Sports Illustrated

Sports Illustrated reports on Freedom From Religion Foundation's complaints about Clemson football

Sports Illustrated reports on Freedom From Religion Foundation's complaints about Clemson football

Hey, guess what? It really is possible for a journalist to report on the Freedom From Religion Foundation in a fair, insightful way.

In a post earlier this month, I made the case that “regurgitating the anti-religion group’s talking points as if they’re the gospel truth is not great journalism.”

Leave it to a sports writer, of all people, to show a better way of handling a story involving the FFRF.

I missed the following Sports Illustrated piece when it came out a few weeks ago, but it’s a terrific read — both for college football fans and those who follow religion news. I’m talking about Tim Rohan’s deep dive into “Faith, Football and the Fervent Religious Culture at Dabo Swinney's Clemson.”

GetReligion readers may recall that we noted in January, “Yes, there's a Jesus angle — and a Chick-fil-A one — in Clemson's football national title.”

In his SI feature, Rohan sets the scene this way:

On a hot, muggy day in August 2012, as Clemson football practice came to an end, coach Dabo Swinney gathered everyone for his closing remarks. Some players noticed a few Rubbermaid troughs stationed about and figured they were heading for the cold tubs. Instead, Swinney announced that one of their teammates, star receiver DeAndre Hopkins, would be getting baptized on the field. Everyone was invited to stay and watch.

Few players or coaches left, if any. They gathered around one of the tubs, which was filled with water, and Hopkins climbed in, still dressed in his jersey and pads. Jesus is the most important thing in my life, Hopkins said, and I want you guys to know I’m living for him. A pastor from NewSpring, a local Baptist church, baptized him, and the crowd cheered.

One assistant coach was so moved by the scene, he snapped a photo of Hopkins in the tub and tweeted it out. The photo caught the media’s attention and made national headlines. After that, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), a nonprofit organization that promotes the separation of church and state, received at least three complaints about the Clemson football program. The following year, in the fall of 2013, The Chronicle of Higher Education wrote a story examining Clemson’s religious culture, highlighting Hopkins’s baptism again, and the FFRF received two more complaints. They were coming from alumni and people in the Clemson community.

At that point, Patrick Elliott, an FFRF attorney, opened an investigation and, in April 2014, sent Clemson a letter noting that the First Amendment prohibited the school, as a public institution, from supporting, promoting or endorsing religion. The letter asked Clemson to stop its team prayers, Bible studies and organized church trips.

Charles Haynes, the founding director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Freedom Forum Institute, a nonpartisan organization that educates the public on First Amendment issues, recently reviewed the FFRF’s claims against Clemson. “I don’t think this is a close case,” he says. “Clemson University is clearly violating the First Amendment.”

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How do sports scribes go 'inside' the epic Chris Davis slump without asking about his faith?

How do sports scribes go 'inside' the epic Chris Davis slump without asking about his faith?

Sometimes, I wish that baseball meant less to me than it does. Can I get an “amen,” Bobby Ross, Jr.?

When judging levels of sports loyalty, it is absolutely crucial to take into account whether fans stick with their favorite teams during bad times, as well as good. In a way, it’s like going to church. True believers are in their pews or stadium seats during the bad times, as well as the good times.

So I am going to write about Chris Davis of my Baltimore Orioles — again — even though many GetReligion readers could care less about this slugger and his historic slump at the plate. I am going to write about this story — again — because there is an important journalism point to be made.

Here it is: When writing about public figures who are religious believers, you cannot write about what is happening in their hearts and heads (and, yes, their souls) without asking questions about religion.

Consider this ESPN headline atop a story that ran when Davis broke his MLB-record slump at the plate: “How Chris Davis snapped, embraced baseball's most epic oh-fer.”

The key word is “embraced,” which implies that he managed to come to terms with the slump and faced the reality of it. In other words, there is more to this story than taking extra batting practice. Something had to be done at the level of head and heart.

Another ESPN headline, on a different feature, captured the agony of all of this: “ 'I hear the people every night': Inside Chris Davis' 0-for-54 streak.” The key word here is “inside,” as in “inside” the head and heart of the man who is enduring this agony.

So did ESPN pros factor in this outspoken Christian believer’s faith? Did they talk to his pastor? The team chaplain? Did they take faith seriously, as a factor in this man and his struggles?

Wait for it.

Here’s the overture in that first ESPN story that I mentioned, the one with “embraced” in the headline:

BOSTON -- When the longest hitless streak in major league history ended and when the Baltimore Orioles wrapped up their sixth victory of the season with a 9-5 victory over the Boston Red Sox, Chris Davis channeled his inner Rocky Balboa and walked into the visitors clubhouse with his fists above his head, a smile streaking across his face. His teammates prepared a hero's welcome too, banging the walls of their lockers, turning the scene into an impromptu "STOMP" performance. Davis looked around at the joy emanating from his teammates and felt a weight lift off his shoulders.

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Old question from world of sports: Why avoid role of faith in lives of many great athletes?

Old question from world of sports: Why avoid role of faith in lives of many great athletes?

There is nothing new (or newsworthy) about athletes, in post-game interviews, saying things like this: “Most of all, I would like to thank God for the many blessings he has given me.”

Or even this: “First, I’d like to give praise to my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

Many superstars say this after victories. Many say things like this after defeat. The question “Crossroads” host Todd Wilken asked, at the start of this week’s podcast (click here to tune that in), was this: Do mainstream news reporters, when then here this, roll their eyes with skepticism?

The answer, I think, is, “Yes, they do.” And for others, the response is stronger than that: It’s either cynicism or sarcasm verging on hostility.

Why? Well, in many cases these sports reporters know that some of the athletes saying this are absolute jerks or hypocrites of the highest orders. Reporters know that some — no, not all — of these Godtalk superstars are not walking their talk.

So this acidic attitude tends to seep into lots of mainstream stories about the many, many, many religious believers who are newsmakers in college and professional sports.

But words are one thing. Actions are another.

Like what? Well, as is often the case, things get really messy when superstars are living lives that are genuinely countercultural when it comes to — you got it — sex.

Can you say “Tim Tebow”? I knew that you could.

When I was young, one of my heroes was at the center of similar controversies. That was Roger “Captain America” Staubach, a happily married, family-guy Roman Catholic.

Several years ago, M.Z. “GetReligion emerita” Hemingway wrote up a very similar case surrounding NFL star Philip Rivers. Her headline at The Federalist included a wonderful new culture wars term: “Fecundophobia: The Growing Fear Of Children And Fertile Women.

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SI glimpses a faith angle: The doubts, tears, anger and agony of slugger in an epic slump

SI glimpses a faith angle: The doubts, tears, anger and agony of slugger in an epic slump

If you’re a baseball fan, this is an amazing and historic day, with two extra games jammed into the National League schedule just to find out who plays where in the early stages of the playoffs.

Lots of people will be missing work today in Los Angeles, Denver, Milwaukee and Chicago. But the baseball fans here at GetReligion will have little to do with all of this, since Bobby Ross, Jr., is a Texas Rangers fan and my loyalties remain in Baltimore.

However, the sad, sad story of the Orioles and their journey into the shadow land called “rebuilding” did inspire a striking story the other day in Sports Illustrated, focusing on the epic disaster that the 2018 season was for slugger Chris “Crush” Davis. The headline: “Crushed Davis: Nobody Is Struggling With the Modern Game More Than Chris Davis.”

This is a story with two levels — sports and a man’s crushed spirit.

The baseball part is pretty easy to describe: No one has been affected more than Davis by the strategy called “the shift” (infielders move into shallow right field to frustrate left-handed batters). Davis has, like many who bat on the left side of the plate, spent his career molding a swing designed to produce hard contact pulling the ball. The shift has stolen a stunning number of his hits and RBIs.

Why not just change your swing to push the ball to left field or bloop it over the “shift” defenders?

This is where the baseball theme in this story morphs into matters of the mind, heart and soul. Trying to tinker with a player’s grooved swing messes with his mind. Here is the overture:

Baseball’s shortest walk feels like its longest. As Chris Davis trudges the 70 feet from home plate to the dugout, he has plenty of time to consider the people he has just let down. There are his fellow Orioles, of course, who will greet him with pats on the backside that feel more like condolences than encouragement. The coaches who sat on buckets to flip him thousands of balls over the years. His father, who coached him harder than anyone else. The organization that writes his paychecks and strings his likeness up on lampposts and sells dolls featuring grotesquely oversized representations of his head. His wife, who gave up her dream job without complaint when he got traded. His three kids, who seem to have grown two inches every time he returns from a 10-game road trip.

Davis, who has struck out 178 times through Sept. 13, knows baseball's walk of shame better than just about everyone else in the majors.

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Frank Deford: A 'Roaring Lamb' who was among the best of the best in journalism -- period

Frank Deford: A 'Roaring Lamb' who was among the best of the best in journalism -- period

I have been trying, for some time now, to decide what to write about the recent death of the legendary Frank Deford of Sports Illustrated, National Public Radio, Newsweek, etc.

I bring no special journalistic insights into what made his reporting and writing so special. In this case, the word "great" is simply inadequate.

In fact, much of the mainstream coverage of his passing focused on a much loftier question: Where should Deford be listed among the greatest sportswriters of all time? But why limit this discussion to sportswriting? Many would argue that we need to open that discussion up to his legacy in long-form, American magazine journalism -- period.

I never met Deford. However, we has a friend of close friend of mine -- the late sports-media executive and writer Bob Briner, the long-time leader of Pro-Serv Television. Briner was best known for writing a prophetic little book called "Roaring Lambs," which described the various ways that modern Christians -- his fellow evangelical Protestants especially -- had retreated from the hard task of doing constructive, first-rate work in mainstream literature, music, movies, the fine arts and other forms of mass culture.

Deford was among the diverse circle of people who endorsed the book, writing:

Too often, the message of Christianity today is promulgated by 'professional' Christians, smugly preaching to the converted. More difficult and more noteworthy -- even more Christian -- is what Bob Briner advocates: that what matters is to carry the Word and its goodness into the skeptical multicultural real world.

Briner, in turn, offered an interesting nod to Deford in the pages of "Final Roar" -- a book completed by editors and friends after he died of cancer in 1999.

In that collection of notes and writings, Briner discussed a variety of ways that Christians in the business world and academia need to step forward to help young professionals who are trying to do solid, mainstream media work (as opposed to remaining in the safe, niche world of "Christian" media). Briner added:

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'You can't give in': an incredible story of faith and forgiveness by NBA coach after wife's tragic death

'You can't give in': an incredible story of faith and forgiveness by NBA coach after wife's tragic death

"Dude. This was a hard read. Never take anything for granted, because every normal day is a blessing."

I first heard about Sports Illustrated's in-depth feature on former Oklahoma City Thunder assistant coach Monty Williams when my son Brady tweeted the above comment.

Then my friend Darin Campbell posted a link to the same story on Facebook with this note: "If you read one thing this week, read this." One of Campbell's friends followed his advice and replied:  "I'm not sure there is a verbal response for this."

Amen.

Suffice it to say that Sports Illustrated senior Chris Ballard dives deep and insightfully into the life and mindset of "Monty Williams, the woman he loved, and the power of persistence."

Interest in the story of Monty and Ingrid Williams has been extremely high, of course, since the tragic death of the coach's wife 14 months ago. I wrote more than 200 GetReligion posts in 2016, but my most-clicked one concerned holy ghosts in initial reporting on the Williamses.

Days later, Monty Williams' faith-filled remarks at his wife's funeral at Crossings Community Church in Oklahoma City rocked the sports world.

Now comes the Sports Illustrated piece, which fills in the gaps of Monty and Ingrid Williams' journey — before, during and after the events of Feb. 9, 2016 — in a way that's hard to explain.

You just have to read it:

 

 

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Hey, ESPN team: When you see Christian McCaffrey, do you see his name? Why not?

Hey, ESPN team: When you see Christian McCaffrey, do you see his name? Why not?

Believe it or not, college football season is days away. As always, this opens up a whole new playing field on which religion-news ghosts can play.

In fact, the game has already started. Several GetReligion readers have written to ask for my commentary on a new ESPN: The Magazine piece that ran with this epic double-decker headline:

The Lightness of Being Christian McCaffrey
Stanford star running back Christian McCaffrey, who broke Barry Sanders’ collegiate single-season all-purpose yardage record last year, is on a quest to dispel the misconceptions and stereotypes about athletes, both black and white.

This is another one of those in-depth "We will tell you who this person really is" features. You can tell that at the very top, with this novelty, first-person, talk-to-the-reader opening:

QUICK: WHAT DO you see when you look at Christian McCaffrey? Don't think. Just answer. Say it out loud -- commit to it.
OK, next question: How confident are you in your answer -- that what you say you see, and what you see, are one and the same?
One hundred percent, no doubt. Because the answer is as straightforward as the question is stupid, right? He's an athlete, after all, a visually explicit human being. Call up a YouTube highlight. The who and the what become obvious in five seconds.
At this particular moment, I happen to be watching a Christian McCaffrey high school highlight on YouTube ... while in the presence of the living, breathing, real-time Christian McCaffrey.

Let's turn this around for the ESPN crew: OK, when you look at Christian McCaffrey, who and what do YOU see? What about his name?

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Haunted house Olympics: How many of the faith-driven stories did you see in Rio coverage?

Haunted house Olympics: How many of the faith-driven stories did you see in Rio coverage?

For many Rio 2016 viewers, it was the emotional peak of the entire Olympics.

I am referring to what happened -- far from the finish line -- during a preliminary heat for the women’s 5,000-meter run. That was when Abbey D’Agostino of team USA collided with Nikki Hamblin of New Zealand.

Both went down. D’Agostino didn't know it, but she had a torn ACL. Nevertheless, she stopped and helped Hamblin. Together -- with the American runner clearly injured -- they finished the race. D’Agostino left the track in a wheelchair and, later, was not able to accept an offer by Olympic judges allowing both runners to run in the final because of their fine sportsmanship.

That's the story that everyone knows about, the drama that left viewers coping with tears. But why did D’Agostino stay behind to help, as the pack ran off into the distance? Catholic News Service looked for that angle, which was not hard to find:

“Although my actions were instinctual at that moment, the only way I can and have rationalized it is that God prepared my heart to respond that way. This whole time here he’s made clear to me that my experience in Rio was going to be about more than my race performance – and as soon as Nikki got up I knew that was it.”
She had previously recounted how her reliance on God helped calm her anxiety before a big race. “Whatever the outcome of the race is, I’m going to accept it. ... I was so thankful and just drawn to what I felt like was a real manifestation of God’s work in my life.” She told Hanlon that previous injuries forced her “to depend on God in a way that I’ve never been open to before.”

Did anyone see that angle in mainstream coverage? Actually, one or two major newsrooms saw that religion ghost and ran with it, including Sports Illustrated online. But not many.

I was exchanging emails with a media professional the other day and mentioned that there was no way GetReligion could have done posts on all of the valid, and often crucial, religion-angle stories that received little, if any, news coverage during Rio 2016. I have never received so many contacts from readers about a subject, pointing me toward more and more URLs with other Olympics religion angles worthy of note. It was like one giant haunted house of religion-ghost stories.

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#ThunderUp: Jumping on O-K-C bandwagon and exploring religion ghosts on sports page

#ThunderUp: Jumping on O-K-C bandwagon and exploring religion ghosts on sports page

I'm not a huge basketball fan. Baseball is my sport.

But I live in Oklahoma City, and my sons, Brady and Keaton, are Thunder fanatics. The team's surprisingly strong playoff run against historic powerhouses San Antonio and Golden State has the Thunder one win from the NBA Finals. 

With Loud City — OKC's earsplitting fandom — in a frenzy, I've jumped on the bandwagon. 

Thunder up,  y'all!

If you're a regular GetReligion reader, you already know there's a Godbeat angle with the Warriors — the Thunder's Western Conference finals opponent and the team that won an NBA-record 73 games this season.

Think Stephen Curry, the first unanimous NBA MVP.

But what about Oklahoma City? Any potential religion angles here? Ya think?

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