Super Bowl week: Sun misses the Spirit in AP Stylebook

News flash: This may be a shock to GetReligion readers, who are quite cool as a rule when it comes to caring about sports, but America is currently moving into the secular holy season known as Super Bowl Week.

News flash No. 2: This is a rather big deal in Baltimore this time around.

It is almost impossible to grasp, unless you have lived in a city with a Super Bowl team, how completely super news takes over a local newspaper (or local television stations) during the week before The Big Game. By the time the game is done, virtually every member of the squad will be the subject of a news story of some kind, especially if there is some poignant twist in the story. It’s kind of like all of those tearjerkers that get dropped into Olympics coverage, only multiplied by about 10.

Take, for example, the news feature that ran the other day in The Baltimore Sun about the life and times of reserve cornerback and special-teams player Chris Johnson — whose family went through hell this past year. This is a valid story, in my opinion, Super Bowl or no Super Bowl. As is often the case in sports coverage these days, the story opens with symbolic tattoos.

Tattoos adorn the torso and arms of Ravens reserve cornerback Chris Johnson, covering his body in a mosaic of smiling faces and names.

It’s Johnson’s way of paying tribute to his family, of ensuring that those loved ones remain close to his heart.

“This way, they’re always a part of you,” Johnson said. “They’re literally on your skin permanently, just like family is permanent to me.”

On the left side of his ribs is a tattoo of a face and two numbers. The face is that of his sister, Jennifer Johnson. The numbers represent the years she lived: 1978 to 2011. A little more than a year ago, Chris Johnson was exchanging general text messages with Jennifer and preparing for his next game with the Oakland Raiders. Then, she was suddenly gone.

Jennifer Johnson, 33, was shot multiple times and killed by her estranged boyfriend, Eugene Esters, on Dec. 5, 2011, in an apartment complex parking lot in Fort Worth, Texas, according to Tarrant County court records.

“I’ll never get to talk to my sister again or tell her that I love her,” Chris Johnson said. “You can’t figure out why things happen the way they did. As a Christian and as a man, you have to keep going forward. I needed to push forward and be strong. I didn’t have time to wonder why. As a man, as a father, as a husband, as a son, I believe you have to have more strength than your average person. Your family is depending on you. If you break down, they don’t have a solid foundation. I try to be that foundation for my family.”

This is not another GetReligion post about a sports story that fails to follow through on a major religion angle. Actually, I think that this Sun story does a fine job of including a valid, strong religion angle. Read the whole thing, please.

However, I am also convinced that this report did miss the Holy Ghost, but let me explain the nature of this specific journalistic problem.

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More about Ray Lewis and his Psalms 91 t-shirt

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So, GetReligion readers, I am happy to report that the Baltimore Sun team noticed the scripture reference at the heart of one of the biggest moments in the recent history of sports here in Charm City. I am referring to the fact — click here for the previous GetReligion post — that when, after Ravens personnel had ripped the jersey off his back, superstar linebacker Ray Lewis faced national television cameras and ran a victory lap of the stadium while wearing a t-shirt that proclaimed “Psalms 91.”

The Bible reference was featured at the end of prominent story about Lewis’ volunteer work, often faith-based, in the community. More on that in a minute.

The t-shirt drew its own short Sun online story which I didn’t see in the dead-tree-pulp newspaper, unless it merely missed the edition delivered at my house near the Baltimore Beltway.

The key question, of course, was this: Why this particular Psalm?

That raises, for me, an interesting journalistic question. How, precisely, are journalists supposed to know which part of this famous and complex passage of scripture inspired Lewis’ symbolic act if they didn’t dare to ask him that question?

Well — DUH! — you choose the most controversial motive, in this case noting that parts of Psalm 91 fit into the whole image of Lewis living as an angry warrior still haunted by the enemies who doubt his words and acts of repentance for his serious, serious errors in the past.

Thus, Sun online readers read:

… Curious minds wanted to understand what point Lewis was trying to make as he took a victory lap around the stadium wearing this particular shirt.

The psalm is known as the “psalm of protection.” It has a lot to do with vanquishing various enemies with faith and treading upon beasts under one’s feet. Here’s a key passage:

Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare and from the deadly pestilence.

He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge;

his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.

You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday.

A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you.

Of course, the biblical reference to treading on lions and serpents led the Sun team to the obvious National Football League connection — the need to tread on Colts, Bengals, Lions, Eagles, etc. It’s the playoffs, you know.

The actual news report — “Fans praise Lewis’ efforts on and off the field” — touched on a number of different projects that have drawn support from Lewis, especially a project to fight the spread of AIDS among African-Americans.

The faith themes in the piece came together at the end, including a quote from the Rev. C.D. Witherspoon, who is known for his work in tough, impoverished streets. At one point, he noted that the fact Lewis has spent a few days in jail does not offend many people on that side of the city.

Some observers find his speeches about redemption cloying and his over-heated rhetoric about leadership silly. Ravens fans eagerly awaited his dance before each home game; others mocked it. …

As Lewis left the field for the last time, he wore a shirt that read simply “Psalms 91.” Like other Bible passages Lewis has referenced, it is a vivid telling of triumph through difficult times. “You will trample the great lion and the serpent,” it reads.

“Ray’s story is ancient, and it is beautiful,” Witherspoon said. “It speaks to Baltimore.”

The reference to “triumph through difficult times” is solid, but, of course, frames Psalm 91 in sports-friendly terms. “Triumph” sounds better in the newspaper, perhaps, than more doctrinal words such as “repentance” and “salvation.”

But let me ask my main question again: How do journalists know what the Psalms 91 t-shirt was saying, for Lewis himself, without asking him?

Does this matter? Well, is he an angry, paranoid warrior or a thankful, repentant believer?

With that in mind, please read past the jump and note the full Psalm 91 text. If in the journalistic driver’s seat, which section of the psalm — speaking to journalists — would you have argued was most relevant as Lewis ran his farewell lap on Sunday?

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