Why did a Catholic Raven skip White House visit? (updated)

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Let’s create a journalism parable.

Let’s say that there is a Republican president in office right now, one with ties to a somewhat doctrinaire form of Christianity.

So, the day comes when the team that won the Super Bowl — perhaps it’s the Baltimore Ravens — makes its traditional media-friendly visit to the White House. However, later the press finds out that one member of the team has elected to boycott the ceremony and had a very interesting reason for doing so.

We are not, by the way, talking about a minor player. We are talking about a Harvard University graduate, a consistent Pro Bowl performer and, here’s the key, the winner of the 2011 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award — in honor of his work with literacy programs for needy, at-risk children. On top of that, this rather interesting man has done what many players dream of doing: Win a Super Bowl ring and then walk away into a glorious retirement.

But there’s a problem: This player is a member of a liberal Christian denomination — let’s say that he’s part of the United Church of Christ — and because of his liberal Christian convictions he sharply disagrees with the Republican president of the Defense of Marriage Act.

Thus, he boycotts the White House ceremony as a symbolic gesture of support for the rights of gays and lesbians.

Would this be a pretty big story at ESPN? In The Washington Post? In the Baltimore newspaper?

I rather imagine that it would be a huge story and would make headlines for several days. I could be wrong about that, but I don’t think so.

Of course, this precise story took place the other day — only the occupant of the White House was Democrat Barack Obama and the boycott by recently retired Ravens center Matt Birk was inspired by his Catholic convictions about the rights of unborn children. Birk, who for many years played for the Minnesota Vikings, told KFAN-FM in the Twin Cities:

“I wasn’t there,” Birk told The Power Trip. “I would say this, I would say that I have great respect for the office of the Presidency but about five or six weeks ago, our president made a comment in a speech and he said, ‘God bless Planned Parenthood.’ … Planned Parenthood performs about 330,000 abortions a year. … I am Catholic, I am active in the Pro-Life movement and I just felt like I couldn’t deal with that. I couldn’t endorse that in any way.”

Now, this story has received a tiny blip of coverage, mainly in conservative news sources, but I couldn’t find any in either the Post or at ESPN. This strikes me as rather strange, especially with Birk’s recent Man of the Year stature.

And The Baltimore Sun?

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How should journalists fight back against sacred jargon?

Yesterday, CNN ran a feature highlighting the faith of members of a Bible group the meets on the PGA Tour. The article itself is well-done and provides an superb model for how to address religion in sports.

Job one: let the athletes speak for themselves and quote them accurately. Out of 175 lines in the article, 91 are direct quotes from the members of the Bible group talking about their faith.

But the commendatory approach taken by CNN also provides examples of the confusion that can arise when sources use religious language in a way that might be familiar to those in a particular faith tradition (e.g., Christianese), but may come across as inaccessible gibberish to outsiders. When people use religious jargon the denotation of certain words can vary from common usage and shortcuts can be taken based on the assumption that the listener can fill in the blanks. Journalists are not supposed to make those kinds of assumptions.

An example of the latter is the assumption by golfer Kevin Streelman that others will be familiar with the narrative pattern of personal redemption stories:

Players from across the PGA Tour meet regularly at a Bible group, whose members include high-profile stars such as major champions Bubba Watson, Webb Simpson and Stewart Cink.

Each week, the group will study one particular verse, with some players such as Kevin Streelman taking that particular scripture and getting it printed onto a golf club.

For Streelman, who won his first big PGA Tour tournament at the Tampa Bay Challenge in March, his reawakening has come following a period of struggle in his personal life.

“I would lie if I said that I was previously that way,” he told CNN’s Living Golf.

Wait, previously what way? And how did we jump ahead to the reawakening before mentioning either an awakening or a falling away? If this article had appeared in Christianity Today, readers would intuitively understand what he was referring to. But in a mainstream secular outlet like CNN, no such assumptions can or should be made.

In a later quote, Streelmen slips in the first of several other examples of Christianese:

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Ohio State vs. Notre Dame’s ‘damn Catholics’

Earlier this week, I saw someone tweet something about how the Republican Party “should never write off any block of voters. It’s horrible politics and it causes great damage.” I retweeted it with the note “Except Methodists.”

For some reason, I’ve long thought it funny to pretend I have something against Methodists.

When I first read the story about the president of The Ohio State University — Gordon Gee is his name — making derogatory remarks about Catholics, I thought it was more a story about religious humor. What do you think? The Associated Press got the story after a public records request:

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The president of Ohio State University said Notre Dame was never invited to join the Big Ten because the university’s priests are not good partners, joking that “those damn Catholics” can’t be trusted, according to a recording of a meeting he attended late last year…

The university called the statements inappropriate and said Gee is undergoing a “remediation plan” because of the remarks…

“The comments I made were just plain wrong, and in no way do they reflect what the university stands for,” he said. “They were a poor attempt at humor and entirely inappropriate.”

The story then quotes a Notre Dame spokesman saying the university particularly didn’t like the comments regarding “Father Joyce.” Four paragraphs later, we learn what those remarks were, which is kind of an interesting way to order a story. More on the comments:

Gee, who has taken heat previously for uncouth remarks, told members of the council that he negotiated with Notre Dame officials during his first term at Ohio State, which began more than two decades ago.

“The fathers are holy on Sunday, and they’re holy hell on the rest of the week,” Gee said to laughter at the Dec. 5 meeting attended by athletic director Gene Smith and several other athletic department members, along with professors and students.

“You just can’t trust those damn Catholics on a Thursday or a Friday, and so, literally, I can say that,” said Gee, a Mormon.

What do you think about adding “a Mormon” in there at that moment?

I’d forgotten he was Mormon, but it’s hard for me to remember anything about him other than his pot-smoking wife. But is it relevant information? And, assuming it is, is that the right way to present it?

The story did a great job, I think, of showing that the comments were understood as being of a humorous nature:

Gee was introduced by athletic council then-chairman Charlie Wilson, and Gee’s name and introduction are included in written minutes of the meeting. Gee’s comments drew laughter, at times loud, occasionally nervous, but no rebukes, according to the audio.

And the story is chock full of information about Gee and his habit of making comments that get him in trouble. But the big thing I wondered about was whether the humorous remarks masked anything about the underlying sentiment.

I mean, was it entirely a joke? Was there discomfort of any kind with Notre Dame? Or, put another way, what was the real reason why Notre Dame wasn’t invited to join the Big Ten? Did religion have anything to do with it? If so, how?

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Brittany Griner: ESPN gets close to key question

Truth be told, I still think that the question I asked a few weeks ago remains one of the most interesting questions one can ask about that big story that keeps unfolding down in Waco: “So, how did Brittney Griner end up at Baylor?”

That’s an interesting question for Griner.

That’s an interesting question for Griner’s parents and her wider family.

That’s an interesting question in terms of gossip about national-level hoops recruiting.

That’s an interesting question in terms of Baylor University’s standing as a Baptist institution that prominently promotes its stance as a Christian campus.

You just knew that, after Griner announced that she is a lesbian, this story was going to have long news legs. The latest story from ESPN raises a few interesting questions and at least acknowledges a key document in the situation.

Still, the heart of the story remains something that has not yet been proven — that Griner actively opposed how Baylor, and perhaps her own family, handled her emerging stance as a gay woman. Here is the top of the story:

Former Baylor women’s basketball star Brittney Griner says that Kim Mulkey, her college head coach, told players not to be open publicly about their sexuality because it would hurt recruiting and look bad for the program.

“It was a recruiting thing,” Griner said during an interview with ESPN The Magazine and espnW. “The coaches thought that if it seemed like they condoned it, people wouldn’t let their kids come play for Baylor.”

Griner, now preparing for her first WNBA season with the Phoenix Mercury, casually acknowledged she was gay during interviews with USA Today and with SI.com last month, when she referred to herself as “someone who has always been open.” Griner said she had been open about her sexuality with family and friends since she was a freshman at Nimitz High School, in Houston.

Well, the truth — of course — is that Baylor does not condone sexual activity outside of marriage and, thus, from the point of view of traditional Christian faith, does not condone gay sexual activity.

Now, Griner is quoting saying that it was an “unwritten law” not to TALK about sexual orientation. That’s a key issue from the point of view of public relations, recruiting (in all forms) for the university, etc., etc.

That is an issue of image and it’s certainly true that Baylor could come off looking badly, when it comes to demanding, or at least urging, Griner to keep silent. It would be interesting to know if her family played some role in that, too. After all, Griner told Baylor coaches she was gay during the recruiting process. It’s clear that they reached some kind of agreement.

Once again, there’s that question: How did the nation’s No. 1 recruit end up in Waco?

Anyway, Baylor’s stance on sexual ethics is in writing and, to its credit, the ESPN team goes to the source.

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Preach, Brother Leitch, Preach!

YouTube Preview Image Please check out this column from my favorite sportswriter Will Leitch. (And I’m not just saying that because he’s a die-hard St. Louis Cardinals fan like myself.) His latest piece for Sports on Earth, headlined “Thank God for Homers,” takes on the curious way that some other sportswriters handle Josh Hamilton’s religious utterances.

It’s basically a public service announcement to sports writers. But it works as a PSA for all writers, particularly those of us from different religious cultures than evangelical. It begins:

In a column this morning about Josh Hamilton, the one-time universally beloved All-Star who is having a rough go of it during his first month as an Anaheim Angel, Los Angeles Times columnist T.J. Simers asks Hamilton a snide, sorta condescending question.

Hamilton, who became a born-again Christian after his well-publicized struggles with substance abuse, tells Simers that, when fans are booing him, he turns to his faith, and The Bible, for strength. Simers, perhaps predictably, has a sniggering, obnoxious response.

“Does it mention anywhere in the Bible,” [Simers] asked, “what it takes to hit more home runs?”

Leitch explains that many people dislike athletes thanking God for their achievements. Drives them crazy, he says. They dislike the notion that God cares about little things like sports accomplishments. And they dislike the notion that God favors one team over another. Sportswriters roll their eyes and shut down their tape recorders when God gets mentioned. But, Leitch says, there’s a huge disparity between what these athletes are saying, and what the writers are hearing. For instance:

When Josh Hamilton won the Home Run Derby in 2008, here’s what he said afterward: “It’s amazing, the last few years, what God’s done in my life, and how quickly he’s done it.”

Now, here’s what non-believers hear when he says that:

God decided that I would start hitting a ton of home runs. He likes me more than He likes anyone else in this competition. Therefore, he made me win. I am so close to God that He has decided I should win this Home Run Derby. A couple of those balls I hit, God picked them up and carried them extra feet so they would get over the fence. God cares, specifically, about this Home Run Derby, more than he cares about poverty, starvation and disease. If God liked you as much as he liked me, you might hit home runs too. But he doesn’t.

But this is absolutely not what he is saying.

What Hamilton is saying when he thanks God is not that God somehow chose him over others. He is in fact saying the opposite: It is a humble acknowledgment that nothing any person does can ever be attributable to themselves. It’s a guard against pride.

Christianity isn’t some peripheral notion of Hamilton’s life; it is his life. When you live a Christian life, everything you do, from showing up to church on Sunday, to going to the grocery store, to pumping gas, to hitting a home run, to striking out, is done for the glory of Christ. Hamilton isn’t thanking Jesus for helping him hit a homer; he is thanking Jesus for everything. From the homers to the strikeouts to the millions of dollars to all the boos.

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Back to the Bible, with hot shot Stephen Curry

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Hello all of you GetReligion readers who are totally into sports! I am sure, at this time of year, you are really getting into the NBA playoffs.

If you are, then that means you cannot believe what you are seeing whenever the mad gunner Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors takes the court. This young man is on fire.

Curry is also one of the most visible religious believers in basketball and that has in the past led to some interesting problems for mainstream sports reporters. For example, back in his March Madness days with tiny Davidson College, one Associated Press report noted:

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.

Now, the implication was that Curry — as a statement of confidence, if not outright ego — was saying that he could do whatever he wanted to do whenever he stepped onto a basketball court.

It was safe to say that the AP team did not recognize that this Christian kid was making a biblical reference that, as interpreted by most active Christians, could be seen as a statement of humility — precisely the opposite of the spin the AP put into that story. You see, there is every reason to think that Curry’s sneaker quotation referred to the New Testament, specifically to Philippians 4:13, which states:

I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.

You think?

Now, I bring this up once again because GetReligion has, in recent weeks, spotlighted a few — click here and then here, for starters — mainstream press references to scripture that, like that 2008 gaffe about Curry, missed the mark when it came to accuracy.

Thus, I wanted to note a recent ESPN essay by superstar scribe Rick Reilly in which he got the Curry-loves-scripture thing right. Just to set the tone, here is the opening of that piece during the earlier Warriors playoff series:

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Pod people: Ghosts and crickets in Jason Collins coverage

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I spent much of last week in Malibu, Calif., hanging out with the stars.

Actually, I was speaking at an event at Pepperdine University, but I wore dark sunglasses and did my best to avoid the paparazzi — just in case the tabloid press ever takes a sudden interest in GetReligionistas.

While buying deodorant at a local store (trust me, I needed it), I chatted with Mel Gibson (not really) and checked out the front page of the Los Angeles Times (really). Friday’s Page 1 featured a “tale of two high schools” reaction piece on basketball player Jason Collins coming out as gay.

I’ll copy and paste relevant chunks of the story, but here’s the basic storyline: At the enlightened private high school that Collins attended, the basketball team couldn’t be more giddy over his newly publicized homosexuality. But at a backward inner-city public school across town, black players raised in conservative religious households still get creeped out by “boys liking each other.”

The story doesn’t suffer from a holy ghost so much as a condescending refusal to take “religion” seriously and provide relevant dialogue that goes beyond easy stereotypes. Think crickets instead of ghosts.

Up high, we learn that smart rich people support gays, but ignorant black people do not:

At Harvard-Westlake — where tuition starts at $31,000 a year — gay rights are discussed passionately both on campus and at home. Collins learned how to be open-minded and have his own opinion, said the school’s president, Tom Hudnut.

“He was taught to speak up when things were not right,” Hudnut said. “His education here played a big part in that.”

At Dorsey — where about 70% of students qualify for free lunches — gay rights aren’t a focal point.

Sure, some of the players said, Collins is African American, just as they are, but he grew up in an affluent, mostly white culture that is more likely to accept homosexuality. It’s hard for them to imagine a day when a young male athlete in the inner city would be able to acknowledge he’s gay and be called a hero.

At the enlightened private school:

Religion isn’t discussed much. If anyone were to come to campus expressing the view that homosexuals are sinners, they’d be met by outrage, said the school’s longtime basketball coach, Greg Hilliard.

At the ignorant black school:

Part of the complication, the players said, springs from the conservative religious views held by many of the students and parents.

“I’m a Christian,” said Dontrel Slack, 18. “So all we were taught was boy and girl together, that is the way to go. You don’t really hear about boys and boys liking each other. Being a Christian, that is what we believe in, boys and girls.”

All but one player agreed.

What might have helped the Times story? At the least, I would love to have seen a black minister with traditional Christian views on sexuality quoted.

Before I read the L.A. piece, I took a break from gazing at the beautiful Pacific Ocean and recorded the latest “Crossroads” podcast. Host Todd Wilken and I discussed my recent posts (here and here) on media coverage of the NBA’s first openly gay player and highlighted a few reader reactions.

Enjoy the podcast.

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‘Apparently,’ there’s a news story about Wisconsin church

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The lead story on CNN’s “Belief Blog” at this moment concerns a former National Football League player who apparently lost a church speaking engagement after tweeting support for basketball player Jason Collins, who this week revealed that he’s gay.

Stop the presses!

Seriously, this is national news?:

Washington (CNN) – LeRoy Butler, a former safety for the Green Bay Packers, is one of many professional athletes to tweet support for Jason Collins, the NBA player who came out as gay this week.

“Congrats to Jason Collins,” Butler tweeted April 29, the day Collins came out in a Sports Illustrated cover story.

But Butler says the four-word tweet cost him a speaking appearance at a Wisconsin church.

The church’s response?

Well, that’s where the apparently comes in:

He was scheduled to speak at the church (whose name he has not revealed) about bullying and his new book, “The LeRoy Butler Story: From Wheelchair to the Lambeau Leap.”

However, Butler announced the trouble in a series of tweets on Wednesday and Thursday.

CNN links to a similarly vague, one-sided Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel story:

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