Sneaker theology? Or ego?

CurryIf you care at all about college hoops, then you are all over the Davidson story.

Which makes all the more interesting the opening of a recent Associated Press report by Nancy Armour about the omnipresent baby-faced gunner who is leading that team in its quest for the glass slipper. (Click here for one video sample of what Curry is up to.)

On the red trim at the bottom of his shoes, Stephen Curry has written in black marker, “I can do all things.”

Yes, yes he can.

And because of him, Davidson is marching on.

Curry has, of course, scored 103 points in Davidson’s three NCAA tournament games, so he has every reason to be feeling good about his abilities at the moment.

Which raises the question that the AP apparently didn’t think to ask: Is this “I can do all things” statement a sign of ego or humility?

You see, Curry comes from a very strong Christian home and graduated from Charlotte Christian School. In fact, his brother Seth — another star at Charlotte Christian — is headed to yet another small religious college in the Southeast. That would be Liberty University (often known as Jerry Falwell U).

So it is safe to say that this phrase on the bottom of Stephen Curry’s sneaker is a reference to a verse in the New Testament, Philippians 4:13, which states:

I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.

So the question that some readers are asking is this: Who edited out the second half of the quote? If Curry shortened the verse, which seems likely, it is safe to say that he knows the rest of the verse and had a reason for writing this phrase on his, well, sole. Or maybe he did find a way to write the whole verse. We don’t know.

We also do notknow if the reporter realized that this was a statement of faith, not ego. The question, of course, is whether the reporter bothered to ask: “Why did you write those words on the bottom of your shoe?”

It seems like a rather basic question, if you are going to make this the lede of the story.

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There’s that hijab story again

500x500 1519f976d92fb736a34ae99ad75c77e5Let me ask, once again, a question that I keep asking at this here weblog: When did it become liberal for liberals to attack conservatives for defending the rights of liberals?

Only, now that I stop and think about it, that really isn’t the story that is unfolding right now at Harvard University (photo), where — the story seems to have received a surprisingly small amount of mainstream coverage — administrators have decided to close one of its campus gyms for a few hours every week so that Muslim women can exercise without men seeing them.

This is a story where some liberals are upset about religious expression in the public square and some are not. Meanwhile, a thinking reporter would have to ask how religious traditionalists of other faiths — Orthodox Jews or evangelical Christians, for example — would be received if they asked Harvard’s leaders for a similar bending of rules in the name of creating a more welcoming environment for faith.

This is an emerging story, again. Ask the Archbishop of Canterbury.

This is the rare case where GetReligion readers really have to look to the op-ed pages — territory we usually avoid — to see where a hard-news story came from and where it might be going. Thus, here is a crucial piece of the “Hijabs at a Harvard Gym” column by Ruth Marcus in the Washington Post, who combines this story with another and offers some enlightening background. She begins by noting that American has moved from the era of “God and Man at Yale,” to Allah and Woman at Harvard.

Leave it to the Ivy League to abandon its cherished secularism — in defense of Islam. My reaction is more along the lines of: “Get a grip.” It’s reasonable to set aside a few off-peak hours at one of Harvard’s many gyms. It’s not offensive to have the call to prayer echoing across Harvard Yard, any more than it is to ring church bells or erect a giant menorah there.

I share the apprehensions stirred up by the more radical followers of Islam, with their drive to restore the caliphate and subjugate women. But I come to this issue as a member of another minority religion, Judaism, whose adherents often seek flexibility from the majority culture in order to practice their faith. As with Islam, my religion’s more observant believers endorse practices — segregating the sexes at prayer, excluding women from engaging in certain rituals — that I find disturbing, bordering on offensive. I have relatives who would shrink from shaking my hand. Still, I would defend to the death their right not to touch me.

Certainly, accommodation has its limits. Ten years ago, Orthodox Jewish students at Yale sued — unsuccessfully — after the university refused their requests to live off campus because, they claimed, living in co-ed dorms would violate their religious principles. Muslim students at Australian universities are demanding course schedules that fit into their prayer times and separate, female-only dining areas. In Britain, female Muslim medical students have objected to being required to roll up their sleeves to scrub and to exposing their forearms in the operating room. Fine with me if they need a place to scrub in private, but your right to exercise your religion ends where my safety begins.

So Harvard got this one right, she says. Whether you agree with her or not, this means that this hijab in the public square story is not going to go away and reporters will need to deal with that.

But the question remains: Can secularists and the political left (these groups are not always one and the same, after all) compromise with traditional Muslims and not with traditional believers in other faiths? Why couldn’t Yale allow the Orthodox Jews to avoid co-ed dorms, if there was a way to do that without affecting the rights of others? Will academic and government elites allow equal access laws to apply to Wiccan groups and fundamentalist Christian groups, as well as to Muslim fellowships?

Let us know when you see this story pop up in your local newspapers. It’s coming soon, to a state university or elite private school near you.

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Seeing the trivial in sacred hoops

barnes On and off the court, Rick Barnes is a changed man. The University of Texas men’s head basketball coach has forsworn swearing and fatty foods. Where he used to hurl profane names at his players and slurp sodas, now he says “let’s kick butt” in the huddle and has cut out the carbs in his diet.

Give sports columnist Kirk Bohls of the Austin American Statesman credit for finding this story; as the NCAA tournament is in full swing, the timing is right. But Bohls evinced little interest in examining the deeper reasons for Barnes’ changes. The result was the type of scratch-the-surface story that we at GetReligion lament.

Toward the end of his column, Bohls got around to summarizing and hinting at why Barnes changed. Here is his answer:

It’s all part of the new Rick Barnes, a 53-year-old stickler for discipline who now preaches what he practices. And listening to what others preach as well.

“Ask him what’s on his iPod,” assistant coach Russell Springmann coaxed.

If Barnes isn’t breaking down film of Austin Peay before Texas’ NCAA tournament opener in Little Rock, Ark., on Friday, there’s a very good chance he’s listening to one of the sermons from Matt Carter, a preacher at the Austin Stone church where Barnes and his family attend services. They are members of Lake Hills Church in Westlake.

The coach also takes part with his wife Candy’s daily devotionals and reads from books she has given him, such as Billy Graham’s “The Holy Spirit” and Minneapolis preacher John Piper’s “Don’t Waste Your Life.”

“The journey’s real important,” one Barnes confidante said. “Having self-control is never a bad thing.”

Did you see the ghost(s)? Faithful GR reader Shannon Edmonds did. In his email to us, Edmonds noted the following:

Here’s yet another example of a sports story with religious ghosts — albeit ones that get a brief, non-descript mention in the final few paragraphs, a mention that only begs the question of the entire article: WHY has the coach changed? If you take this article at face value, there is no reason for the change.

Edmonds is right: Bohls slighted the reasons for Barnes’ change. While Bohls mentioned that Barnes read sermons from various preachers, he failed to explore the theology or religious messages of those preachers. In doing so, Bohls missed a key part of the story.

Bohls should have at least browsed the websites of those preachers. I did, and my search for information about Matt Carter, the pastor of Barnes’ non-denominational Christian church, was valuable. It is likely that Barnes stopped cursing out of respect for one of Carter’s four tenets ( also see here ):

I believe the best thing we can do for the children and youth who are part of our church is to help them forge relationships with adults who care about them and with their peers rather than creating a lot of programs. In relationship, they will hear truth and have opportunities to mature spiritually and become who they are called to be.

Sure, Bohls’ story was a lighthearted take on the topic. Cursing and eating junk food are easy fodder for a column. But Bohls appears to have concentrated on those to the exclusion of a more significant story: Barnes changed his ways for the welfare, spiritual or otherwise, of his players. (Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson has done the same.)

What’s so funny about that?

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A Jew for how many seasons?

pearl Every college basketball fan knows Bruce Pearl. The University of Tennessee men’s head coach is famous for turning around losing programs and his brash, outsized persona; at a woman’s basketball game last year, he painted his face and chest orange, wore a headband, and sat in the student section.

It’s tempting to think that Pearl is simply a crazy, and crazily successful, basketball coach. Yet Sally Jenkins of The Washington Post‘s showed that Pearl is more than a hail-fellow well met. He is a serious Jew:

If there is a subject on which Pearl is most passionate, it’s his Judaism, about which he talks so feelingly that his eyes well up. When he first arrived in Knoxville, some local Christian worshipers invited him to church and told him they wished he would make Jesus his personal savior, so he could get to heaven. It wasn’t enough for Pearl to politely inform them he was Jewish and attended synagogue. He described the role of God in his life, how he worshiped, lit candles, believed in mitzvahs. (Some of the local Christians still invite him to church.)

When Pearl took his team on tour of Europe last summer, he scheduled a stop at the Terezin concentration camp. As they toured the site, he told his players, “They killed 6 million of us 50 years ago ’cause of how we prayed.”

Jenkins did more than reveal Pearl’s motivation. She also revealed part of his character:

When he was a senior, he was playing first base one afternoon when a base runner called him a “Jew Boy.” Pearl tapped his glove, signaling the pitcher to throw to first. When the ball slapped into Pearl’s mitt, he whirled, smacked it into the runner’s face and started swinging. “I went to dukes,” he says. He was tossed from the game.

Since I was seven or eight, I have read the sports pages religiously; for the last two years, I have also subscribed to Sports Illustrated. My experience has been that sportswriters write about the religious motivations and practices of coaches rarely. So Jenkins is to be praised for writing this profile.

That said, Jenkins’ story contained a serious flaw. It was a celebration of Pearl and his faith, rather than a critical look at them.

High-level college coaches in football and basketball face lots of temptations. One is to recruit star athletes who have no intention of going to class, much less graduating from college. The graduation rate among basketball teams in the NCAA tournament is notoriously low. Another temptation, for the married, is to neglect your marriage in favor of your career.

Jenkins’ profile mentioned nothing of such moral pitfalls. Without dwelling on the topic, Jenkins might have written a paragraph on how Pearls’ Jewish faith helps him deal with such dilemmas.

For example, Jenkins might have noted that Pearl filed for divorce recently from his wife of 25 years. The couple had or have four children. How did Pearls’ faith influence him on this matter? Readers might conclude that Pearl should have spent more time with his family at home, rather going to his university’s games:

Meantime, Pearl’s quest to win over the community was just as energetic. He stormed the campus dining halls, shaking students’ hands and pleading for their attendance. He showed up at every football game, baseball game and women’s basketball game.

“He jumped on the Tennessee bandwagon,” Summitt says. “If there was an event, he was at it. He could be elected mayor in a heartbeat.”

It’s great when reporters explore how religion motivates and forms the character of athletes and coaches. But it’s better when they examine how religion forms the whole person, warts and all.

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Is God in your bracket?

AJ GravesYou know you’re a journalist who cares about religion when you based your NCAA Tournament Bracket picks on the religion of the school. I tend to use some combination of my head and my heart, which usually leads to utter disaster and ruin. A more successful way I’ve observed is to pick teams based on a hypothetical match-up between the two schools mascots.

For those watching the games this weekend or just participating in an office pool, consider the following article at the washingtonpost.com Newsweek On Faith Web site an interesting discussion piece. Kathy Orton, who writes articles on how religion plays out in the sporting world, discusses briefly how people will often root for schools with which they are associated. I would agree that this tends to be true. I’ve personally observed Catholics root for Catholic schools in the tournament merely because they are Catholics.

Orton raises the excellent point that many of these schools, particularly the Catholic ones, are playing on holy days:

It’s interesting to note that several of these schools will be playing on holy days: Good Friday and Easter Sunday. At places such as Georgetown and Notre Dame, fans were mixed about whether their teams should play on these days. In 2003, the NCAA inadvertently scheduled BYU in the Friday-Sunday slot for the round of eight, forgetting that LDS Church policy prohibits games on Sundays. BYU was eliminated before it became an issue.

I wonder if there are any teams out there in Division I that would have refused to play on Easter. The NCAA must accommodate that, and according to Wheaton College graduate Jason Bailey, there are about seven Division III teams that have a no-Sunday exemption including Wheaton. Anyone know of any in this year’s Division I tournament?

Orton goes on to compile a list of schools to make it “easier for Methodists to root for Methodists and Presbyterians to cheer for Presbyterians.” I’ll note that now that I know Davidson College is Presbyterian doesn’t make me any less bitter about the fact I picked Gonzaga to win that game.

Several of the comments attached to the story point out that the Jesuit schools could have been broken out into a separate category for the purposes of school loyalty. According to one comment, there are five: Georgetown, Marquette, Gonzaga, Xavier, and St. Joseph’s University. If any of the schools listed have a religious origin, let us know. I was pleasantly surprised that the Christian roots of Butler University (my alma mater) were mentioned.

Checkout the list on your own, and let us know if game commentators mention any of the religious affiliations during the games. For a more humorous version (and more helpful), checkout ESPN.com’s Mary Buckheit’s analysis on how to pick your bracket based on religious creed. Here is my favorite set of tips (thanks to Jason for the tip on this story):

Toughest region to pick: West. Arizona vs. West Virginia is a toss-up, as is Mormons vs. Aggies. Jesuits over public school Dawgs is a roll of the dice.

Easiest pick (single game): Baylor (the world’s largest Baptist university) over Purdue (looks like a locomotive on paper but is really just an undercover Indiana state school). Fess up, Boilermakers.

Picking Baylor doesn’t look like such a smart move, but it’s understandable if you don’t know what the Purdue locomotive is all about this year.

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Leaving home for the court

home school basketball tournamentIf you are part of a family that homeschools its children and is religious, The New York Times is your friend Sunday morning. The newspaper’s sports section has a nice news/feature story on last week’s national homeschool basketball tournament in Oklahoma City, and for once, the story doesn’t take the “zoo approach” toward homeschooling. (As a disclaimer, my 15-year-old sister played in this basketball tournament this past week.)

What I mean by the “zoo approach” is when a reporter sees a homeschooled family or organization of homeschool families and reports and writes about them as if they are covering an odd new species at the local zoo. Everything they do is considered suspect and strange. Their successes, whether it is spelling bees or starting higher education at age 14, needs extra explaining, prodding and poking around.

This story takes a different approach that seeks out the positives and finds the success stories among the stay-at-home high school basketball players. The story also appropriately highlights the religious aspect of this tournament right in the lead:

OKLAHOMA CITY — Taber Spani, one of the best high school girls basketball players in the nation, holds hands with two opponents as a coach reads a Bible verse. It is the way each game in the National Christian Homeschool Basketball Championships begins.

This is more than a postseason tournament for the 300 boys and girls teams from 19 states that have competed here over the past six days. As the stands packed with parents and the baselines overrun by small children attest, this is also a jamboree to celebrate faith and family.

“You build friendships here with other girls who know what it’s like to be self-motivated and disciplined and share your values,” said Spani, a junior who plays for the Metro Academy Mavericks of Olathe, Kan. “I wouldn’t trade this tournament for anything.”

Only a decade ago, home-school athletics was considered little more than organized recess for children without traditional classrooms. Now, home-school players are tracked by scouts, and dozens of them have accepted scholarships to colleges as small as Blue Mountain in Mississippi and as well known as Iowa State.

I can’t help but wonder if this story was influenced by the recent California homeschooling case. Are homeschool scholars becoming more sympathetic to journalists as a result?

The story also nicely highlights some of the challenges homeschool families have when it comes to extracurriculars like basketball and how things have changed recently thanks to the growth of homeschooling. I’ve always been curious as to why basketball seems to be the sport of choice for homeschoolers, but that’s probably an issue for a longer more features-oriented article.

From a sports perspective, I found the article rather soft, and its claims a bit unconvincing. A quick reading of this story, and you’d think this tournament was a powerhouse tournament that all college recruiters attend. I don’t doubt there are talent players there, but not every player in this tournament is considering college scholarship offers to play for Tennessee’s Pat Summit. But this is not the first time a bit of hype has slipped into the sports pages.

The religion angle continues throughout the piece, and it rightly points out that many of these families choose to teach their children at home for religious reasons:

“Our Christian faith is No. 1 why we did it,” Gary Spani said of why he and Stacey chose to home-school their children. “We’re team oriented, and we wanted to make sure our family was supporting one another. We also agreed that when our daughters reached eighth grade, we’d let them decide if they wanted to go to high school.”

But that’s only half the story. As the accompanying audio slide-show points out, many people homeschool because they are tired of dealing with the problems that can come with the public schools.

Overall, the straightforward nature of this story is refreshing but probably not that unexpected from a sports reporter. I would be curious to see how this type of story would have turned out if it went through the newspaper’s national desk, or The Washington Post style section.

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Magnify the supernatural

detail It’s one thing to rip a routine or bad story. It’s another to criticize an excellent story with one flaw. The exercise can seem, and perhaps often is, pedantic. So if the criticism is to be convincing, it better be valid.

With this proviso in mind, I bring to your attention a Baltimore Sun story about former Buffalo Bills tight end Kevin Everett.

Everett was paralyzed after suffering a life-threatening spinal cord injury in a football game last year, but he recovered, to the point that he can do most any physical activity except play professional football again. His recovery has been called a miracle. Sun columnist Rick Maese, to his credit, wrestles with the nature of miracles.

I ask him what he thinks a miracle is.

“A blessing, a gift from God,” he says.

… [T]oday, six months later, he walks. A miracle man. Those aren’t my words. That’s what Oprah Winfrey called him on her show last month. I don’t know what a miracle is. Is it something that defies reason? Or merely explanation?

Maese’s questions suggest he is open to a supernatural explanation. Indeed, Maese asks Everett the right follow-up query:

Can Everett credit both God and doctors? Is the fact that he walks today a miracle of faith or a miracle of science?

“Both,” Everett says.

In the following paragraph, Maese reveals that Everett is no dumb jock; he’s a man of uncommon honesty, openness, and wisdom.

What continually impresses me is Everett’s demeanor. There’s not a hint of remorse or regret. At 26, he essentially had spent a lifetime preparing for one thing: to play football. Now, as he is starting over, he refuses to allow his story to become one of despair or disappointment.

I tell Wiande Moore, Everett’s college sweetheart, that I’m simply amazed at the upbeat attitude Everett and everyone around him has maintained. There must have been some bad days in there, though.

“No, not really,” she says. “We just stayed positive.”

Everett interrupts. “Let’s quit with the lies,” he says. “I was sad, depressed. I couldn’t go on …

At this point, Maese’s story was promising indeed. He asked Everett about his faith; was open to the possibility of a supernatural explanation; and revealed Everett’s character. Few stories achieve that trifecta.

But after this point, the story disappointed somewhat. Maese failed to probe Everett’s explanation of God’s role in his recovery. Instead of detailing Everett’s supernatural rationale, he kept it general. Here are a few questions that Maese might have asked Everett: Why do you believe that God played a role? How, exactly, did God play a role? Did you pray to Him for His help?

Those questions are — pardon the pun — completely in bounds. Watch the video of Everett’s injury. After he is paralyzed, players from both teams met in the middle of the field and began to pray; a couple of players even sprinted there. Doesn’t Everett think that their prayers helped?

I don’t make this point lightly. A decade ago, a Roman Catholic priest in Baltimore was stricken with a debilitating heart problem. But he prayed every day to then Blessed Faustina Kowalska, a Polish nun. Behold, one day at a church healing service, the priest fell to the floor for minutes and suddenly leapt up, astonishing the crowd. The priest was healed; Church authorities verified the miracle; and Kowalska was canonized.

Reporters should never discount such a possibility. Sure, a supernatural miracle is unlikely. And Maese was right to detail the medical side of Everett’s miraculous cure. But why not detail the possibility that God intervened?

Alas, even this fine story reflected an unjustified imbalance between natural and supernatural explanations.

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Sports & religion collide again

sports and religionWhen I was a kid, my best friend broke his arm sliding into second base in a Babe Ruth baseball game on a Sunday afternoon. We teased him that his injury was a result of playing baseball on a Sunday.

I reflected on this childhood experience as I read this story in Wednesday’s Palm Beach Post on how a high school student’s refusal to participate in a three-point competition because it would interfere with the Jewish Sabbath tradition may have saved her life:

By Saturday afternoon, Orzechowitz, who was staying in Tampa, was in so much pain that she had to be taken to a Tampa-area hospital, an ironic twist for several reasons.

In Orthodox Judaism, secular life ends at sundown Friday and doesn’t resume until nearly an hour after sundown Saturday. For this 25-hour period, members attend synagogue and enjoy a day of rest but do little else. That is why Orzechowitz could not participate in the three-point finals, which Karolina Bazua of Boca Raton High School eventually won.

The exception to the observance is if someone is in medical danger. Orzechowitz had to end the Sabbath prematurely with a trip to the hospital, where she had an emergency appendectomy Sunday morning.

Had she participated in the three-point contest, doctors told her, the appendix might have ruptured while she was on the court.

The Post is all over this story (see here and here), which is great because these types of incidents seem to be happening more often. The stories are also spanning multiple religions (see Muslim athletes and their clothing) and sometimes those objecting are not that sympathetic.

One aspect of the Post story I particularly liked is how it brought in those who object to the athletes playing sports at all, which shows that this story is more complicated than it first appeared:

Orzechowitz was even attacked by some ultra-Orthodox Jews, who believe it’s inappropriate for a girl to play basketball in front of men. Her mother called those claims “ridiculous.” Yeshiva is a modern Orthodox school, and the girls wear shorts or skirts that go below the knees, as well as cover their arms above the elbows when playing basketball.

“Our message to students is to participate and to do so in a way which is faithful to our 7,500-year-old heritage,” Tirschwell said.

Perhaps this aspect explains why these types of stories are popping up more often. Religiously observant families have discovered the positive benefits of competitive sports and are attempting to conform their cultural practices to the requirements of the organized sports. But ultimately, conflicts arise involving the athlete’s uniform or a tournament schedule, and we have ourselves a news story.

Sports reporters throughout American communities should get used to stories like these because I have a feeling that they won’t be going away.

Photo of the Virginia Gazette “Sports and Religion” section taken by the author in Williamsburg, Va., in May 2007.

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