August 26, 2013

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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July 8, 2013

No, this post isn’t a totally blatant attempt to drive up pageviews by including “porn” in the title.

It’s only partially about that.

Seriously, The Daily Beast ran a news-feature last week on a Baptist pastor who has launched an Internet campaign to recruit 1 million men to say goodbye to smut.

The lede:

Pornography will destroy your life. It is as addictive as crack cocaine. And your child’s cellphone can be a tool of Satan.

These are among the boldest of claims from a Florida pastor who has launched a campaign to find 1 million men willing to do what many may find unnecessary, if not unthinkable: quit porn. Cold turkey. Forever.

Baptist Pastor Jay Dennis of the Church of the Mall in Lakeland, Florida, never thought he’d find himself taking sexual addiction classes, he told The Daily Beast. But staff members were approaching him with concerns about pornography in the church: wives who’d caught their husbands, moms worried about their sons. He knew it would be an awkward conversation, taking on pornography as a mission, and he knew he’d face critics who would tell him the church is no place to deal with sexual issues, he said. “But my heart believed this is the very place to deal with it.”

So Dennis launched a glossy website, Join 1 Million Men, where he asks men around the world to add their first names to a wall, pledging to say goodbye to smut. There’s an iPhone app with related scripture, tips, and tools. Videos about how to “destroy your porn stashes.” Testimonials from men who’ve found themselves in the clutches of Satan’s ubiquitous tools. And some pretty jarring claims, like this one:

“I believe as many as 80 percent of men in the church are struggling with viewing pornography,” Dennis says in one video, adding that drastic action may be necessary to truly rid yourself of it. “You may even need to destroy your present computer. I realize that can be an expensive move, but it may be necessary if you are serious about living porn-free.”

Now, the idea that Christian men struggle with the temptation of pornography isn’t exactly breaking news. I remember reporting in 2004 about a Dallas-area ministry targeting the “secret sin” of porn with billboards. A few years after that, I wrote an in-depth feature on “A minister’s escape from sexual addiction.”

But when the mainstream media cover Christians and porn, they tend to focus on the “novelty” factor, as opposed to giving serious treatment to the issue.

How’d The Daily Beast fare on that front?

Certainly, there’s a bit of a “gee whiz” element to the story by Winston Ross (no relation to this media critic). But overall, this report impressed me, mixing a small amount of R-rated humor with important context (you’ll have to click the link to read the paragraph that precedes this one):

Yuk, yuk. But sex therapists say the pastor has a point, and along with feminists who object to pornography’s objectification of women, Dennis could become the third in an otherwise unlikely trio of interest groups fighting the same scourge.

The pastor’s rationale for excising porn from your life is rooted in Romans 13:14: “Put on the lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lust.” Porn, Dennis says, “is a place your flesh in a moment of weakness will run to for relief or medication from pain or stress.”

If I have a criticism of the piece, it’s that it relies entirely on this one Baptist pastor to assess how other Christian leaders view the anti-porn movement.

Take this paragraph, for example:

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