John Harbaugh

That John Harbaugh! The Ravens coach sure loves to read the Bible for some strange reason

That John Harbaugh! The Ravens coach sure loves to read the Bible for some strange reason

Are you ready for some real NFL football? It’s that time of year again. Which only raises another question, are you ready for some more haunted ESPN features about mysterious behaviors in the lives of religious people who happen to be coaches and athletes in the National Football League?

If you read GetReligion — and a handful or two of you care about sports — you know that there are almost too many of these stories for GetReligion to handle them, year after year. I tend to notice stories about the Baltimore Ravens containing God-shaped holes (click here for a sample) because that team commanded my loyalties during my D.C.-Baltimore years (and they still do, to be honest about it).

So ESPN recently served up a new story about the head coach of the Ravens with this headline: “John Harbaugh's T-shirt game is strong and motivating the Ravens.” Fans will recognize that this is the latest episode in the ongoing tale of journalists trying to grasp Harbaugh’s love of “mighty men” images. Here’s the overture:

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh loves a good T-shirt. So much so that he's got a guy on staff making custom designs for him.

At training camp last year, Harbaugh showed up with three words printed on a T-shirt.

Trying to set the tone after the 2017 season ended with a last-minute loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, Harbaugh wanted to move past one of the most gut-wrenching moments in team history and put his players in the right mindset.

At a team meeting, Harbaugh told the story of the biblical figure Benaiah chasing a lion into a snowy pit and killing it.

"If you want to do great things, you have to have courage,” said Harbaugh. "You got to know your moment.” And boom ... not long after that, Harbaugh later appeared at practice wearing a shirt reading, “Chase the Lion.”

ESPN noted that Harbaugh is the NFL’s fourth-longest-tenured coach at that he has a unique ability to find symbolic ways to motivate his troops. The coach explains that this is part of “culture-building” and establishing a “world view” for his team. The t-shirts — and the words on them — are part of all that.

Now, with the word “biblical” included in that overture, I thought that we were about to read an ESPN story that finally dug into the details of Harbaugh’s unique blend of Catholic faith and a muscular-Christianity style that is popular with modern evangelicals.

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Steelers and Ravens: 'Prayers' vs. 'vibes' pre-game? Strange edits in famous Bible verse?

Steelers and Ravens: 'Prayers' vs. 'vibes' pre-game? Strange edits in famous Bible verse?

I didn't come of age in the 1960s, but I am old enough to understand the lingo of that decade when I hear it, like "good vibes." Plus, I'm a Beach Boys fan (especially of the underrated "Sail On Sailor" era).

Everyone knows about "Good Vibrations," right? I mean, it's one of the great radio songs of all time.

This brings us to the strange opening of a Baltimore Sun story the other day, as the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers prepared for another round in the NFL's most intense rivalry. This game, however, was framed by an on-field tragedy -- a scary back injury -- that touched players on both squads, with teams that view each other as respected rivals, not hated enemies.

The headline: "Ravens wish speedy recovery for Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier."

The key word there is "wish." Now, pay careful attention to the wording in the lede:

To Ravens players and coaches, hardly anything compares to preparing for the Pittsburgh Steelers. But they hit the pause button Wednesday morning on their intense rivalry to send some good vibes to an injured Steelers player.

The key term there? That would "good vibes."

So what actually happened, in that Ravens meeting as the team started work to prepare for this crucial showdown (which the Ravens lost, in yet another nail-biter in this awesome series)?

This is the rare religion-and-sports case in which we can turn to ESPN to find out. The headline on its story noted: "Ravens begin team meeting by praying for Steelers' Ryan Shazier."

The key word there is "praying." Here is the overture:

The Baltimore Ravens still talk about their hatred for the Pittsburgh Steelers. But there is a mutual respect for their biggest rival.
The Ravens opened their team meeting on Wednesday morning by praying for Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier, who remained hospitalized for a second consecutive night while doctors monitor his back injury.

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Yes, another God and football story: ESPN ignores Catholic faith in Harbaugh's life

Yes, another God and football story: ESPN ignores Catholic faith in Harbaugh's life

It is very easy to be cynical about a lot of the Godtalk that goes on in the world of sports.

You know what I'm talking about. There are a few players and coaches, not many, who really do think God is on their side and wants them to win games. Personally, I have noticed that the more devout players are -- meaning that they are actually active in faith groups week after week -- the more likely they are to say that their prayers focus on the well-being of other athletes and requests that they all play -- safely -- to the best of their abilities.

Take, for example, those prayer circles that form on the field after National Football League games (the ones the networks never show on television). They involve players from both teams -- together. What do you think they are praying about? Are the winners praying, "Dear God, thank you for giving us the power to kick these other losers' butts." Probably not.

Now, I bring all this up because of an interesting comment a reader made the other day on my post about Stephen Curry and his decision to leap from the Kingdom of Nike to the Under Armour brand. His new company, you may remember (click here to catch up on that), let him put some faith-centered material on his Curry-branded shoes. We're talking about the 4:13 and "I can do all things" references that point to Philippians 4:13, which states, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me (KJV)." Thus, "BlueOntario" asked:

I wonder if you are on to something. What is driving the several stories documented here of ESPN avoiding "the religion angle?" Is there actually a top-down driven policy, probably never in writing, that states what the lines are regarding religion that ESPN stories can never cross?
Pattern or coincidence?

This brings me to a story that I have been thinking about for awhile, a piece -- yes, at ESPN -- focusing on Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh and his unique approach to working in today's bottom-line-driven NFL culture.

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When faith enters the spotlight, should reporters dig into the personal details?

When faith enters the spotlight, should reporters dig into the personal details?

On one level, this past week's "Crossroads" podcast added a few extra layers of information to my recent Universal Syndicate "On Religion" column about the ministry of the late Father Jack Heaslip (video clip above), an Anglican priest who for several decades was the behind-the-scenes pastor to the members of U2.

But there's more to the podcast than that. Click here to tune into the whole discussion.

The key to the discussion is the conflicted feelings that I experienced, back in 2001, when I met Heaslip at a private gathering on Capitol Hill in which Bono address a strategic circle of Hill staffers who shared his convictions about hunger, AIDS and the Third World debt crisis.

The band's pastor asked if I was with the press and I admitted that I was. He said something like, "Well, we're here to hear that man speak," gesturing toward Bono, and slipped away to the back of the room.

I was very disappointed not to "land" a rare interview with this man, yet, at the same time, I admired the degree to which he managed to stay out of the spotlight and do his work without great fanfare. He didn't want to be turned into a "Father Jack Heaslip, secret pastor of U2 superstars!" headline. Instead, he wanted to continue his pastoral support for four men he had known since they were brash young teen-agers in the nondenominational school in which he was their guidance counselor.

So that journalistic tension is what the podcast is about, really.

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Baltimore Sun plugs God-shaped hole in its earlier feature on Justin Forsett of the Ravens

Baltimore Sun plugs God-shaped hole in its earlier feature on Justin Forsett of the Ravens

I realize that the Baltimore Ravens lost to Tom Brady last night in the National Football League playoffs. Nevertheless, I want to salute The Baltimore Sun for its A1 pregame profile of Justin Forsett, the who-is-that-guy tailback whose Pro Bowl-level season was one of the best feel-good stories in football this year. Period.

Salute? Yes, because there is some history to the praise in this post.

Back in October, I jumped on the Sun team when it cranked out a generic feature on Forsett, a 5-foot-8, 195-pound (maybe) journeyman running back who had never really been a starter in pro football, let alone a star. Then he turned around this year and ran for 1,266 yards -- twice his career best -- and became a leader for the Ravens in the painful weeks in which the Ray Rice domestic-abuse soap opera unfolded.

That earlier Forsett feature included all kinds of hints that Christian faith is a key element of this man's life and work. There were hints, but no real reporting. You had to read between the lines in the quotes from coaches and friends on the squad. As I wrote at that time:

So we have "great faith" and "tremendous character," resulting in the team being "very blessed" to have him around. The Raven's head coach -- a Super Bowl winner year before last -- is a frequent user of God talk, which has never been explored to any meaningful degree by the local newspaper.

So what happened this time around?

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There's that Baltimore Ravens faith ghost -- again

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.”

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