran for three days and nights. They would hide me in a cave while two of them went to get water. They would fetch some back for me in a big leaf.”

When the four boys fell asleep at night, they made sure to keep their bodies pointed in the same direction that they had been running “so that we did not run back in the wrong direction toward the guards or run in circles,” Lomong said. Finally, they were arrested at the Kenyan border — penniless, unable to speak the local Swahili — and taken to a refugee camp.

For the next 10 years.

At the refugee camp, they only ate meat twice a year, on Christmas and Easter. In 2001, a couple in the United States became his foster parents. You can almost sense some more ghosts. And indeed there are. The refugee camp was run by Catholic nuns and the foster parents were motivated to adopt because of their faith in Christ. Despite the light touch from most in the media on the religious angles, there are some accounts out there that explore how much Catholic charity was involved in helping Lomong. This USA TODAY story from 2007 details some of that.

Leave it to the Religion News Service to publish a really interesting and in-depth profile of Lomong’s Catholic foster parents Robert and Barbara Rogers. Here’s how it begins:

Robert Rogers was intrigued seven years ago by the advertisement in a church bulletin seeking foster parents for “Lost Boys” from Sudan.

“This looks interesting,” he told his wife, Barbara, at the end of Mass at St. Leo Church.

He still remembers her reaction: “You’re out of your mind.”

They ended up opening their home and lives to six Lost Boys. It’s a very touching tale and reporter Maureen Sieh does a great job of packing the story with details about the Rogers’ religious motivation:

Barbara said her faith grew stronger during the difficult financial challenges and in the last seven years when she and her husband opened their home to the boys.

“When he was going through all those financial troubles, I kept asking him what’s his plan, and he said, `I don’t have a plan. I’m trusting God.’ I said, `That’s not good enough.’ That was pretty testing. I know my faith has grown stronger since and with these boys, I know God is certainly watching out for them.”

Just a great story and a good example of how religious motivation determines so much in life. I wish more reporters could discuss these religious issues as well as the RNS team does.

Photo via Lopez Lomong’s Web site.

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God’s role in a runner’s story

An excellent example of journalism properly covering the issue of religion in an athlete’s life is this Runner’s World profile of Olympic marathoner Ryan Hall. I know many out there are skeptical when super rich athletes and coaches say something about how they thank the Lord for this or that or give God the honor, but bear with me because this story is about none of those things.

Long distance runners are rarely rich because of their athletic skill. The training is rigorous and anything but glamorous. How often have you watched long-distance running on television? Some may ask why anyone would bother to be a long-distance runner?

For some answers, check out Hall’s story which is more than deserving of the 5,800-plus words Michael Perry wrote in the article titled “The Power and the Glory.”

“My parents were strong Christians,” he continues. “I definitely believed, but I wasn’t really strongly pursuing my faith. I was playing baseball, basketball, football–I was into, like, the cool crowd at school. And then one day traveling down the mountain to a basketball game, I got this random–I describe it as a vision, but you could call it an idea, whatever–this thing pops into my mind where I am looking out at Big Bear Lake, and I think, well, it would be a great thing for me to try and run around that.”

It’s tough to put this in context now, what with the mind-bending marathon times in the books and Beijing right around the corner. But Hall wants you to understand that the power of the vision lay partially in the fact that he was not being asked to do something to which he seemed naturally inclined. “I never really had any interest in running. Like, in middle school, whenever they made us run the mile, I’d complain just like everyone else. But at that moment it became something that was very captivating – it really grabbed me.”

By now, of course, the story about the kid who circumnavigated Big Bear Lake in basketball shoes has become central to the Ryan Hall legend. He ran the route with his father, Mickey. Mickey says they made one stop in 15 miles, and he knew already the boy had something special. The kid was worn out at the end, but back home while unlacing his shoes, Ryan says he too knew this was more than a one-off stunt. “At that point, the trajectory of my life completely changed. All of a sudden I stopped doing baseball, basketball, and football, and started running full time.” And somewhere out on that loop, something else alchemized: “It was at that point that Jesus really became my best friend. That’s when our relationship took off…and it was a direct result of him bringing running into my life.”

At Summit Christian Fellowship, the people are praying. The highest profile congregant has yet to present–he is re-creating that famous day for the cameras–but the flock understands what might be keeping him. After all, they are the ones who hung the banner. They know: God told Ryan to run.

Surely our feelings regarding athletes who choose to bring their faith to the field reflect the state of our own souls. Fellow believers will likely rejoice at God’s word made manifest in the form of peak performance; nonbelievers will dismiss the testimony at best, deride it at worst. Ryan Hall believes he was chosen by God to run for God. One of Hall’s favorite Bible verses–the one he scribbled on the autographed poster just inside the door of the Teddy Bear Restaurant in Big Bear Lake–is from the book of Isaiah. Those who wait on the Lord, will run and not get tired. The Lord has taught Hall not to overlook that key word: wait. The divine plan doesn’t always run parallel to mortal hopes and dreams.

From what I can tell, there has been little news coverage of Ryan Hall leading up to this month’s Olympics. If there is coverage though, this would be one of those cases where a journalist would go astray in failing to ask or mention the role faith has played in his life. The same should go for broadcast commentators (if there are any) who cover his race.

Just how often do you see a runner say he wants to finish second place in the lead of a magazine article about his running career?

Ryan Hall will be happy with second place.

In his prayers, he thinks of entering Heaven, and imagines running through the gates as if into a great stadium filled with people raising a joyful noise. He hopes to be just off the shoulder of the leader, but he won’t attempt a late kick. “The goal of my life,” he says, “is just to follow in the footsteps of Jesus as closely as I can.”

Bob Myers of The Boar’s Head Tavern says that this article “is the most extensive and in depth feature on a Christian athlete” he can remember. I agree with Myers when he says it’s hard not to be a fan of Hall after reading this article.

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