God at the Rose Bowl and elsewhere

J LemanWhat a year it has been for religion-in-sports stories. The year started off with Indianapolis Colts head coach Tony Dungy leading his team to a Super Bowl victory proclaiming the power of God at every opportunity, followed by a series of religion and baseball-related stories.

Then there was the Michael Vick saga and another series of God in football stories, with special attention to the death of the Washington Redskins’ Sean Taylor. Even the NBA got some religion with the Orlando Magic’s Dwight Howard.

The Los Angeles Times writes about the faith of the Fighting Illini’s middle linebacker J Leman as a preview of the Rose Bowl, which features the surprisingly talented Fighting Illini versus the USC on the first day of 2008:

God promised he would go to Illinois and that’s what happened, the Illini offering a scholarship a few games before his high school career ended. When he suffered back pain heading into his freshman year, the result of one leg being slightly shorter than the other, he asked others to pray for him.

“I got prayed for 30 times and nothing happened,” he said. “Then a guy said ‘Let me try one more time.’ I checked my leg length, and it was the same length. It took a couple of months, but, since then, I’ve been fine.”

These stories roll out of him excitedly but not the least bit heavy-handed. There is no ulterior motive because Leman does not demand that you believe; the young man is merely telling you what he believes.

Last winter, he underwent ankle surgery and could not seem to heal, the pain causing him to sit out spring practice. Finally, Leman says, God told him to ignore the injury. Just run.

It would have been difficult for the reporter to ignore Leman’s story of faith, but it wouldn’t be the first time the obvious significance of God in an athlete’s life was causally dismissed. Now that Leman’s faith has been featured in one of America’s most-read newspapers, it will be interesting to watch the broadcast of the game Tuesday and whether the commentators and sideline reporters mention his faith and its impact on his career.

As a wrap-up request, feel free to comment on what you think was the most significant religion-in-sports story of 2007. Also, if you have any 2008 predictions or brilliant story ideas, feel free to leave those as well.

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Bizarre sports term of the week

dwight howardYou may have noticed that the professional sports arena is, well, a bit soiled at the moment. All kinds of people — including some muscular Christians — are finding out that repentance is never an easy thing to do in public.

However, I don’t think people are ready to assume that someone making a public profession of Christian faith is a bad thing. Right?

However, there was a strange reference the other day in the annual ESPN.com feature by Bill Simmons about who is worth what in the rumor-packed NBA trading marketplace.

Here is the key: Dwight Howard of the Orlando Magic is having a breakout year and, according to this ESPN Matrix, is the second-most valuable player in the whole league, making him a person that no general manager in his right mind would even consider trading. He is an untouchable.

Not only is this rising superstar young, he is extra valuable in another way. Here is the ESPN item in question:

2. Dwight Howard

You can’t even say he improved from April ’07 to November ’07 — it’s more like he transformed. … Through seven weeks, Howard has two 30-20 games, one 20-20 games, seven 30-15 games and 22 double-doubles and has a chance to become the first center since Moses to average a 24-15 for an entire season. And he’s only 22. And we haven’t even mentioned his defense (good and getting better) or the way he protects the rim (superb). If there’s a chink in the armor, it’s his crummy free-throw shooting. But that’s it.

One other bonus with Howard that nobody mentions: Because he’s a devout Christian, even when he turns 35 in 2020, those will be Christian years — he won’t have any of that smoking-drinking-partying mileage on him, which means he could play at a high level until his early-40s (much like how Kurt Warner keeps chugging along at age 36).

Catch that? During his court career, Howard will age in “Christian years” that are easier on his mind and body. What is the opposite of this term? “Real” years? “Street” years?

My question is simple: Is this “Christian years” reference a compliment or a cheap shot, in the context of the modern sports-industrial complex?

After all, Howard’s name and his faith came up in a similar context several years ago here at GetReligion. At that time, ESPN reporter Darren Rovell raised an interesting question: Is faith a good thing today in the marketing world? Does it hurt street cred? Former ABA and NBA guard Claude Terry, executive vice president of the Pro Basketball Fellowship, had this to say:

“I would hope that Dwight’s beliefs wouldn’t hurt his chances to market products,” Terry said. “I would think that marketers would want to embrace someone with such values. At the same time, I can understand that we live in an age where people are supposed to be tolerant of the choices others make and it could be interpreted that he is imposing his beliefs on them.”

So, is “Christian years” a good term or a bad term? Was this praise or a cheap foul?

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Church hook in that Sean Taylor story

fb AAHP082 8x10 Sean Taylor Posters 01We rarely, rarely cover the work of religious publications here — because that is not what GetReligion.org is about.

However, there are people out there from mainstream journalism who have moved on to work in religious and even denominational press offices. They tend, of course, to take major chunks of their news values and skills with them.

Thus, let me point GetReligion readers toward a story that offers some major insight into a religion ghost that we have been covering here in recent days — the tragic death of Washington Redskins superstar Sean Taylor. For looks at what we have written, click here and here.

The bottom line: When people start claiming that a troubled person’s life was turned around with help from God, it’s good to know some of the details of what that change might look like. For example, was there a religious conversion? A public commitment? Was there a minister who was close to the person?

With those questions in mind, here is a large piece from the top of a report in Adventist Review, written by Mark A. Kellner (a longtime reader and friend of this weblog).

Sean Taylor, the Washington Redskins football player who was murdered during a middle-of-the-night burglary at his home on November 27, 2007, was known to the world as an aggressive athlete, once telling his pastor: “I just get paid to put them on the ground,” with “them” being his opponents on the playing field.

Less known until his December 3, 2007 funeral in Miami, Florida, an event televised nationwide, was that Taylor, 24, was attending the Perrine Seventh-day Adventist Church in Miami, and that Pastor David L. Peay, Sr., who once led the congregation there, had baptized the young athlete.

“Sean’s mother and father are Seventh-day Adventists. Sean’s grandparents are Adventist. The family is Adventist,” Peay, now the pastor of Miami’s Tabernacle Seventh-day Adventist Church, said in a telephone interview with Adventist Review two days after the funeral.

Taylor, shot by one of four intruders in his home as he attempted to protect his 18-month-old daughter and her mother, had, according to media reports, at one point in his life wandered somewhat from the Christian standards of his youth. Drafted by the Redskins in 2004 and in the third year of a seven-year, $18 million contract, his off-field reputation caused some to wonder. Indeed, a few initial comments in the media after his event — comments widely criticized by Taylor’s family and by Redskins fans — erroneously suggested that his lifestyle contributed to the tragedy.

That was not the case. At the time of his murder, Sean Taylor was running, but with God’s crowd at the Perrine Seventh-day Adventist Church in Miami. Peay believes he was making a run towards heaven — and away from his former ways.

This is public-relations material, in a way, but there is new information here, too.

Way down in this report in another glimpse at a news hook. Taylor’s attempts to straighten out his life had led to a reconnection with this congregation.

In July 2007 Peay was back at the Perrine church for an evangelistic series, and Sean Taylor was in attendance, with his grandmother.

“When the appeal was made to give your life back to Christ, Sean raised his hand,” Peay said. After that event, “Sean [was] coming — nobody is making him come — in [weekly to] worship on his own accord. As he comes out of the church, he hugs me, and whispered in my ear, ‘I know what it looks like, but I’m not far.’”

It will be interesting to see if any of this material leaps into the mainstream.

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The Devil and Sean Taylor

seantaylor The day that Redskins safety Sean Taylor was declared dead, Leonard Shapiro of The Washington Post wrote a column exploring the reasons for Taylor’s murder. Shapiro wrote that he could not say ultimately why Taylor was killed.

Then he offered up the following hypothesis:

… (Could) anyone honestly say they never saw this coming? You’d have to be blind not to consider Taylor’s checkered past. It was only a few months after he was drafted, when we got something of an inkling of what sort of young man the Redskins were selecting out of the University of Miami with the fifth overall selection in 2004.

For one, Taylor brazenly skipped the rookie symposium he was required to attend his first year, and was fined accordingly by the NFL. You also can look at the timeline of his professional life printed on this web site or in the newspaper and draw your own preliminary conclusions.

Over the first few years Taylor was in the league, he bounced from one scrape to another, blowing off the symposium, disrespecting Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs by not showing up for mandatory offseason workouts and never calling to explain why, running afoul of the law in a widely reported shooting incident in South Florida and very nearly going to jail.

Almost instantly, Shapiro’s article was assailed. He received hundreds of emails from irate readers. At Taylor’s funeral, Florida City Mayor Otis Wallace received a standing ovation when he declared that reporters should be “ashamed” for “recklessly speculating that this young man’s death was caused by the way he lived.” Sports Illustrated wrote that Shapiro’s article at worst was “incendiary and racist,” noting that Taylor had been murdered by strangers, not his enemies.

The contretemps is about more than the fact that a reporter, as Shapiro admitted later, jumped to a conclusion. It’s about a debate between those who attribute most of black America’s problems to a Culture of Poverty and those who blame White Racism. Alas, reporters have shed more heat than light.

One problem is that reporters have failed to probe the religious angle to the story. All but one of the alleged robbers, as well as the alleged gunman, were in their teens. All had a history of arrests. Were these children from divorced families? Or were they just callow young men?

It was often reported that Taylor turned around his life after his 18-month-old daughter was born. Yet Joe Gibbs attributed Taylor’s change of heart to a religious conversion. Well, what kind was it? If Taylor did convert or embrace his old denomination, why did he delay in marrying his fiancee?

Too many questions, not enough answers — it’s an old story.

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The plans of a vague yet active God

fb AAHP082 8x10 Sean Taylor PostersUnless you are a sports fan, you may not know that the Washington, D.C., area has headed into that strange zone in which people gather in the public square for prayer meetings that end with emotional renditions of “Hail to the Redskins.”

In a way, the tragic and mysterious death of star safety — an ironic defensive position name — Sean Taylor is similar to the Michael Vick case. Of course, this time the story ended in deadly violence against the athlete, violence that does not appear to have been linked with Taylor’s earlier brushes with the thug culture that is so powerful in his hometown Miami area. Click here for The Washington Post‘s stories on Taylor.

The other difference, and here is our barely hidden ghost, is that it appears Taylor was actually playing the God card for real in the past year or two as he tried to grow into adulthood. It is also impossible to avoid the religion angle in a story that involves coaching legend Joe Gibbs, one of the most outspoken believers in football.

The quote that made it clear the religion element would not vanish was this one:

Taylor’s death at age 24 was announced by his former agent and friend, Richard Sharpstein, who had been informed of the tragedy by the player’s father, Pedro.

“His father called and said he was with Christ and he cried and thanked me,” Sharpstein said. “It’s a tremendously sad and unnecessary event. He was a wonderful, humble, talented young man, and had a huge life in front of him. Obviously God had other plans.”

This is one of those cases when it really helps to ask the big theological question in order to dig into the news hooks in this story. What was God doing in the life of Sean Taylor, and how would anyone know what was going on, now that Taylor cannot speak for himself?

The victim’s father, police leader Pedro Taylor, continues to talk in faith language and, once again, is putting his faith in an active, strong God who is part of this drama. You can see this in the Miami Herald coverage:

… (Pedro Taylor) talked about his son’s death. “Whatever took place between he and God at the time, He [God] had it all in control. I’m at peace with God, and God, he makes no mistakes.”

He said he was not angry at the person who killed his son. “You know who you are if you did it, turn yourself in. Vengeance is not mine, it’s God’s. He holds that in his hands.”

It’s hard to avoid quoting this kind of language, even for sports reporters and columnists who are clearly not comfortable with God talk.

One of the most unusual passages I have seen in the coverage so far is this early piece from Post columnist Mike Wise, who deals with many of the early rumors and reports and then kind of raises his hands in existential despair. There are higher issues, he says, writing in the hours shortly before Taylor passed away. But there are no specifics, no articles of faith:

Instead think of Joe Gibbs yesterday — glassy-eyed, his voice unsteady as he spoke of Taylor putting his baby over his shoulder. He delivered the most emotional news conference of his 67 years on an afternoon when he had the team chaplain lead the Redskins in prayer.

Believing in a higher power, divine spirit, even an unknown force of the universe, was encouraged but not necessary in Ashburn yesterday. Yet on the day Sean Taylor was shot, there was nothing wrong with believing in a kid’s will to live. A few minutes past 7 p.m., that’s all that mattered.

105 0519Yes, there is the issue of Taylor’s baby and the relationship with the mother, which lasted for years — producing an infant, but not a marriage. Is this part of the religion question? Another ghost? What would the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan say?

I realize that the victim, in this case, was rich — not poor.

But the issues of faith and family appear to be linked. At least the nation’s best sportswriter seems to think so. More than anything else I have read, I am haunted by this passage from Michael Wilbon, who opened an emotional column by simply stating that he was not interested in the football side of this story at all. Later, he adds:

Anybody you talk to, from Coach Joe Gibbs to Jeremy Shockey, his college teammate, will cite chapter and verse as to how Taylor was changing his life in obvious ways every day. He had a daughter he took everywhere. Gibbs said he attended team chapel services regularly. Everybody saw a difference, yet it didn’t help him avoid a violent, fatal, tragic end.

Faith and fatherhood. Perhaps Taylor was on his way to a story with a different ending, but was having trouble along the way.

This is not to blame the victim. No way. But as Wilbon notes, it is hard to believe that Taylor would be dead right now if he had moved his family to a safer place, if he had cut more of the ties to his wild past in Miami. Was safety part of God’s plans for Taylor, his child and the child’s mother?

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Singletary doesn’t fit Baylor?

“Hello. My name is Terry Mattingly, and I’m a Baylor University football fan.”

“Hi Terry.”

Well, I’m glad that I got that off my chest. I am a graduate of Baylor University and I graduated so long ago that I remember when they were really bad, then became amazingly good and won a Southwest Conference (may it rest in peace) title or two. This was before Baylor became the tiny sheep in the flock of wolves called the Big 12.

So I know that there are religious stories out there right now that are much more important than the downward spiral of the Baylor football program. But, as a former Baylor Lariat sports editor (in the wake of the Miracle on the Brazos, no less), I wanted to mention a very strange and interesting story that ran the other day in The Dallas Morning News.

As I have mentioned before, NFL Hall of Famer Mike Singletary is my all-time favorite Baylor football player. To no one’s surprise, the great linebacker and coach quickly became a candidate for the head-coaching job at Baylor, which tends to come open every three or four years.

But what surprised people was that Singletary — often mentioned as a future NFL coach — quickly dropped off, or jumped off, the Baylor short list. That all went down last week during the Thanksgiving lull. The Dallas report noted:

Mike Singletary is not going to Baylor.

Singletary said he and Baylor athletic director Ian McCaw talked again Wednesday, and he told McCaw that he’s no longer interested in the school’s head football coaching vacancy.

“What happened was we got to a point in the conversation where it just wasn’t going to work,” Singletary said Thursday. “Ian will explain it, but the more we talked about it, the more I knew — and I think he knew — it wasn’t going to work.”

Now, almost everything that happens at Baylor — especially in the era after the great Southern Baptist Civil War of the early 1980s — has some kind of religious subtext. I do not know if that is the case here.

That’s my point. I would like to know. Because there is one hint in this Dallas Morning News story that there may have been tensions other than those linked to the almost impossible goal of tiny-market Baylor competing at the national level on the playing field. Pay close attention:

Singletary, a three-time All-American at Baylor and a school icon, was considered by many the one guy who could ignite the program. He’s been an assistant coach in the NFL since 2003, but he has no college coaching experience. That fact alone divided the Baylor administration on whether Singletary was the right choice, according to university sources.

Singletary still loves Baylor, he said. When asked what it’s going to take to make Baylor competitive again, he paused before answering.

“Ian and (executive assistant AD Todd Patulsk) have to find the guy that believes in the culture,” Singletary said. “It’s not about X’s and O’s or being a guru. It’s a guy that’s in the mold of Coach [Grant] Teaff, someone who can be an example of dedication and hard work. They have to find that guy.”

The key here is the meaning of the phrase “believes in the culture.” I assume Singletary refers to the culture of Baylor, as a Christian university. Singletary’s legendary coach, Grant Teaff, was also highly identified as a Christian spokesman and leader. This became controversial at Baylor and affected Teaff’s work there.

Did this divide at Baylor affect the Singletary talks? Singletary is, himself, a very controversial conservative African-American, very outspoken on issues of culture, faith, family and morality. The question I was left with: Was there a chance that Singletary might not fit in at Baylor these days? Would he have been “too hot” for the culture in today’s Waco? Would his presence have caused division?

I wonder if The Dallas Morning News considered asking some faith-based questions. I, for one, am curious.

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Gotta have faith

faithCleveland Plain Dealer reporter Mary Kay Cabot wrote up an interesting profile about Browns kicker Phil Dawson. Last Sunday the Browns had an amazing 33-30 overtime victory over the Baltimore Ravens. Dawson had kicked the game-winning field goal as well as a 51-yarder to send the game into overtime.

Turns out Dawson has been through hell and back in the last couple of years with his wife’s life-threatening pregnancy as well as additional worry over the health of their infant, Sophiann. Clearly the type of story that brings added meaning to the sports we follow. Cabot describes Dawson, his wife Shannon and son Dru embracing on the field after the game and explains:

Just 17 months earlier, in June 2006, Shannon was preparing to deliver the couple’s third child back home in Dallas when doctors discovered a cantaloupe-sized mass growing inside her uterus. The diagnosis: low-lying placenta with accreta, a condition whereby the placenta attaches itself abnormally to the uterine wall.

Because the mass had wrapped itself around both of her main arteries, Shannon’s condition was life threatening. “It literally brought us to our knees,” she said.

What’s more, unbeknownst to her, doctors told Dawson he would have to make a choice between his wife and his baby, because only one would emerge from the delivery room alive.

Dawson thought about his two young sons, Dru, then 5 and Beau, then 3. He thought about Shannon and what an amazing wife and mother she was, his rock and his inspiration. And then he did what he always does: he prayed. “We relied heavily on our faith,” said Shannon.

It turns out that the Dawsons’ one way out — a risky procedure to keep Shannon from bleeding to death during delivery — proved successful. Sophiann was born within eleven minutes and Shannon was out of surgery an hour later. As if that weren’t enough drama, Sophiann stopped breathing at four months, was revived, stopped breathing again and was rushed to a hospital. She pulled through, but it was a rough year. Speaking of the initial delivery, Shannon told Cabot:

“It was truly a medical miracle,” said Shannon. “But we know where that miracle came from.”

And the reader is to infer that this miracle came from God. Now, I know some people believe that religious distinctions are unimportant and that a generic “faith in God” is all that matters in a story like this, but the reader who sent it along (as well as countless others, I’m sure) was left with many questions unanswered:

So when the kick of all ages clanged off the support bar in Baltimore and bounced back into the end zone to help catapult the Browns to a 6-4 record and keep them in the playoff hunt, the Dawsons felt it was a little gift from above. . . .

“Every night, Phil and I pray to God to keep us here so that we could see the victorious side of it,” said Shannon. “Lately, we’ve been pinching ourselves and saying, is this really happening?”

The day after the kick, Dawson was in demand, appearing on ESPN’s First Take and about seven national radio shows. “But I was the same old knucklehead to my kids,” he joked.

The kick was great, something they’ll never forget.

“But we already had so much to be grateful for,” said Shannon.

Particularly because Cabot is so good with the other details — crafting sentences to convey the love in the Dawson marriage and family, beautifully describing “the wacky, bouncing 51-yarder that sent the game into OT” — the failure to tell us anything of substance about the faith of the Dawsons is jarring. In whom, exactly, do they place their faith? What are their spiritual disciplines? Where do they worship?

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Time to program your Google alerts

bonds heroThe key search terms are “God” and “Barry Bonds.”

The truly brazen can add “born again,” but it may take a few weeks for that to show up — other than in sarcastic references in sports-page columns. You may also want to search for “Bonds,” “point to the sky.”

But the religious language has already started, so I wanted to open this up as a thread for those who see serious stories that raise religious and/or faith issues in the Bonds coverage. Again, we don’t want to bash Bonds here. That is not the point. We want to look for signs of religion news and language in the coverage of the case.

You honestly don’t think this is coming? I know. Bonds is his own man and his pride is very strong. And, when he points up in the sky after a home run, it means something to him. Maybe several things. Thus, we are starting to see language like this, taken, logically enough, from the San Francisco Chronicle:

Steve Kinney of San Jose, sipping a bourbon and water at the bar in MoMo’s, was more charitable. He likes Bonds, he likes baseball and he believes that people, especially Bonds, are innocent until proven guilty and maybe even after.

“Who knows if he did it?” Kinney said. “No one has any proof. This is between Barry Bonds and his God.”

Over at The Huffington Post, columnist Tom McNichol has already gone to the logal topic — in his post “God and Baseball.” We will officially arrive when the George Will column on this topic hits the Washington Post Syndicate.

Take it away, McNichol:

On one level, the point-to-the-sky gesture can be seen as a legitimate way of giving thanks to an unseen Creator who has endowed the baseball player with special gifts. The pro athlete’s gifts are special indeed; they enable grown men to play a kid’s game and become millionaires. If that doesn’t deserve thanks, nothing does.

But the God invoked by ballplayers when they point to the sky is quite a peculiar Deity, one whose preferences, desires, and team loyalties seem to track very closely with those of the player doing the pointing. The God that Barry Bonds points to doesn’t worry about all the steroid talk — He just digs the long ball. David Ortiz’s Big Papi apparently doesn’t care much for American League pitchers in general or the Yankees and Rockies in particular. Reliever Francisco Rodriguez’s God doesn’t think the save is a cheap stat; it’s a great stat! God knows the save should be more generously rewarded than it already is, and with His help, Rodriguez will someday get the contract he deserves.

We tend to fashion God in our own image and likeness.

Does all of this sound very American to you?

Help us watch for the serious articles on this. Please.

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