Super Bowl

Yo, Super Bowl scribes: You missed another chance to explore Tom Brady’s complicated faith

Yo, Super Bowl scribes: You missed another chance to explore Tom Brady’s complicated faith

I never waste an opportunity to write about sports and religion when there is a natural connection.

That happens all the time. Sports and religion are often intertwined by our culture and society. My trip to Moscow last summer for soccer’s World Cup led me to do a feature on St. Basil’s Cathedral and how it had come to become one of the tournament’s biggest symbols alongside Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

This takes us to this coming Sunday. With America preparing for another Super Bowl — and yet another appearance by quarterback Tom Brady — this great athlete (and his faith) are worth another look.

In Brady’s case, let’s just say it’s complicated.

It’s true that two weeks of Brady storylines since the conference championships didn’t do sportswriters a lot of good. Brady’s been here (nine Super Bowl appearances to be exact) and done that (in the form of five titles). The bigger story was the bad officiating in the NFC Championship Game, how the New Orleans Saints were wronged and the fallout that has ensued.

Super Bowl LIII festivities officially kicked off on Monday with Opening Night — previously known as Media Day — at the State Farm Arena. The media circus that has descended upon Atlanta for Sunday’s big game between the New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams means hundreds of hours of TV coverage and lots of articles and feature stories.

Lost in all the Brady quotes, news stories and features over the past week was any focus or mention of Brady’s faith. For any athlete who has won so much, religion can often play a central role. Is that the case here?

In a January 2015 piece, Deseret News writer Herb Scribner explored the very question of Brady’s spiritual life, piecing together what was known about his faith from past interviews and feature stories.   

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There are must-read stories, and then there's this incredible story on 'The search for Jackie Wallace'

There are must-read stories, and then there's this incredible story on 'The search for Jackie Wallace'

Ted Jackson calls the response to his story on "The search for Jackie Wallace" unreal.

Yeah, you might say that.

As of the moment I'm typing this, Jackson's Twitter post sharing the story has been retweeted 127,641 times and received 273,000 likes. 

"This might be the most amazing bit of reporting I've seen in years," veteran religion writer Bob Smietana said in his own tweet. "There are stories that haunt journalists for years. This is one of them."

This is one of those cases where, if you insist, you can keep reading my post. Or, and I promise  you won't hurt my feelings if you choose Option No. 2, you can proceed immediately to the story in question and devour it just like Smietana and I did. It really is that good.

I mean, there are must-read stories, and then there's this incredible tale.

It's a lengthy read but so, so worth it. Here's the nuts-and-bolts summary from the Times-Picayune, the New Orleans newspaper where Jackson worked as a staff photographer for 33 years and won a Pulitzer Prize:

A New Orleans football legend reached the pinnacle of the sport.
Then everything came crashing down.
This is the story of his downfall, redemption — and disappearance.

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Religion ghost in Philadelphia Eagles quarterback room: Was faith part of Super Bowl facts?

Religion ghost in Philadelphia Eagles quarterback room: Was faith part of Super Bowl facts?

Sports journalists had to work hard to avoid the religion ghosts in Super Bowl LII.

Nevertheless, most of them seem to have succeeded in doing so. That's strange, since it's easy to make a case that religious faith was a key factor in the chemistry behind the amazing Eagles victory. We are not talking about evangelism here, we're talking about football facts.

Let it be noted that here was a substantial wave of Godtalk coverage just before this high holy day on the American cultural calendar. Click here for a GetReligion summary of that -- including the Bob Smietana Acts of Faith piece in The Washington Post, which had lots of details on the Bible study and baptism culture in the Philadelphia Eagles locker room.

There was even a solid religion-angle in the annual battle of the Super Bowl ads, as in that bizarre spot featuring some very religious and very famous words from the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Here's the top of the solid USA Today piece on that:

When Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a sermon imploring hearers to imitate the servanthood of Jesus, he probably didn't envision them buying Ram trucks to do so. And yet there was King's voice Sunday night, booming through millions of TV speakers during Ram's latest Super Bowl ad:

"If you want to be important -- wonderful. If you want to be recognized -- wonderful. If you want to be great -- wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That's a new definition of greatness."

What was the precise meaning of "servant" in this context?

Anyway, back to strong role that Christian faith and community service played in holding this Eagles squad together in a year in which many key players were lost with injuries, including its young superstar quarterback.

Now, I would assume that sports-beat pros covering this kind of event pay careful attention to the hometown papers for both participating teams. That would mean that lots of folks saw the pregame piece by Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Marcus Hayes talking about the faith-bond between the Eagles QBs -- all of them. The overture is long, but the detail matters on several levels.

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Football Sunday: This year, a revival (literally) in Philly locker room makes lots of headlines

Football Sunday: This year, a revival (literally) in Philly locker room makes lots of headlines

I know that I have told this story before, but I really don't care.

It's Super Bowl Sunday and, as everyone knows, that is one of the high holy days of the America's secular liturgical calendar -- even in a year in which life in the National Football League has been just as screwed up and tense and divided as everything else in this land of ours. (Well, I mean other than the fact that nearly 90 percent of all Americans don't want the Team That Must Not be Named to win.)

However, there is another interesting journalism that almost always shows up during the days that precede the Super Bowl -- the almost inevitable religion-beat hook.

So here is my story from the past, before we get to God and Super Bowl LII.

Long ago, in my Rocky Mountain News days, the Denver Broncos made a couple of trips to the Super Bowl. As you would imagine, newsrooms in Denver rolled out the heavy artillery to cover these events.
Well, I turned in memos arguing that -- as religion writer -- I should be included in the teams sent to cover these festivals of civil religion.
I never got my wish, but an editor later confessed that I had a point. Religion stories kept popping up, such as the issue of whether it was acceptable for members of these two gladiator squads to share a prayer meeting and/or Bible study before the kickoff? Would that be contrary to the spirit of the event? The NFL was worried.

So with that in mind, let's turn to these 2018 headlines:

* "In a tough sports town, baptisms and Bible studies fuel many of the Eagles’ stars," an Acts of Faith feature at The Washington Post (written by freelancer Bob Smietana).

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See any valid Super Bowl religion stories today? Here's one linked to the ultimate sin

See any valid Super Bowl religion stories today? Here's one linked to the ultimate sin

Ah, Super Bowl Sunday. Another one of those days on the liturgical calendar of American civil religion when reporters have to stretch and stretch in an attempt to find valid story angles to fill niches in the inevitable wave of coverage.

Religion-beat pros can get sucked into this whirlpool, as well. The traditional Super Bowl religion-angle story is, of course, the whole "Does God care who wins a football game" story. As I have noted many times, the more devout the believer who is actually involved in the game (classic example would have been the great Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry), the less likely they are to believe in some kind of cause-and-effect prayer equation here.

Thus, most believers simply say that athletes should pray to play their best and for participants to avoid injuries.

But this is not the kind of theological problem that devout Christians actually think about, when faced with something like the Super Bowl. So, if reporters are looking for a valid story linked to The Big Game, what might that look like?

This year, let me point readers toward a feature by a former student of mine, Tim Ellsworth, a communications pro at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., who also writes sports features for Baptist Press. What's his angle this year?

Clue: It comes before a fall.

HOUSTON (BP) -- They work at a job where millions of people watch them. They are cheered, admired, lauded and pampered. People recognize them, hound them for autographs and care what they have to say.
Falcons' long snapper Josh Harris and Patriots' wide receiver Matthew Slater share how professional athletes often struggle with pride.

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The artist named Prince: Was he ultimately a rebel for, or against, the Sexual Revolution?

The artist named Prince: Was he ultimately a rebel for, or against, the Sexual Revolution?

So, in the end, was Prince Rogers Nelson a hero of the Sexual Revolution or someone who, as he grew more mature, was a heretic who -- in the name of a controversial faith -- rejected many of the sexy doctrines he previously celebrated?

I'm not sure that there's a definitive answer to that, especially when talking about someone as complex as Prince (or TAPKAP). But I do think that it was crucial for journalists to let their readers know that this was an important question to ask.

In the first stories about the artist's death, the emphasis was totally on Prince the gender-blurring hedonist. But as the day went on, a few counter themes began to emerge.

You could see the struggle (and that's kind of a compliment) most clearly in The Washington Post, where the first news reports about Prince were baptized in his sexy '80s glory, while a sidebar openly discussed changes linked to his decision to join the Jehovah's Witnesses.

In the final obit, the Post team hinted early and, at the very end, mentioned that many seemed afraid to mention. Here's the solid lede:

A musical chameleon and flamboyant showman who never stopped evolving, Prince was one of the music world’s most enigmatic superstars. He celebrated unabashed hedonism, sang of broken hearts and spiritual longing and had a mysterious personal identity that defied easy definition.

The obit hit all of the fine details of the sexy Prince, from erotic guitar eruptions to skimpy costumes. It was difficult, at times, to tell what was happening when, in terms of his music and stage personas. If he never stopped evolving, then it's crucial to be precise about the young prince vs. the mature Prince.

At the very end, the news story offered this:

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Vice Sports lets Bishop Cecil Newton, Sr., preach about Cam, sports and maybe even God

Vice Sports lets Bishop Cecil Newton, Sr., preach about Cam, sports and maybe even God

Unless you have been on another planet, you are aware that the Denver Broncos defeated the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl L.

You also probably know that National Football League MVP Cam Newton was sacked six times, knocked down a dozen-plus times and ended the game in a state of frustration and even rage. This followed, of course, weeks of public discussion of whether many fans don't approve of his joyful, edgy, hip-hop approach to celebrating life, football, his team and his own talents.

This led to the press conference from hell, when Newton -- forced by the NFL to take questions in the same space, within earshot, of the Broncos' victory pressers -- had little to say, while his eyes said everything. A sample:

What's your message to Panthers fans?
"We'll be back."
Ron [Rivera] said Denver two years ago had a tough time and they bounced back. Do you take that to heart?
"No."
Can you put a finger on why Carolina didn't play the way it normally plays?
"Got outplayed."
Is there a reason why?
"Got outplayed, bro."

You get the idea. With that as a backdrop, let's move into GetReligion territory -- in the form of a long, long Vice Sports piece by Eric Nusbaum about the Newton family and, especially, a Sunday morning spent listening to the superstar's Pentecostal preacher dad, Bishop Cecil Newton, Sr., of the Holy Zion Center of Deliverance. The headline: "The House that Built Cam."

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

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.

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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.

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