Michael Vick, sinner

vick flyWhat a country. What a culture.

It should be clear to just about anyone who reads major newspapers that we live in an age in which it is is safer to use religious language when describing secular sins than when describing what used to be called religious sins. It’s safer to talk about the sin of burning too much gasoline than the sin of lust. It is acceptable to judge certain secular forms of behavior, but not other forms of behavior that we have said are purely religious and private.

The media went through an interesting fit about this a decade or so ago when discussing President Bill Clinton’s attempts to repent in religious terms, while avoiding the secular consequences for those sins. Remember that?

Now we have the case of NFL superstar Michael Vick.

One of my favorite writers is Michael Wilbon of The Washington Post, in part because I am a big NBA fan and he is the best pro basketball writer alive. Period. No debates allowed. There are all kinds of issues that I am sure we do not agree on, but talent is talent and skill is skill and Wilbon is a fabulous writer.

So this makes we want to point out the following passage in his column today about the Vick tragedy that is unfolding before us. It is a kind of secular passion play. That’s me talking. Read what Wilbon wrote and note that there is no way to avoid the religious language.

Count the religious references. Go ahead:

If he says what arrogant athletes in trouble usually say, that this is behind him and it’s time to move on, his penitence will be insufficient. He’d better take the approach, and publicly, that his god isn’t finished with him yet and there’s a better man at the end of this regrettable process than at the beginning. Vick, clearly a man used to taking what he wants without fear of consequence, had better start begging quite literally for mercy and forgiveness. In public. Every chance he gets. We may be a forgiving culture, but only if people believe the sinner is genuinely contrite.

Of course, Vick has never been any good at these things. He’s never been lovable, never been charming or PR savvy. He’s rarely extended himself or been engaging publicly. But that’s where the rehabilitation of his reputation begins, with doing all the things he thought previously were beneath him. If he just remains the same old Michael Vick, he’s got no chance.

This is coming real, real close to stating the obvious. In effect, Wilbon is asking if this man can be born again. What is the secular version of being born again? What does that look like? How does he repent of these secular sins?

And one more thing. If Vick tried to sell a religious born-again experience at some point in his future, would Wilbon buy it? Would animal-rights people? Would I?

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Wrestling with lies and demons

Benoit and Guerrero celebrate at WrestleMania XXAs I rode home on the MARC train the other night, I saw several people reading the sprawling Washington Post features section piece on the sad lives and early deaths of professional wrestlers Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit. This led into a series of hard-to-answer questions about why so many wrestlers die young, other than the assumed impact of illegal steroids on their hearts.

I should state right up front that I don’t get pro wrestling. However, I have a friend who sort of does (Hi, Larry) and he got me to thinking about the suicide of Benoit, who had killed his wife and son. Since this story involved Southern culture, to one degree or another, I assumed that a religion ghost would come up sooner or later.

Sure enough, there is Godtalk in reporter Paul Farhi’s story. Here is the opening of the story:

Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit, best friends through thin times and thickening bodies, strutted in shared triumph around the ring in Madison Square Garden. Guerrero had just successfully defended his World Wrestling Entertainment title; Benoit had defeated two opponents to wear the belt as world heavyweight champion.

The wrestling was scripted, but the mutual sense of achievement on March 14, 2004, was real. After all the travel on back roads, the spiritual and pharmacological comfort, the dreams and near-death, the two pals had reached the professional pinnacle together.

Spiritual comfort?

The two men had a long friendship, traveling together in a circuit that weaved through Mexico, Japan, Europe and the United States. As wrestlers, both lived in near-constant pain, coping with the bruising, often lonely lifestyle with such drugs as sedatives and narcotic painkillers.

For Guerrero, an admitted alcoholic and drug abuser, prayer became a tool to help tame his torments. He encouraged Benoit to try Christianity, and in the later years of their friendship, they sometimes read Scripture together — in locker rooms and hotel rooms, on soul-searching road trips.

This leads to a pretty obvious question: What does it mean to “try Christianity”?

Is there some kind of network of Christians in pro wrestling, as there is in legitmate sports? There are a wide variety of faith groups active in Hollywood these days. Wrestling, after all, is part sports and part Hollywood — with lots of fakery and imagination thrown in. It’s hard to imagine a kind of pro-wrestling parachurch ministry, but it’s pretty easy to check this kind of thing out.

At the very least, one could establish whether these men were active in any congregation near their homes, even if they spent very little time at home (which is part of the overarching sadness behind the entire sordid tale of life on the wrestling road).

Faith shows up again at the crucial moment in the story, when Guerrero dies young and, perhaps, Benoit begins to slide deeper into despair. Their friendship had grown even deeper when Benoit helped his comrade recover from a near-fatal car wreck.

Guerrero’s accident helped strengthen his religious convictions, and he sought to bolster Benoit’s faith, too, says [Carlos] Ashenoff. Both men had rocky marriages punctuated by separations (Nancy Benoit filed for divorce in 2003, alleging that her husband had threatened her, but she eventually withdrew the petition).

When Guerrero finally was anointed WWE champion in early 2004 (he “lost” his title four months later), the organization marketed his triumph as a redemption story. The company released a DVD recounting his life story, and later a WWE-authorized autobiography (both called “Cheating Death, Stealing Life”). In both, Guerrero claimed that he had been sober for four years.

It was a hopeful, inspiring story. But like much about wrestling, it wasn’t true.

And this is where I was very troubled about the role of faith in this story. How does faith mix with a professional life that is built on lies, when one works in a business in which cheating is part of the tradecraft? The goal is to create illusion, yet without any public confession that the illusion is real. How does one live with that?

Clearly the religious ghost in this story is real. It deserves attention.

However, if it deserves attention, then it makes sense to give it enough attention that it makes some kind of sense. Or, tragically, if the faith is senseless, then we need to know enough about what happened to grasp that tragedy. What role did faith play? Please show the reader more and let us wrestle with that.

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Devotion to God, then the game

piazzaMichael Kress is the assistant managing editor at Beliefnet and a freelance religion reporter. I’ve come across a few of his articles recently as he’s published in Slate, The Dallas Morning News and other sites.

He had a really straightforward and interesting Q&A with Mike Piazza in The Seattle Times this week. Piazza is the (boo, hiss) designated hitter for the Oakland Athletics. The interview isn’t exactly probing, but it certainly puts Piazza in a new light. I’ve followed Piazza since he was with the Dodgers and knew his brother was Tommy Lasorda’s godson but was surprised by some of his responses to Kress’ questions about religion:

Q: There’s debate about whether it’s appropriate to pray for little things in life, like finding a parking space. Do you pray for victory in games, or for home runs?

A: No, I really don’t. My personal opinion is to keep it broader, to get up in the morning and pray for the Lord’s blessings. Pray for the Lord to help me do my best at my job. To pray for health. Pray for guidance. Pray for all these things. And then all the little things kind of slide in.

Q: Do you have a favorite prayer?

A: I love the rosary, and I say the Hail Mary a lot. The devotion, especially my devotion to the Holy Mother, is something that’s helped me a lot. And I love praying the rosary, so I say my Hail Marys all the time.

Q: Could you say a little more about what Mary means to you?

A: The fact that she was just so devoted and so special, that God chose her to bear his son. It’s, like, wow. It’s really a special thing. I love reading about her, and reading about some of the apparitions, or reported apparitions, throughout history. I wish I had so much grace that I would be privileged to see it.

This interview proves you don’t need to cover religion in terms of conflict or controversy. Religious devotion is a normal part of people’s daily lives and it needs to be covered from that angle, too. A column like this, where local news makers — or average Joes, for that matter — were interviewed about their religious views could be very interesting.

For more of Kress on baseball and religion, I recommend this blog post he wrote on Barry Bonds. It also reminds me of how The Washington Post‘s Marc Fisher lost me in the opening line of his story on the Nationals hosting one of those Faith Nights so popular among ticket sellers (somehow the Post managed not to notice the third annual Gay Night hosted by the Nationals last week). Fisher wrote that baseball and religion don’t mix. All this to say that anyone who doesn’t see where religion and baseball overlap has no business writing about the game. I much prefer Kress on the beat.

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Dungy: a story of consistent faith

DungyCoverHow do you tell a story that’s essentially been told over and over again? That is the trouble for reporters who are assigned to write about the release of a book by Indianapolis Colts head coach Tony Dungy, who is as consistent as anyone when it comes to expressing the important things in his life.

You can’t have an interview or even a conversation with Dungy without recognizing that his personal faith in Jesus Christ is the most important thing to him. After defeating the Chicago Bears and winning the Super Bowl earlier this year, Dungy stated explicitly on national television that his faith was the most important thing to him. And guess what his book has him saying?

The additional challenges reporters face is that they are essentially covering a publicity tour designed to sell books. The book release is news, of course, and Dungy has as good a story as anyone who has accomplished something like winning a Super Bowl, but that’s not necessarily going to be a new story.

Here’s how Newsweek‘s Mark Starr put it leading into a nice question and answer with Dungy:

Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy never envisioned becoming the next hot management guru by writing a boastful “How I Won the Super Bowl” book. But so many friends and fans urged him to share his views on faith, family and personal responsibility that Dungy, the first African-American coach to win the big game, decided to seize the championship platform. The result is “Quiet Strength” (Tyndale House. $26.99). While the book provides the requisite football snapshots, Dungy’s tale is one in which God, not Peyton Manning, is the No. 1 quarterback. And the biggest challenges don’t come from the New England Patriots but from life — none more so, in Dungy’s case, than enduring the tragic suicide of his 18-year-old son, Jamie, in 2005.

I’ve only seen a copy of the book and haven’t read it, so I can’t vouch for its content or whether it’s being reported accurately. But I can say that it shouldn’t be difficult for non-sportswriters out there (or the sportswriters looking for a religion angle) to find a way to write about one of the more inspiring and genuine stories that we’ve seen, especially in football, in years.

Here is where I disclaim the fact that I was born and raised in Indianapolis and absolutely love the Colts and Dungy. In fact, my wife and I are moving back to Hoosierland at the end of the month for a variety of reasons. So forgive me if I am a bit biased in proclaiming the awesomeness of Dungy. How often do you see an NFL head football coach say that God is more important than his Hall of Fame quarterback?

As for the Newsweek interview with Dungy, I think there are a number of leads worth expanding on, including his insistence that winning the Super Bowl is not the ultimate goal in life. How does that apply to the rest of us? Are the jobs we hold the most important thing in life?

Another idea is taking a view of Dungy’s faith from the growing anti-faith movement we’re seeing in America lately. Dungy admits to Newsweek that his faith was tested during tragedy. But ultimately his faith helped him through. How does that align in a world where we’re being told by more and more people that God doesn’t exist?

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Ghost in the Beckham story?

david beckhamAmid the mania earlier this week surrounding the move of the David Beckham family from Europes to the United States is a quiet religion ghost that reporters ought to take a look at.

We sympathize with anyone trying to write about Philip Anschutz, but the back story surrounding the move of the world’s most famous soccer player (footballer for the non-American readers) needs a look as this story will likely be in American media until the Beckham family moves on to other places.

I am not optimistic that this will happen anytime soon. Many of the articles hardly mention at all that David Beckham is a soccer player. They hardly need to of course, but let’s not forget this is a sports story involving players other than Beckham and a team owner who has a vested interest in seeing a return on his investment. Right now the media coverage is focused more on the glitz and the glamour more appropriate for supermarket tabloids. Here is a USA Today cover story:

David Beckham has conquered the rest of the world as the most recognized soccer player around. Now, he’s ready to take on America.

Wearing a black suit with white shirt and black tie, Beckham shared his thoughts a day after agreeing to a five-year contract with the L.A. Galaxy that could be worth $250 million.

“I’m coming there to make a difference. I’m coming there to play football,” Beckham said Friday via satellite from Madrid. “I’m not saying me coming to the States is going to make soccer the biggest sport in America. … But I think soccer has a huge, huge potential. I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t believe in this project. This could create something that we’ve all never seen before.”

Those who orchestrated the deal are convinced Beckham not only will raise soccer’s profile in America but help the Galaxy win.

Hey, look at that. The article — about a professional athlete — actually raised the idea that Beckham is being shipped to the U.S. to help a team perform better! What a novel idea.

Philip AnschutzBut back to Anschutz. He is a businessman with an estimated worth of about $7.8 billion. He has stakes in three soccer teams, including the Los Angeles Galaxy, for which Beckham will play. He is a donor to and supporter of the Bush administration and has helped support many religious and right-wing issues. And it’s his Anschutz Entertainment Group that is funding Beckham’s big salary estimated at $250 million.

Here is the International Herald Tribune‘s Rob Hughes on what little was written about Anschutz’s involvement:

In that respect, the statement that soccer intrigues the rest of the world more than it does the United States, Beckham and Anschutz are almost right. They share the view that his presence, and let us be honest his groomed PR, will permanently take American manhood past the point of resistance to soccer.

Where they are wrong is to suggest that the United States — or as Beckham put it Thursday, the whole of North America — is the last big frontier unconquered by soccer fever.

Even FIFA, the governing body of the game worldwide, acknowledges that India, with its billion population, has never yet been lured to share the infatuation.

After Hollywood, perhaps Bollywood for the iconic Mr. Beckham?

Meanwhile, he is expected to see out his contract, and play out his role as a backup player to the Madrid players eclipsing his waning star in the Bernabeu Stadium. His backers, Gillette, Pepsi, Adidas and now Anschutz, will help him easily past the career total of half a billion dollars.

If the dust ever settles around the Beckhams’ risque-styled PR move to the U.S., I am hoping someone gets an interview with Anschutz to explore his thoughts behind the events. And while Anschutz is unlikely to grant a face-to-face interview, I hope reporters will take the efforts to write about it anyway. There’s a story to be told about the man who wants to bring more family-friendly movies to American cineplexes.

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The Washington Nationals, still praying

GOD AND BASEBALLYou all remember that spat involving the Washington Nationals and religion in the fall of 2005 when the team’s chapel leader seemed to agree that Jewish people are headed to hell because they do not believe in Jesus Christ as their savior? The controversy ignited after comments from team Chaplain Jon Moeller were published in a rather excellent Washington Post feature on the Bible in baseball.

But let’s put that aside the controversy for a moment. The point of the piece was that baseball players are starting to embrace religion, and some were discussing whether praying to God would benefit players’ performance and even the team’s chances of winning games:

Once derided as a sign of weakness by managers and trainers, Christian prayers are now accepted and even encouraged before baseball games. In lockers, you’ll find Bibles next to the Ambien and Skoal. Participants say the stress to perform, the uncertainty of injuries, and the lack of control over being traded or cut are lightened by their bond with God.

“It’s about guys needing Christ,” Moeller said. “It could be the security guard, or it could be [first baseman] Nick Johnson. RFK becomes a church on Sundays.”

Even the team doctor, Bruce Thomas, supports weekend prayers and Wednesday Bible study. “If a player has total wellness — their mind, body and their spiritual side — they perform better,” he said.

Now keep those thoughts in mind and check out the Post‘s Nationals Report in Tuesday’s edition:

Reliever Jesus Colome remained in a hospital yesterday with an infection on his right buttock, though GM Jim Bowden said he would get out today. The Nationals don’t know when Colome, 4-0 with a 2.76 ERA in 40 appearances, will be able to pitch. “It’s a serious situation,” Bowden said. “We pray for his buttocks and his family.”

Bowden, the Cincinnati Reds’ general manager from 1992 to 2003, has been with the club since November 2004. The Post‘s profile quotes him as asking the chaplain to pray and saying he wants to “build a real chapel, ‘with stained glass.’”

I mention this because it’s good background to have in understanding what could be taken as a flippant comment from a baseball GM to a reporter. But as best I can tell, Bowden is genuinely planning to pray for Colome’s buttocks. Maybe it’s time to do an update on the “praying Nationals” story?

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Jobu doesn’t help with curve balls either

santeriaAfter I posted Tim Townsend’s story on Christian Family Day at St. Louis’ Busch Stadium, a few readers sent along an article on baseball and Santeria. Los Angeles Times sportswriter Kevin Baxter penned a thorough and engaging account of the rise of Santeria practice among Major League players from Latin America:

On a shelf in the office of Chicago White Sox Manager Ozzie Guillen, mixed in among the family photos, the Roberto Clemente bobblehead and the Napoleon Dynamite figurine, are four small but intimidating religious icons.

“If you see my saints, you’ll be like ‘Golly, they’re ugly,’” Guillen had said before inviting a visitor to come in. “They’ve got blood. They’ve got feathers. You go to the Catholic church, the [saints] have got real nice clothes. My religion, you see a lot of different things you never see.”

Guillen’s religion is Santeria, a largely misunderstood Afro-Cuba spiritual tradition that incorporates the worship of orisha — multidimensional beings who represent the forces of nature — with beliefs of the Yoruba and Bantu people of Africa and elements of Roman Catholicism. And Guillen, born in Venezuela, is one of a growing number of Latin American players, managers and coaches who are followers of the faith.

The article is fantastic, but I had one problem with it. Baxter repeatedly says the religion is misunderstood without substantiating that it’s misunderstood. He references a scene from the movie Major League where the religion is joked about (I riffed on this for the post’s headline) and says that “Judeo-Christian society” dismisses the religion as a blood-letting cult. But no one who has a problem with Santeria is actually quoted in the article — either anti-animal cruelty advocates or religious opponents. It is at the very least theoretically possible that people oppose, joke about or dismiss Santeria while fully cognizant of what it teaches. I’m not sure it’s up to the reporter to be the arbiter of what’s understood and what’s misunderstood. Rather, he should report about it and let the reader decide. Including quotes from practitioners who feel it is misunderstood is perfectly acceptable, but crossing the editorial line to make a judgment about same is questionable.

Other than that, however, the piece is remarkably thorough and smart, particularly considering its writer’s expertise is sports. Baxter explains how Santeria practitioners sacrifice vegetables as well as animals and have complex relationships with chosen saints. He also talks to athletes who have felt their religious views were under attack:

“When you talk about that religion in the States, people think you’re a monster,” said Guillen, whose children were baptized in the Catholic faith and have become, like their father, babalaos. “Sometimes you have to be careful what you say about religion and when and how. Because in this country there’s so many different ideas, people get offended so easy.

“People call me a criminal because we do stuff with blood and animals. I don’t blame these people. They believe what they believe and I believe what I believe. Have I ever killed an animal in the States to do my religion? No. I did in my country.”

Guillen said there’s another popular misconception with Santeria — indeed, with many religions — and that’s the belief that how you worship will determine how you play.

“Some people think because [their] religion works they’re going to get a hit or pitch better,” he said “That’s no reason to do it. I think the main reason to have a religion is faith and belief. No matter what you believe and what you have faith in, you have to make it work.

Not that I don’t find baseball to be the game with the most similarities to religion, but it’s still shocking to see a sportswriter get religion better than almost all the other reporters out there. Good work, Baxter.

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Turks get American religion — our football

wall1Anyone who knows anything about life in the USA knows that one of our strongest forms of civic religion is Christian football.

As opposed to soccer, which is the Islamic form of football.

What in the world am I talking about?

Well, I arrived in Istanbul yesterday (Monday here) and one of the first things to pop into my email was an interesting first-person piece by writer Mark St. Amant in The New York Times titled “Cheering Section — In Turkey, It’s First Down and Miles to Go.” The faith and football connection shows up pretty quickly.

In reality, however, the piece is about globalization and our small, small world of sports and mass media. However, almost anything in Turkey these days raises questions about people relating to the great power in the West and that, sooner or later, brings in religion. Thus, we learn that “American football” is an “infidel sport” and since the late 1980s has become, with some help from eBay, a competitor to, well, you’ll see.

The how of Turkish football was clear, but I was more interested in the why. After all, these guys had no football frame of reference growing up. No Pop Warner to teach the basics. No high school programs. And certainly no Turkish professionals whom they could dream of being when they grew up. (Gatorade never quite got around to that “Be Like Mehmet” ad campaign.) I got stock answers at first: the camaraderie; going on road trips to games; the hitting; knowing that 40 guys have your back at all times.

But there had to be more to it than testosterone-fueled friendship. They were at an age (18 to 22) when most people are on their own for the first time. So might the attraction have also been about rebellion, defying conventional authority — be it religious or parental — and rejecting what society deems acceptable?

“Yes, some of us are forbidden to play,” said a 21-year-old tailback nicknamed Straw for his lanky build. He slouched comfortably, forearm resting on the shoulder of a defensive end sitting next to him, and seemed to be speaking for everyone.

He scratched his Mohawk haircut as Celtikciolu translated: “Guys sneak to practice and hide their equipment so their parents won’t find out. Our friends don’t like that we don’t play soccer. They act like soccer was invented in Turkey or something, or that it’s the ‘proper’ Muslim sport. They don’t even know what football is … . But them not liking it makes me want to play more.”

Aside from this cultural rebellion angle, it also seems that any help Americans provide is quickly turned into an issue linked to “missionary work” — one of the most controversial subjects in this country.

You see, Turks are Muslim and/or secular Muslims. Americans are Christian and/or secular Christians. It’s a national thing. It’s a cultural thing. It’s a sports thing.

It’s a religion thing.

I didn’t see any football posters coming in from the airport, but I will ask around. Lots of ads for the Beastie Boys concert, however. Are they Christian? No, wait, that’s another kind of religion thing.

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