The return of Baylor football, minus all that Baptist stuff

Way back when I was in college, soon after the cooling of the earth’s crust, the always confident folks at the University of Texas (rivals in the region would use a different adjective) fired an interesting salvo at a key rival.

The marketers for the Tea Sippers created a burnt orange and white car window decal that simply said “The University.”

The message was clearly targeted at the humble Aggies over at Texas A&M University in their semi-military fortress. There was, you see, only one university of Texas and it was in Austin, not in College Station.

And in Waco?

While that hubbub lingered, someone at my alma mater had an interesting idea. They created a green-and-gold decal for the much smaller university on I-35 that said “Thee University.”

In other words, Baylor University answered to an authority even higher than the folks who ran higher education in the Lone Star State. That “thee” move was clever, since there was no way for Baylor people to deny that the school’s image was completely dominated by the fact that it was the world’s largest Baptist school. There was a reason that people liked to call Baylor — as a tribute, or with a touch of venom — “Jerusalem on the Brazos.”

After all, it’s hard to play truly Texas-worthy football when you’re a rather bookish Baptist school, the kind of place where just as many players, or more, frequent Bible studies as often as they do the local watering holes (ask for a Big O). Right?

Maybe not. Right now, the Baylor Bears are on a bit of a multi-year roll, riding the waves still rippling from that remarkable Heisman Trophy run (and pass) by Robert Griffin III, a church-going do-gooder who was as skilled in the classroom as on the gridiron.

So, how does anyone try to tell the Baylor story without mentioning the whole “Jerusalem on the Brazos” angle?

Ask the folks at ESPN.

To my shock, the world’s most powerful multi-media sports empire recently ran a lengthy piece on Baylor, Griffin and head football coach Art Briles without mentioning the word “Baptist” or the word “church.” How about “Christian”? How about “faith”? That would be “no” and “no.”

But what about the history and identity of the program?

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Football and prayer story: touchdown or incomplete pass?

A Washington Post sports story caught my attention with this intriguing headline:

Faith and football collide on area public high school fields

The 1,800-word story, published this week, starts with a revealing anecdote:

Suitland football Coach Ed Shields called his team to the middle of the field after a mid-September practice and told the players the three-hour session was a waste. They would have to be better tomorrow, he screamed. Then he told them to pray, before storming off the field.

Every player took a knee, helmets off, sweat dripping, and each put a hand on another’s shoulder. The boys continued to bicker about football and how angry their coach was, and that’s when senior Steven Rivers came to the front.

“Stop talking!” Rivers shouted. A few players didn’t. Rivers looked at them. “You’re on this team, right?”

Eventually it was silent, and the players bowed their heads and recited the Lord’s Prayer. Rivers, who grew up in nearby Greenbelt, lowered his head, too.

As a Muslim, he’s not supposed to be saying a Christian prayer. But he’s a team leader and, as he sees it, if you play for Suitland, you kneel and pray before and after every practice, before and after every game.

“I’m not even supposed to be saying the prayer. But I do it for my team, because I’m a captain,” said Rivers, 17. “I say my own prayer.”

Shields said the prayer is not mandatory, but reciting it is rooted in the football culture at this public school in the heart of Prince George’s County.

Honestly, I’m not sure what to make of this story.

On the one hand, I like that the Post quotes real people — players, coaches, school officials, the Christian mother of the Muslim player (whose father is Muslim). It would be easy for a story such as this to get bogged down in attorneys and legalese. And it is a high school sports story, after all.

On the other hand, the story feels rather shallow to me — seeming to string together a bunch of “high school sports and religion” tidbits without really connecting the dots.

This is the nut graf:

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Zen Pastor Mariano Rivera and his vague, comforting karma

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Lat’s state the obvious: It’s getting harder and harder for news consumers to figure out when they are reading straight news coverage and when they are reading columns, editorials and analysis pieces.

Thus, it is common for veteran GetReligion readers to send me links to articles and, after clicking the URLs, I discover that many of the “news stories” that so angered them are not actually news stories at all. Instead, they are columns or a clearly labeled “analysis” piece in which it is perfectly understandable that the writer expressed his or her opinion or elected to slant the story in one way or another.

Take, for example, that recent piece in The New York Times — “Mariano Rivera: A Zen Master With a Mean Cutter” — about the retirement of superstar closer Mariano Rivera.

When I first looked at the text, just as an email, I was rather upset about its rather prominent religion ghost. Or, more accurately, I was upset that the piece contained tons of religious content, but not religious content that had anything to do with the real Rivera.

Let me give readers a taste of that, starting, logically enough, right up top:

In a game in which perfection is elusive, he was reliably sublime.

In the high-stress vocation of ninth-inning pitching dominated by theatrical personalities, he was the embodiment of Zen calm — a cool Jedi master among the hotheads, and an almost extraplanetary source of composure and grace in the gritty, often chaotic world of Major League Baseball. …

Mariano Rivera understood what Steve Jobs, Lao Tzu and Bruce Lee understood: that simplicity is an art and a strength, a source of joy and beauty and power.

The whole point of the article is to try to describe the source of Rivera’s remarkable maturity, his calmness, his class, his wisdom and the grace with which he related to others. Clearly, this has something to do with religion.

The article makes this clear — kind of. In terms of pure sports, the art of of his legendary cut fastball is at the heart of it story. But so is, well, this man’s soul.

As Yankees Manager Joe Girardi has pointed out, baseball is what the deeply religious Rivera does, it’s not who he is. But who Rivera is — a consummate professional, stoic, focused, dedicated and at peace with himself — has indelibly imprinted the way he has gone about the job: his unparalleled consistency and longevity, his grace under pressure, and his ability to come back from adversity, be it a blown save or his potentially devastating ligament tear in 2012.

So he radiates “Zen calm” and is “deeply religious.” There’s more:

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Another haunted story about Ravens locker room faith

At this point, fans who pay close attention to the Baltimore Ravens are contemplating a deep moral and religious question. No, I am not referring to the sins being committed on a weekly basis by the offensive linemen who are allegedly blocking for quarterback Joe Flacco.

No, the bigger question is this: Who dominates the locker room, the party players associated with the recent “party bus” incident, with that strong supporting role played by a stripper named Sweet Pea, or the inner core of religious believers who are clearly being pulled into the organization or retained as leaders by head coach John “give me some mighty men” Harbaugh?

As the defending Super Bowl champions attempt to get their act together on the field, it’s clear that there are questions that need to be answered in the locker room.

Do the reporters and editors of The Baltimore Sun see what is going on?

I honestly do not know. I do know that, in story after story, the folks that operate the newspaper that lands in my front yard demonstrate that they are tone deaf when it comes to writing about the lives of the many religious believers who are playing key roles in the Ravens locker room. Tone deaf? What other explanation is there for this trend in which the religious role in players’ personal lives is either ignored or downplayed in story after story? Want to see a few examples, just from the past 12 months? Then click here, here, here, here and here.

The latest story in this haunted series focuses on safety James Ihedigbo, who — against strong odds — has emerged as a leader on the Ravens defense. It’s important to know that his family is from Nigeria.

Thus, this crucial transition in the story:

After bouncing around the NFL for a couple of years and surviving another training camp competition, Ihedigbo is thriving as a starter for the Ravens. The 29-year-old is providing sound coverage, reliable tackling and leadership for a younger group of defensive backs that lost a pair of veteran mentors in Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard this past offseason.

“James has been kind of the glue back there,” coach John Harbaugh said.

Fighting to keep a dream alive is nothing new for him or for the Ihedigbo family. Decades before, Ihedigbo learned about perseverance and the power of faith from his parents.

The Ihedigbos, Apollos and Rose, left Nigeria and came to the United States in 1979, settling in Amherst, Mass. Two of their five children were born there, including their youngest son, James.

OK, there’s the faith word. Now what’s the story, in terms of the journalistic facts?

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Got news? Looking at key facts in the Chris Davis timeline

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It’s the last day of the regular baseball season and for fans of the Baltimore Orioles there was a very bittersweet taste to the year. What does that have to do with religion-news coverage? While many will argue that baseball is a religion (click here for a classic), trust me that I will get to the real religion hook in this post soon enough.

While our O’s narrowly missed the playoffs, the team did have another winning season and made life uncomfortable for the Boston Red Sox. Do the math, people. It’s hard to have a winning season in the American League BEast. Cleveland Indian fans should feel thankful they are where they are.

Of course, one of the other big stories here in Charm City was Chris Davis and his Babe Ruth-ian season in terms of extra-base hits and home runs.

Although Davis has been a moon-shot slamming muscle man since high school, the rate at which he hit the long ball over the past 18 months or so raised predictable questions about performance-enhancing drugs. However, insiders noted that the big man actually lost weight entering this year and increased his foot speed, trends that rarely are linked to steroids.

So, if drugs weren’t the story, then what was the X-factor that helped calm down this anger-management case, allowing him to get his act together?

Simply stated, there is the baseball side and the personal-religious side. You would think that the two stories could be blended into one, but that does not appear to be a task The Baltimore Sun team is willing to attempt, other than the occasional tiny dose of vague God talk.

Here’s my question: What if it could be argued, looking at the timeline of the Davis lift-off into superstardom, that his marriage and his return to practicing the Christian faith of his youth were actually — in terms of on-the-record facts — crucial to this sports-news story? Should a newspaper go there, asking journalistic questions about those aspects of his life and including them as PART of the story?

With that question in mind, let’s look at the new Sun story about Davis’ year. Here is the overture:

Hank Aaron never hit as many as 53 home runs in a season. Neither did Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig, Frank Robinson nor Mike Schmidt.

So with 53 homers going into the final game, Orioles first baseman Chris Davis is not only the most prolific single-season slugger in club history. He’s part of a select group that includes just 17 power hitters in baseball history.

As the Orioles wrap up their season Sunday, short of the playoffs, it’s worth reflecting on what a rare show Davis gave Baltimore fans in 2013. He found that hard to do himself, talking about his season the day after the Orioles were eliminated from postseason contention. “It’s hard to reflect and look back on personal accomplishments right now, because I still have a sour taste in my mouth,” Davis said.

So what happened? Can Davis keep it going?

Davis knows he will enter next season facing a level of outside expectation he’s never experienced. If he returns to his 2012 level — 33 home runs would’ve placed him top 10 in the majors this year — fans will crinkle their noses. But he doesn’t seem concerned.

“I’ve expected it for myself for a long time,” he said. “I had struggles in Texas, and I think that’s where I got away from it. I tried to be a player that everybody else wanted me to be instead of the player I knew I was capable of being. Obviously, when you hit 50-plus home runs in a season, you’re going to draw some attention to yourself, but I just hope that everybody counts on me to be there every day and compete. The numbers are going to be there at the end of the season.”

So that’s one valid way to write the end-of-the-year story. It’s the baseball exclusive approach. What would the personal approach look like?

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Generic ‘God talk’ or something more?

YouTube Preview ImageWell here’s a pretty good example of what appears to be the failure to get religion details into a story. Here’s the top of the story from Yahoo! sports:

Concordia College Alabama coach Don Lee can’t help but think someone was watching over his team Saturday when the second of two buses headed for their game against Miles College blew up in front of them.

Lee, who is also the athletic director of the small school in Selma, Ala., was on the first bus when his phone and the phones of others on his bus started ringing. He looked behind him and saw his second bus wasn’t there. The driver of the second bus said they had blown a tire and, as they tried to pull off the road safely, blew another tire, which started a fire in the back of the bus.

“We had about 56 or 57 people on that bus,” Lee told Yahoo Sports. “When we didn’t see it, we got to a stop sign and turned around. We got to the bus and pulled everyone off. About 5 or 10 minutes after that, after we had gotten everyone to safety, the bus blew up. I mean blew up. We were just so blessed that we got everyone out safely.”

OK. So the coach thinks “someone” was watching over the team. He says they were “just so blessed” that everyone got out safely.

As the reader who submitted this piece noted:

The author writes the coach “can’t help but think someone was watching over his team” and and later cites a quote mentioning the team was “blessed.” Generic ‘god talk’? Or perhaps it might have to do with the fact the team is from a Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod college?

Even if I weren’t a member of this church body, I’d want to see the affiliation of the school in a story of this nature. This is perhaps one of the most pervasive problems in mainstream media today — failure to just identify the religious affiliation of a given individual or group. Remember, journalists, that religion may not be important to you does not mean it’s not important to readers. Or heck, it’s not even about religious affiliation so much as just basic details about a story. When I read about a college in another part of the country, I like to know if it’s public or private and, if private, what affiliation it has. It’s why I read the news. To learn more about other places and events.

Anyway, the point is that even if the coach weren’t referencing religion in his quotes, it would still be important information. But it’s even more glaring when the quotes clearly indicate a religious posture on the part of the coach or school.

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Sun does it again: Ghost in the Ngata and Suggs friendship

Are you ready for some football!

GetReligion readers: What?!?

So, the National Football League season starts tonight with the world-champion Baltimore Ravens returning (due to a baseball schedule issue here in Charm City) to Denver to play the other beloved team of my heart, the Broncos.

As you would expect, this means that the team at The Baltimore Sun needed to churn out another lengthy news feature in which an obvious religion angle (a “ghost” in other words) was buried if not ignored altogether. This appears to be a Sun specialty.

In this case, the story focuses on the unlikely friendship between two radically different Pro Bowl-level members of the Ravens defense, massive nose tackle Haloti Ngata and linebacker Terrell Suggs.

The key is that Ngata is the straightest of straight arrows and Suggs has lived a rather colorful personal history, to understate the issue. Thus this key passage:

Of Tongan descent, Ngata’s activity of choice is a quiet night with his wife, Christina, and their two young boys. He lets loose on occasion with his teammates, but he never appears comfortable or content in front of reporters.

Meanwhile, Suggs — or “Sizzle,” as his teammates call him — is a movie and music buff who doesn’t shy away from the nightlife. While Ngata “just likes to be quiet,” Suggs’ voice reverberates everywhere. Yet the two are inseparable, especially, Ngata says, at the team facility, where “I can’t go by myself to do anything or he can’t, and if one of us does, we get on each other pretty bad.”

“If I told my wife I was with Haloti, she wouldn’t worry about a thing,” Suggs said. “She’d say, ‘All right, you guys have fun.’ He’s a real good person to be around, especially if you want to stay out of trouble. The man doesn’t even curse. Haloti is a big teddy bear, and everybody knows he’s an amazing family man. But when Haloti is in pads and he has a helmet on, there’s no more gentle giant. He’s ferocious.”

Hint, hint. And later on readers learn more about this dynamic:

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Cutting ‘the Rev.’ out of a key Ravens executive’s work

If you number yourself among the millions and millions of Americans who follow the National Football League, then you know that this coming week is one of the most interesting, important and traumatic times of the year. It’s the time when “The Turk” walks the hallways at NFL camps, delivering the horrible news to players that they have been cut from the final rosters that teams take into the new season.

For many players, it represents the quick end of a dream or, at the very least, a severe setback. For journeyman players, it can mean the end a career or, at best, a time of radical life changes that can involve quick moves to a new location for their families or separation from loved ones they leave temporarily leave behind, because there’s no time to sell homes, change schools, etc.

What can NFL teams do to help men deal with all of this trauma? Or how about the flip side: What can be done to help young men handle the fact that they are now millionaires, with all of the attention and temptations that come with that amazing life change?

At the center of that maelstrom is a professional who is usually referred to as the “director of player development,” a job that is only growing in importance in the days when everything NFL players do in public or in private is subject to mass-media and social-media dissection to an unprecedented degree.

The Baltimore Sun recently ran a massive profile of Harry Swayne, the former NFL great who fills that role for the world-champion Ravens. The article argues that Swayne — simply stated — is a nationally known superstar in this crucial role, with a four-tiered player development program that is a model for others. Here’s some key background material:

Swayne is 48 years old and 55 pounds lighter than he was during a playing career that included a stint at starting right tackle on the Ravens’ Super Bowl XXXV team. These days, he is in his fourth year as the Ravens’ director of player development, a role that calls for Swayne to build relationships not only with players, coaches, team executives and their families, but also with corporate sponsors and business and community leaders.

It’s a tireless, yet rewarding job that has come under scrutiny recently with the slew of offseason arrests of NFL players, most notably the murder charge against former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez. The arrests, including one involving linebacker Rolando McClain, who retired less than a month after joining the Ravens, have spurred questions about the level of responsibility NFL teams have in recognizing and preventing destructive off-the-field behavior.

Swayne didn’t comment on individual cases, but he was more than willing to address what he feels is the biggest misconception about player development directors.

“If there is a problem off the field with players — and there always is and always has been — [people say] what’s going on with player development?” Swayne said. “One thing we are not is behaviorists. In my line of work and this is for all 32 player engagement directors, we don’t babysit 20-something-year-olds. They are going to do what 20-something-year-olds do across all cultural groups, across this whole country. Their parents can’t keep them from going out and doing some stupid stuff. Certainly, the player development director isn’t going to be able to either.

“But in that same respect, what we are is proactive individuals who like to approach things where it puts us out in front of some cloudy decisions before they even get an opportunity to make a bad choice. All 32 player engagement directors kind of have that approach.”

And what does the NFL think of this man, who strives to help the Ravens find the right kinds of players for the climate in the team’s locker room?

“People ask if I can give them information, what should the structure look like, how much involvement should this individual have, who should they report to. I just tell them, ‘I’d like for you to speak to Harry Swayne, who is in Baltimore.’ That’s the winning model,” said Troy Vincent, the 15-year NFL cornerback who runs the NFL Player Engagement Organization. “He has it all. He’s the benchmark.”

Now, what I am suggesting is that this is story is about ethics, morality, sin, wisdom, life changes, patience and a whole lot of other subjects — as opposed to being just another sports story. And what makes it GetReligion material?

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