Sleepy local religion news

sleepy pandaCould The Topeka Capital-Journal do better than the following story on how local families balance church and sports? Check out the introduction:

Involvement in team sports requires hours of regular practice, games and tournaments.

Balancing schedules when a child’s team’s schedule conflicts with the family’s worship and church fellowship becomes a juggling act for some.

Daren and Debbie Nigus, of Topeka, have made special arrangements to permit their two sons, Seth, 11, and Jesse, 14, to play Ken Berry baseball.

A reader who kindly brought the story to our attention thought the story was “lousy” and “dull.” (See Mark’s fine post here on another “unedifying” story). Here is more from our reader on heartland religion news:

So the headline caught my eye. But the article is a disappointment. It is a story without a plot: “Some families balance faith and sports by not playing the Sunday games, which is fine.”

I agree that this is not the most interesting work of journalism and likely won’t win awards, but let us consider the options the reporter had in deciding how to spice the piece up.

There is always the controversial angle. Instead of focusing on the fact that everyone generally seems to be getting along, why not focus on the fact that these sports organizations dare to schedule activities on the Sabbath Day! Doesn’t that potentially discriminate against those who take the Lord’s Day seriously?

Not exactly, at least how this story was reported. However, this rather non-controversial story is an example of how a journalist could have taken a seemingly mundane topic and work everyone up into a fit of steam. Perhaps it’s better that the reporter told what seems to be a rather straight-up story?

What happens when an athlete is not allowed to participate in a tournament or a league because of his or her personal or family commitment to attending church? That type of story seems to end up on page A1 in The Washington Post when it involves a high school athlete being disqualified from a track meet for wearing clothing intended to be modest for religious reasons.

In general, I hope this is not the Capital-Journal‘s one religion news story of the week. I should note that the article seems to have appeared in the “Life & Leisure” section on a Saturday. A brief exploration of the Web site shows that the newspaper published on the same day a column on a Muslim physician, a religion calendar and religion briefs. There is even a searchable devotional directory.

A July 2000 article notes that the newspaper launched a weekly news section (in color!) that was intended to cover “the wide variety of faith groups active in and around the Topeka area, focusing on how faith and spirituality affect people’s lives” and stories featuring “ethics and values.”

Eight years is a long time in the newspaper business. Here is hoping that these articles represent a vibrant religion section that gets into the heart of the community’s religious issues.

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Not perfect

perfectFor the past three decades, Gold’s Gym and its imitators have gained market share at the expense of the YMCA and YWCA (aka the Young Men’s Christian Association and Young Women’s Association). A whole new culture of fitness for the body’s sake was spawned. Even the 1985 film “Perfect” could not avoid the conclusion that gyms became pick-up points. Now devout Christians are forming their own health institutions.

None of this history appears in The New York Timesstory about the growth of Christian fitness clubs. In fact, reporter Katie Zezima provides little religious or spiritual context or background for her otherwise interesting story. Are the Christians mentioned in the story evangelicals and if so, which type? Why are these Christians so concerned about temptation?

That said, Zezima let her interview subjects talk and present reality from their respective. The lede was strong:

Jason Russell, a fitness buff, had long found it difficult to combine his Christian faith with his job as a gym manager, which required him to be around women in spandex and men concerned only with how macho they are.

“Me being a single guy and trying to walk the Christian line, it was difficult,” said Mr. Russell, 30. “I needed not only to protect myself, but as a leader, to help others with their spiritual journey.”

Mr. Russell had been planning to open a gym of his own. Then he discovered Lord’s Gym, a 10,000-square-foot fitness center here that meshes prayer and push-ups. Its goal, says its owner, Paul Sorchy, a chiropractor, is to provide a modest setting where members can feel comfortable exercising. Mr. Russell is now its manager.

Alas, the remainder of the story is a variation on this theme: Christian health clubs arose in response to their secular counterparts. Zezima quotes from several Christians and a university professor echoing Russell’s perspective. For example, Zezima writes

R. Marie Griffith, a professor of religion at Princeton University who has written about Christian diet and fitness programs, said such gyms appealed to people who might not have found other fitness programs effective or appealing.

“These are places where fitness is important, not sex or vanity,” Professor Griffith said. “It’s supposed to be that we’re not going to forget we’re Christian here. There’s a sense of comfort around people with the same moral values as you have; no one’s going to rock your world.”

Griffith’s quote is prosaic. She’s not saying anything that the Christian fitness-goers aren’t. Zezima talked with an Ivy-League academic for this?

Zezima’s story isn’t bad. It’s just a disappointment — a piece that promised to explore a new religious trend and delivered few results.

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Dear Lord, please hit that batter

9O99It’s very rare that I pick up a newspaper and read a sentence that leaves me shaking my head and muttering, “What in the heckfire did that mean?”

But I would like GetReligion readers to join me in pondering one such case, which took place the other day in the Washington Post sports section, of all places. I read this on the MARC train, tore the clip out and then it got buried in my shoulder bag. It showed up this morning.

This was an ordinary story last week about a game between the Baltimore Orioles and Satan’s own team, the New York Yankees. I mention the potential role of Satan, because the bizarre sentence in question appears to call down the wrath of God on a Yankee player. At least, that is one possible interpretation.

Ready? Here we go, starting right at the top:

All the way from left field in cavernous Yankee Stadium, Baltimore Orioles outfielder Luke Scott heard the thud in the third inning, when pitcher Daniel Cabrera’s fastball hit the left hand of New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter. And as the Yankees’ captain clutched his bruised hand, Scott said he lowered his head and prayed.

“For the Lord to hit his hands quickly,” said Scott, who can regularly be seen reading from the Bible in his locker. “I know that’s a tough thing.”

Now isn’t that bizarre? But that’s what the story says, right there in the newspaper clipping on my desk.

This Bible-reading Christian outfielder prayed for God to HIT the hands of the Yankee superstar?

Could that possible be right? Who could possibly think that this is what Scott said? What do you think that sentence means?

As it turns out, I have withheld vital information from you. As it turns out, that crucial quote has now been changed on the Post website, but changed without a correction being attached to it to show that an error had ever been made. Thus, the passage now reads:

And as the Yankees’ captain clutched his bruised hand, Scott said he lowered his head and prayed.

“For the Lord to heal his hands quickly,” said Scott, who can regularly be seen reading from the Bible in his locker. “I know that’s a tough thing.”

Hit vs. heal. You know, that makes a difference in the meaning of the sentence.

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Yes, sports journalism is important

sports sectionIn the last GetReligion blog post that fit into the “sports” category, I engaged with a much appreciated regular reader in the comment section about the importance of sports journalism and religion. I want to expand upon those thoughts here and highlight yet another sports story that is sure to catch the comment section on fire douse the comment section with water.

Our posts on sports don’t get the most comments or much attention, but that doesn’t mean sports aren’t important or interesting in terms of journalists spotting or missing religion ghosts in their coverage. Sports coverage is a major part of journalism, and we can’t ignore the impact of large media outlets such as ESPN and Sports Illustrated and of course your local sports sections.

I’ve found that sports writers often get religion in a way that is rarely seen in other news sections. Other times the subject is ignored or skimmed over. Then there is Peter King who says he ignores athletes when they bring up religion because he gets tired of it, and sports writers report on “game-oriented” things, not Christianity.

The same reader who commented on the last sports-related post brought to our attention an ESPN story that exemplifies great reporting on a story about an individual who has been through a truly harrowing experience and lives with the consequences everyday:

It’s been precisely a year since a 2 1/2-inch spherical titanium shell shattered Henniger’s face, turning Security Service Field into a makeshift battlefield scene, and a glance in the mirror is all it takes to remind him that his life will never be the same. For 17 years, he’s been the main community link for the Triple-A Colorado Springs Sky Sox — the senior vice president of marketing, on-field master of ceremonies and goodwill ambassador for the franchise.

Now he’s a survivor in the truest sense of the word.

The story goes on for nearly 4,000 words. It is hard not to be moved by the story of recover, courage and at the very end, faith:

True to character, Henniger is quick to find the positive amid his travails. His ordeal has strengthened his faith in God and increased his appreciation for his family. He’s grateful to his doctors, nurses and therapists as well as the soldiers and DeLeon for saving his life. And he’s humbled and a bit perplexed by the attention he’s received while military men and women in distress — paraplegics and quadriplegics — so often suffer in silence. He plans to take an active role in Wounded Warriors, an organization that supports the families of injured or deceased soldiers.

Each day when he wakes up, Henniger recalls the advice he received from a Craig Hospital nurse early in his rehabilitation.

“You have a choice,” the nurse told him. “You can get better or you can be bitter, but you can’t be both.”

He made his choice a long time ago.

In what other area of the modern journalism world would a reporter with an audience reach like ESPN.com’s commit that level of resources to tell this type of story? Sports journalists have the benefit of possessing a greater opportunity to tell human-interest stories like these. But it also means that they have work that much harder to get the religion part of the story right.

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Hoops, cancer and vague faith

The University of Tennessee’s men’s basketball program now has a couple of religion ghosts following its rather successful hoops program. In addition to the team’s coach Bruce Pearl, who is said to be passionate about his Jewish faith, one of its best players, prolific 3-point shooter Chris Lofton, has suggested that his faith helped him beat a cancer that he has kept silent about until now.

A reader of ours in submitting the story to us said that the story is incredible but fails to discuss in any substantive way how his faith helped him beat cancer:

Lofton talks a lot about how his faith kept him going, and also about the “why me?” questions that he had. The reporter does a nice job with the story, but doesn’t dig into Lofton’s faith at all, not even to find out what kind of church (if any) he attends, what Bible passages his parents read to him (which is one of Lofton’s anecdotes), etc.

I couldn’t agree more with this reader’s sentiments. The story is a great exclusive for ESPN, and the reporter seems to handle the subject fairly delicately. Since Lofton took strong measures in the past to protect his privacy, perhaps his faith is something he didn’t want to discuss. If that was the case, the reporter should have mentioned it to the reader in the interest of full disclosure.

Here are the sections of the story where Lofton’s faith is mentioned:

Cancer wasn’t going to beat him.

“I just remembered my mom and dad telling me, ‘It’s all going to be OK. Just pray about it and keep your faith,’” Lofton recalled. “You’re going to go through tough times. We all are. It’s how you respond to them that counts. It’s how you get back up.

“You’re going to get knocked down. It’s whether you stay down or whether you get back up and fight that counts.”

And make no mistake. Lofton had one hell of a fight on his hands. …

“I cried myself to sleep a lot of times talking to them on the phone,” Lofton said. “You’re by yourself and there’s really nothing anybody can do. You just have to deal with it. My mom and dad kept me strong. They gave me passages out of the Bible to read to help keep me strong. We all leaned on our faith.”

By comparison, check out this Washington Post/Newsweek On Faith Q&A with NBA star Michael Redd from about a month ago. If you’re into basketball, and don’t mind that Reed’s team is not playing these days, it’s a great read and does a tremendous job of digging into Redd’s faith:

How much does your faith impact your daily life?

Every day I rely on my faith to be the best husband I can be, the best father I can be. I rely on my faith not so much to score 50 points or win a basketball game, but you know travel, you travel so much in the NBA. We definitely pray for our health and our strength as we play every night. And you know just praying for that I can be a light for Christ even though I’m playing basketball because I know that’s what I’m really here for. It’s not just to play basketball but it’s to show who Christ really is. That’s my goal. It’s not necessarily to win a championship every year, which would be wonderful, it would be wonderful and that’s why I play, but I think ultimate success is if someone says what must I do to be saved? That’s the ultimate success. It’s an awesome responsibility but at the same time I love it, I love it.

What do you typically pray for or about?

I just mainly talk to God. I don’t necessarily get on my knees all day. I just pray to God help me with me, help me with me. God, you know my issues, you know my weaknesses, continue to cleanse me, continue to purge me, help me to be the best father I can be, best husband I can be every day, be the best teammate. Also, I pray for my family all the time, my friends, that’s an every day.

Obviously the format for this interview is different, as it’s not attempting to be a straight news piece, but the point that religious issues deserve additional question and depth still stands. When a journalist tells the story of a person’s life that mentions faith, deeper issues of faith should not be lightly skimmed over.

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Praying for better coverage of prayer

football prayerWriting about a court’s opinion in a lawsuit should be easy. At least you may think it would be. The court’s opinion typically contains all the relevant facts, important quotes, the history of the law and how it applies in the particular case. For example, you’d expect that news reports of a opinion finding a coach’s participation in pre-football game prayers unconstitutional would include the words of the prayer, right?

At least that’s what I would be looking for as well as many other people in America who participate in some form of high school sports. Alas, such is the case of legal reporting in the mainstream media, where reporters routinely avoid getting into the depth of opinions that often have huge impacts on the way people and communities deal with religion.

For example, here are a few of the paragraphs from the coverage from The New York Times of a recent controversy involving a football coach bowing his head while a member of the football team prayed before games. This controversy took place, by the way, right next door to the NYT in New Jersey:

Marcus Borden, who has been the head football coach at East Brunswick High School since 1983, sued the district in 2005, saying its policy violated his rights to free speech and due process, as well as to academic freedom and freedom of association.

In July 2006, the United States District Court for New Jersey ruled that Borden could bow his head and bend his knee when the team captains led the players in prayer, but three judges of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit overturned the lower court’s ruling Tuesday, citing Borden’s history of leading prayers in the past.

Judge D. Michael Fisher wrote in his opinion that “the conclusion we reach today is clear because he organized, participated in and led prayer activities with his team on numerous occasions for 23 years.”

“Thus,” Fisher continued, “a reasonable observer would conclude that he is continuing to endorse religion when he bows his head during the pre-meal grace and takes a knee with his team in the locker room while they pray.”

In case you were curious what one of the prayers said, here it is from the court’s opinion. As for the difficulty in acquiring and reporting this information, it was as easy as cut and paste:

“[D]ear lord, please guide us today in our quest in our game, our championship. Give us the courage and determination that we would need to come out successful. Please let us represent our families and our community well. Lastly, please guide our players and opponents so that they can come out of this game unscathed, [and] no one is hurt.”

Also included in the court’s opinion are the juicy details like the school’s policy on coaches and teachers praying and the controversy leading up to the lawsuit.

Are there word counts on the Internets that I’m unaware of prohibiting reporters from including this excellent background information in a story about prayer? Or how about at least a link to the PDF of the court’s opinion?

That kind of information, that takes less effort than writing this sentence, should be standard in stories like this. It doesn’t even take up the news organization’s bandwidth since the document is hosted on the appellate court’s servers.

Above is a photo of one of these prayer sessions taken conveniently from the court’s opinion on the matter, in case you were curious about that minor major detail.

While the NYT may deem itself above and beyond covering this issue, other than its mere 10 paragraphs, the Associated Press at least touched upon the significance of the ruling and why it is likely that the Supreme Court will take up the matter.

The story does a good job giving the background of the case, which is easily accessible in the court’s opinion, and the significance, even if it did come from the coach’s attorney:

Borden’s lawyer, Ronald Riccio, said he would ask the U.S. Supreme Court to consider the case to clarify what he says is murky law — especially given Tuesday’s decision — about student-led prayer.

“As the matter now stands, some coaches can bow their head and take a knee,” Riccio said.

As we’ve said many times before, when dealing with First Amendment legal issues, there are dozens of law professors out there that would love to spout off about the legal background of the case. It is frustrating that stories like this don’t deal with any of the legal precedents that are involved. It would be like writing about the 2004 election without mentioning who won in 2000.

Lastly, neither of the news stories bothered to mention a rather significant fact about the case: The district court agreed with the plaintiff/coach in finding that the school’s policy on prayer was unconstitutional. However, the appellate court in ruling against the coach didn’t just find that the school could implement this policy. The court found that the act itself was an unconstitutional violation of the Establishment Clause.

In other words, public school athletic coaches within the Third District: bowing your head with your athletic team is violating the Constitution.

Reporters should note that this includes Pennsylvania, and last time I checked, there is a rather significant primary election going on in that state. Anyone want to ask candidates Obama and Clinton about how they feel about coaches bowing their heads with their athletes?

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God talk and miracle shots

Mario ChalmersSometimes journalists should just step back and report the events, emotions and words of the event they are covering. Monday night’s NCAA Tournament was that kind of situation, and unfortunately for sports fans, it seems that the only person to notice a significant spiritual angle of one of the more impressive shots (and comebacks) in basketball history was a Sports Illustrated blogger.

Not that there is anything at all wrong with bloggers. This story is just deserving of a broader audience.

Here is blogger Luke Winn midway through his tremendous description of what must have been an amazing basketball moment to witness:

What happened, then? How does one explain this breathtaking finish? If you listen to Chalmers’ father, Ronnie, who happens to be KU’s director of basketball operations, the sequence of events was nothing short of divine intervention.

Inside the left breast-pocket of Ronnie’s suit on Monday night was a small scrap of white paper, a verse of scripture written on each side in pen. He took it out when Memphis’ Robert Dozier was at the charity stripe, hitting the first of two free-throws that would put the Tigers up 60-51. On Kansas’ bench, Ronnie silently read Psalm 46:1 to himself:

God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.

Perfect, thought Ronnie, because “we were in trouble at the time.”

Winn does not need to explain what this means. He just states it, as it should be.

As a reader told us that this is a “very well written article describing, moment-by-moment, in-their-own-word, two minutes and twelve seconds of history, God and all.”

The reader makes the statement that compared to all other GetReligion entries he has read, no other reporter has been able to articulate the exact connection between God and sports. Since Winn doesn’t try, his article is the better for it:

He misses the first but makes the second. The score is 63-60. If you’re Collins, you think to yourself, “Now I know we have chance.”

Ronnie Chalmers had two scriptures in his pocket, if you recall. The second was from Psalms 46:10 — Be still, and know that I am God — and he read that one, too, at the start of the comeback. But even Ronnie had his doubts when he saw Collins make the handoff, and then witnessed his son let go the biggest shot in KU history. At first, Ronnie said, “I didn’t really think he got a good look at it.”

But just as Rush did from near the hoop, and Collins from the wing, and Mario, falling back from the top of the key, Ronnie then saw that the aim was true. He had sat with Mario for the 2004 Final Four in this very arena, as spectators for UConn’s title run, and his son had said that one day he would be playing for a national championship. Mario’s shot made Kansas’ title possible, and Ronnie, when he watched it go in, simply said, “Thank God. Thank God.”

Some of the comments on the blog make the point that God has nothing to do with who wins or loses a basketball game. If God took sides in a game, and he was on your team’s side, then it would not matter how many free throws your team missed.

Unfortunately, that is missing the point of reporting on religion in sports. Look closer at the verses being quoted. Religion would be just as relevant to the story if Mario Chalmers missed that desperation three-pointer.

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A mitzvah in Fenway Park?

I realize that this is still a religion-news blog and that we have not, officially, turned into a religion and sports weblog. But, say hey, do we have any baseball fans out there? Tell me that you saw this amazing moment the other day in the baseball cathedral called Fenway Park and did not get a lump in your throat and/or a tear in your eye. No way.

As I watched it, the first word that came into my mind was — “mitzvah.”

Now, as it turns out, we are not talking about the real definition of that Hebrew term, but the unofficial definition that you hear religious and cultural Jews using in daily talk.

Mitzvah

Mitzvah, which literally means commandment (from God), is often translated as “good deed.” There are 613 commandments (365 negative mitvot and 248 positive ones), which are delineated by the rabbis from the text of the Torah. It is a mitzvah on Rosh HaShana to hear the shofar.

In other words, I am asking who, in the Red Sox, organization had the wisdom — perhaps “grace” is the right word — to say, “The timing is right. It’s time to close the circle and ask for Bill Buckner’s forgiveness and to make our fans face the fact that they need to forgive him.”

Do I really need to remind anyone of the context for all of this? Do you really need to click here?

Staging this dramatic scene took nerve, but the results were spectacular. It was also crucial that they had him throw out a pitch on the day that the Red Sox honored the greatest champions in Boston sports history, in all sports. I mean, Bill Russell was out there on the field.

I have no idea if there is a drop of religion in this story, in terms of the motivations of those who put this together. But I know it is impossible to describe the scene without using religious and moral language. Here’s the top of the Boston Globe story:

The pause lasted a full 13 seconds. Bill Buckner sat at a table in the Fenway Park interview room, a microphone in front of him, and pondered the question. Had he had second thoughts about throwing out the first pitch at yesterday’s home opener and celebration of the 2007 World Series win?

His eyes grew wet and red. Dwight Evans, seated next to him, reached out and put his arm around Buckner.

“I really had to forgive, not the fans of Boston, per se, but I would have to say in my heart I had to forgive the media,” Buckner said, after apologizing for taking so long to answer. “For what they put me and my family through. So, you know, I’ve done that and I’m over that.”

But that hardly stopped the emotions. Not on the mound. Not in the interview room.

After all the ceremony, the handing out of rings and hoisting of the championship banner and introducing of Patriots, Bruins, and Celtics legends, there was Buckner walking out from left field to the mound. He walked slowly, perhaps a remnant of those aching ankles and knees that marred his career. And as he walked, the fans cheered.

I also have to admit that my thinking about this event — in terms of seeing a religion ghost — was shaped by an amazing discussion on ESPN’s Mike & Mike in the Morning show. I wish you could hear that without paying an ESPN Insider fee. The focus was on this question: When does the right to heckle cross a line into conduct that is simply evil. E.V.I.L.

Take, for example, that famous moment involving Arizona University guard Steve Kerr, later of Chicago Bulls and not head of the Phoenix Suns. As Frank Deford wrote at Sports Illustrated:

Perhaps the most tasteless heckling in American sports history came in February 1988, when Steve Kerr was a senior guard at Arizona. His father, Malcolm, had been murdered by terrorists in Beirut in January 1984. Heartless Arizona State students screamed “PLO!” at the bereaved young Kerr as he manfully carried on upon the court.

They also shouted, “Where’s your Daddy?” during warm-ups.

Evil. I think that is a word with religious implications for most people. But what happened in Fenway Park the other day was the opposite of that. Has anyone seen follow-up coverage that let’s us know more about what was behind that?

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