Pod people: Russell Wilson, ghosts, 10 years of GetReligion

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Let’s do this one backwards.

In a perfect world, the easy way to do mainstream news criticism is to find a really bad example of a problem and then, a few days later, find an example of an equally important news outlet that managed to do the story right.

In this case, we are talking about one of those GetReligion ghosts, a religion angle woven into a major news story — yet missed by reporters and editors working on the story. For the past 10 years, spotting ghosts has been one of the primary duties of your GetReligionistas.

Hours before the Super Bowl, I posted an item praising the ESPN.com team for a feature story about the life, work and faith of Seattle Seahawk quarterback Russell Wilson. Thanks, by the way, to the 20,000-plus readers who passed that post along in social media.

First of all, the creators of this story did the obvious, which is discuss the connections between Wilson’s Christian faith — which he talks about all of the time — and his life on and off the gridiron, focusing on his behind-the-scenes work as a real volunteer in a children’s hospital. That was the easy ghost to spot, one that 99 percent of the people writing profiles of Wilson (and the influence of his late father) manage to see.

However, in addition to that almost non-ghost ghost, the ESPN team went deeper and touched on a more subtle question: How are folks in the highly secular Pacific Northwest, in Seattle the Mecca of the so-called “nones,” handling the fact that this new Seahawk hero is a young, charismatic, African-American evangelical?

Now, I didn’t think ESPN nailed down that angle of the story, but I was impressed that this elite newsroom raised the question and made the attempt.

So three cheers. High fives all around.

As it turns out, that post on the ghosts in the Wilson story was where “Crossroads” podcast host Todd Wilken wanted to start out this week in our conversation. Click here to tune that in.

That’s where we started, but that isn’t where we ended up.

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ESPN spots a ghost in the Seattle-Russell Wilson lovefest

Some GetReligion readers may have noticed that there is a big football game later today.

One of the teams involved in the Super Bowl this year is the Seattle Seahawks and, as always, the team’s quarterback — in this case second-year starter Russell Wilson — is getting quite a bit of attention, for a variety of reasons.

First of all, Wilson is short by NFL standards, standing only 5-foot-11. Second, he is one of those guys who walks into a room and is instantly recognized as a leader, sort of like my all-time sports heroes Bill Russell and Mike Singletary.

Finally, Wilson is rather open about his Christian faith and beliefs, although his style is more subdued than a Tim Tebow.

To no one’s surprise, ESPN produced a major feature on Wilson this week, running under the headline: “The adoration of Russell Wilson.” As is common with this kind of story, it opens with a long anecdote telling how Wilson quietly got involved in the lives of Kristina and Dave Quick and, in particular, their five-pound newborn son Franklin and his “imperfect, broken heart.” After one crisis, there is a tense, risky 10-hour surgery.

This leads to the transition into the body of the article:

The weeks and months to come would be critical. A few days later, Quick was half asleep next to his son when a stranger walked into the room. For a moment, Quick wasn’t sure if he was dreaming or imagining things. But then the stranger, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, did something the Quicks will never forget.

He hugged them. He told the Quicks he and his wife, Ashton, had heard about Franklin, and they’d been thinking about him a lot. They’d been praying for him every day. They just wanted to stop by and let the Quicks know they were pulling for Franklin.

“I think I probably experienced about 10 different emotions,” Quick says. “Shock, disbelief, but most of all, pure genuine joy. For someone of his stature to do that is just amazing. For 20 minutes, he enabled us to not think about everything we were going through. He greeted us like we were family. I’d heard about these visits, that it was something he liked to do, but you see him walk through that door and you know he’s the real deal. He is truth.”

What does a star athlete really mean to the city where he plays? It’s a complicated question, and the truth is, the answer varies depending on the market and the athlete.

Here’s the key to this story. I assumed this would be a pretty basic God-card story about an athlete who — like a Robert Griffin III — has consistently tried to express his faith through public service. I expected the ESPN team to somehow deal with the obvious subject, which is Wilson’s Christian faith.

However, I wondered if the article would take on the other religious issue in this story — Seattle and the Pacific Northwest.

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A God-decided Super Bowl? 70 million Americans say yes

Super Bowl XLVIII is just two weeks away. And if The Huffington Post is to be believed, a huge number of folks are about to hit their knees. Not in a line stance, mind you, but in prayer.

HuffPo’s top religion story today claims “Half of Americans Say God Plays A Role In Super Bowl Winner: Survey.” (We have to throw a flag here with headline and story agreement, incidentally, as the U.S. population is estimated at 314 million, and the story alludes to 140 million sports fans. Penalty declined. Now let’s move forward with the game.)

How can you not click on that headline? I mean, who isn’t ready for some God-decided football. I, for one, think it would be a nice change from the referees deciding the outcome.

We have a poll, folks. A survey from Public Religion Research Institute indicates that millions of my neighbors, near and far, think the Almighty chooses which team gets the trophy.

“As Americans tune in to the Super Bowl this year, fully half of fans — as many as 70 million Americans — believe there may be a twelfth man on the field influencing the outcome,” Public Religion Research Institute CEO Robert Jones said in a statement. “Significant numbers of American sports fans believe in invoking assistance from God on behalf of their favorite team, or believe the divine may be playing out its own purpose in the game.”

Football fans … pray for their own teams to win, with 33 percent saying they ask God to intervene in games, compared to 21 percent of fans of other sports.

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There’s that Baltimore Ravens faith ghost — again

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The Baltimore Ravens have been playing some really, really wild football games in recent weeks, a few with endings that several commentators have been tempted to call “miraculous.”

Sort of like that playoff game last year in frozen Mile-High Stadium in Denver (sorry, about that M.Z. Hemingway).

Anyway, head coach John Harbaugh was asked, in a recent press conference, to name the X factor behind his team. Here’s how ESPN.com reported the response:

“The thing I love about our football team is that we are a team of faith,” coach John Harbaugh said. “We believe. We trust. Because of that, we’ll fight. We will run the race right down to the end. That’s something that our football team does. I’m very proud of them for that.”

There are times when special moments define special teams, just like the times when the Ravens converted the fourth-and-29 in San Diego and delivered the Mile High Miracle last season. These Ravens are building quite a portfolio of “never say never” moments.

Two weeks ago, the Ravens beat the Pittsburgh Steelers, 22-20, by stopping a two-point conversion with 1:03 remaining. Last week, the Ravens outlasted the Minnesota Vikings, 29-26, by scoring three touchdowns in the final 2:05, including the winning 9-yard touchdown pass to Marlon Brown with 4 seconds left.

OK, you probably didn’t need all of those gridiron details, but I thought they were relevant.

Here in Charm City, the newspaper that lands in my front yard eventually printed that quotation, like this:

“We’re playing our best football right now and we’re going to have to continue to improve with what we have in front of us down the stretch,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “You look at our football team and the thing I love about our football team is that we are a team of faith. We believe. We trust. Because of that, we’ll fight. We will run the race right down to the end, that’s something that our football team does. I’m very proud of them for that.”

Now, that faith language is rather generic sports talk, methinks. What struck me was a football coach using that interesting language connecting this faith factor to finishing a “race,” as opposed to a football game.

That sounded rather familiar, coming from the organizer (or endorser) of the weekly Ravens Bible studies.

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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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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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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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Spot the ghost: An X factor for QB Russell Wilson?

While things are not going very well in his second playoff game with the Seattle Seahawks (writing at halftime), it’s pretty clear that the amazing success of the undersized, yet tough as nails, quarterback Russell Wilson has been one of the National Football League’s most amazing stories this year.

The Washington Post produced a profile of the rookie the other day, which ran within days of a similar story — the latest of many — about another amazing rookie, Washington’s Robert Griffin III.

In both cases the stories tried to explain the amazing leadership skills possessed by these two young men, the almost supernatural ability they have to remain calm and to lead others.

The bottom line: What’s so different about these guys, I mean, other than the fact they are African-Americans, academically brilliant and have unusual levels of talent? Might the X factor have something to do with their backgrounds and, well, the way their lives revolve around their families and their faith?

Consider this part of the Post take on Wilson:

Wilson is undersized. He speaks in cliches. He talks about faith and family. He doesn’t hit the town with teammates, and many nights he’s in bed by 9 p.m.

“He’s always serious, even when we’re not supposed to be serious,” Seattle fullback Michael Robinson said. “That’s a good thing.”

“He’s pretty much all work and no play,” tight end Anthony McCoy added.

I don’t know about you, but this passage seems to be suggesting that there is a moral component to Wilson’s early success. And that “faith” reference? Might there be a follow-up question there?

Nope. Apparently not.

The story does, however, do move on to do a pretty good job of sketching out the importance of his heritage:

Russell Wilson’s family tree is rooted in special. His grandfather was president of Norfolk State University, and his grandmother was a college professor. His uncle went to Harvard Law School and is an accomplished Washington attorney, and his father studied law at Virginia and practiced in Richmond. …

Wilson attended the Collegiate School in Richmond and played football there for Charlie McFall. Though his talent was undeniable, football seemed to have a ceiling. Tom Holliday, N.C. State’s associate head baseball coach, first saw Wilson play baseball as a junior and he had no doubts. “He was a major league baseball prospect,” Holliday said. “He was probably a football player who could maybe make football work because he was so athletic. But you could see a future in baseball.”

Wilson attended N.C. State and played both sports. Several members of his family had competed collegiately, including his father, Harrison Wilson III, who played football and baseball at Dartmouth. In fact, Harrison III attended training camp and played in the 1980 preseason with the San Diego Chargers, reportedly one of the last players cut.

Wilson’s father was a guiding influence but he became sick midway through Wilson’s time at N.C. State. Still, he followed Wilson’s exploits from afar.

Harrison Wilson III died in 2010, about the time his son was drafted to play major-league baseball. Losing his father seemed, at a crucial moment, to have further fueled the son’s drive to push for excellence.

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