college football

Calling all sportswriters: Don't forget the 'Catholic angle' in those Notre Dame football stories

Calling all sportswriters: Don't forget the 'Catholic angle' in those Notre Dame football stories

December can be lots of things to different people. For Christians, it’s the season of Advent that culminates with Christmas. Jews have Hannukkah. Sports fans have … lots and lots of college football leading into the bowl games that really matter.

The College Football Playoff introduced just a few years back has added that extra layer of excitement to the Bowl season and Heisman trophy contest that highlights the end of every season. The quartet of teams vying to be national champions this year are Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma and Notre Dame.

While Alabama is ranked No. 1 and the heavy favorite to win the title, the team that stands out from this group for reasons not at all associated with sports is Notre Dame. For sportswriters out in the field covering games and feature stories (and, more importantly, the editors who dictate that coverage), let’s not forget what can be called the “Catholic angle” to any Notre Dame team.

To cut to the chase: There’s more to this team than its iconic golden helmets, deep-blue uniforms and movies like “Rudy.”

That’s not to say the Catholic rituals and traditions associated with the school’s football team have been totally overlooked over the year. Michael Leahy, author and award-winning writer for The Washington Post, wrote a column in 2013 about the Catholic connection to the Division I school in South Bend, Indiana. Here is an excerpt from that piece:

If there is a single reason for Notre Dame’s enduring mystique, it is that — putting aside the perspectives of its alumni, students, professors and administrators — the place exists in the American psyche solely as a football team. The school has a top-notch faculty and notable graduates who never played a down, but who in Ann Arbor, Los Angeles or Tuscaloosa cares about that? To them, Notre Dame is the locker room where Knute Rockne exhorted his troops before they stampeded the opposition. It is the Four Horsemen. It is Ronald Reagan as George Gipp. It is a place where greatness, reality and fable mingle, and few know where one ends and the others begin.

For most of the 20th century, the adoration of Notre Dame also reflected the relatively favored status of Catholicism in American culture. Despite unfounded fears over whether a Catholic president could escape the Vatican’s influence, films from the era demonstrate a largely benign perception of Catholicism. The most memorable priests from the period’s major movies possess the same saintly qualities ascribed to Notre Dame: rectitude, hearts of gold and the righteous power to knock out a foe.

Leahy’s commentary is spot on. It captures a snapshot of the school’s religious and cultural relevance to American society like few pieces about Notre Dame ever have previously or since its publication. It is the backdrop and larger context for nearly every story regarding the Fightin’ Irish‘s football program.

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Chicago Tribune reporting on Wheaton College hazing incident seems solid, but pay close attention

Chicago Tribune reporting on Wheaton College hazing incident seems solid, but pay close attention

Infuriating.

That's the only way to describe the reported circumstances of a hazing incident involving football players at Wheaton College, a prominent evangelical college in the Chicago area.

I say "reported circumstances" because we don't know all the facts at this point.

But what do know makes one's blood boil: Let's start at the top of the Chicago Tribune's front-page story, which seems extremely solid:

Five Wheaton College football players face felony charges after being accused of a 2016 hazing incident in which a freshman teammate was restrained with duct tape, beaten and left half-naked with two torn shoulders on a baseball field.
A DuPage County judge signed arrest warrants and set $50,000 bonds against the players — James Cooksey, Kyler Kregel, Benjamin Pettway, Noah Spielman and Samuel TeBos — late Monday afternoon. Prosecutors charged the athletes with aggravated battery, mob action and unlawful restraint.
They are expected to turn themselves in to authorities this week.

Keep reading, and here is the part that doesn't make sense to me: The accused are still playing — or have been playing — football for Wheaton:

The victim, who the Tribune is not naming, left the conservative Christian school shortly after the incident and now attends college in Indiana.
"This has had a devastating effect on my life," he said in a statement to the Tribune. "What was done to me should never occur in connection with a football program or any other activity. ... I am confident that the criminal prosecution will provide a fair and just punishment to the men who attacked me."
The college released a statement late Monday saying it was "deeply troubled" by the allegations because it strives to provide an educational environment free from hazing and reflective of the school's religious values. The school said it hired a third party to investigate the allegation last year and took "corrective actions," but officials declined to provide details on any punishment, citing federal privacy laws.
Sources told the Tribune that several players were required to perform 50 hours of community service and write an eight-page essay reflecting on their behavior.

Over at the American Conservative, Rod "Friend of this Blog" Dreher opines:

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Sin and scandal at Ole Miss, the sequel: USA Today digs into the faith and character of Hugh Freeze

Sin and scandal at Ole Miss, the sequel: USA Today digs into the faith and character of Hugh Freeze

Last week we highlighted a haunted ESPN story on "How a phone call to an escort service led to Hugh Freeze's downfall."

We pointed out the glaring omission of certain words from the in-depth piece on the Ole Miss football coach's resignation.

Words such as Jesus, God, church and faith.

Now we are back with the same subject matter but fewer holy ghosts, courtesy of USA Today, which poses this question: 

Who is Hugh Freeze?

As we previously noted, it's impossible to answer that question without delving into his professed faith. Kudos to USA Today for recognizing that.

The religion angle figures up high — and throughout — the national newspaper's report:

OXFORD, Miss. — Hugh Freeze stood outside his house near a muscular dog earlier this week when a reporter approached.
“You better watch this dog,’’ Freeze said, and a moment later he added, “I can control him.’’
But less than two weeks after he abruptly resigned as head football coach at the University of Mississippi, the narrative of the once-charmed coach has spun beyond control.
Freeze, 47, was the devout Christian who beat Nick Saban and Alabama two years in a row, built a team that climbed to No. 3 in the polls and, at least in the eyes of the Ole Miss faithful, could do little wrong. A husband and father of three daughters, he often tweeted Bible verses or religious words of inspiration.
Another side has emerged, though. Before he resigned on July 20, Freeze was under scrutiny for alleged recruiting violations. Ole Miss has self-imposed several penalties, including a postseason ban, and an NCAA investigation continues.
His downfall was ultimately the result of what Ole Miss officials called a "pattern of personal misconduct," and the revelation that a phone call from Freeze's university-issued cell phone had been made to a number associated with a female escort.

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Sin and scandal at Ole Miss: This is what happens when outspoken Christian coach calls escort service

Sin and scandal at Ole Miss: This is what happens when outspoken Christian coach calls escort service

Jesus. God. Church. Faith.

Read ESPN's in-depth, behind-the-scenes account of the Ole Miss football coach's resignation — titled "How a phone call to an escort service led to Hugh Freeze's downfall" — and you won't come across any of the above words.

"Sin," too, is missing from ESPN's 2,400-plus words.

Granted, nobody expects a deep exploration of theology by ESPN. Right? The fact that the story focuses on NCAA football is certainly expected and appropriate.

But — and this is a big "but" — it's difficult to give readers a full picture of Freeze and just how far his reputation has plunged without mentioning his outspoken Christianity. More on that in a moment.

First, though, ESPN's dramatic opening provides important background:

STARKVILLE, Miss. -- The man who helped take down Ole Missfootball coach Hugh Freeze is a lifelong Mississippi State fan who attended his first Bulldogs game 37 years ago and has the university's logo tattooed on his left hand.
But he insists he never set out to bring down the Rebels and their coach.
It just kind of happened that way.
When Steve Robertson was sifting through Freeze's phone records on July 5 as part of his research for an upcoming book he's writing, he discovered phone calls he expected to see. There were mostly calls to recruits and assistant coaches.
But when Robertson saw a phone number with a 313 area code, he was stunned by what he discovered in a Google search. A call made on Jan. 19, 2016, lasting one minute, was made to a number connected with several advertisements for female escorts. Robertson then asked his wife to read him the telephone number again to make sure it was correct. The escort service ads came up again.
Robertson called Thomas Mars, an attorney who is representing former Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt in his defamation lawsuit against Ole Miss. Mars had been introduced to Robertson through a third party he found while doing online research into Nutt's case. They've since developed a close working relationship, talking on the phone several times a day and sharing what they found in their investigations.
"He asked me to fill in some blanks," Robertson said.
When Robertson told Mars to enter the phone number in Google, Mars was silent for nearly a minute before yelling an expletive in excitement.
Ole Miss had unwittingly provided information that would lead to Freeze's resignation.

The rest of the story is worth a read if you have time before finishing the rest of this post.

But the closest the piece gets to any religion is a mention of "Sunday school" — and not the kind at my church:

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Shhhhh! Don't mention Christian faith because ESPN wants to pretend it doesn't matter

Shhhhh! Don't mention Christian faith because ESPN wants to pretend it doesn't matter

I love an inspiring story as much as the next guy.

What I don't love so much: a generic inspiring story that trips all over itself ignoring the obvious religion angle.

Yes, I'm talking about you, ESPN.

Holy ghosts seem to afflict the global sports giant quite frequently — so much so that I sometimes wonder if the network has a policy (official or unofficial) against mentioning potentially offensive words.

You know, words like faith, Jesus and Christian.

The latest ESPN example comes to us courtesy of GetReligion reader David Yoder.

The story concerns a group of NC State football players using their spring work to do mission work in Kenya:

NC State punter A.J. Cole III started going to Kenya over spring break as a senior in high school. Once he got to college, he needed his best sales pitch to convince teammates to come along with him.
So he called a meeting on campus and promised those interested that they would embark on a life-changing experience. It would not be an easy one. For starters, they would each have to raise $3,000 to fund the trip. They would have to make sure they had a full range of up-to-date shots (not to mention a passport and other travel documents).
They would have to take two seven-hour airplane rides to Nairobi. Then they would have to board a Jeep-style safari truck and head four hours northwest to Nakuru. Once there, they would be staying in bunk beds on the campus of Mountain Park Academy, a boarding school for Kenyan children. Modern amenities would be in scarce supply.
They would spend five days with the teachers and children, doing mission work while also uplifting, encouraging and teaching the children either in the classroom or through sports. Cole got three teammates to join him last spring.

The term "mission work" is the first clue — at least to me — that there might be a religious component to this trip. But ESPN avoids any mention of religion.

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Man, that's a tough question: Why isn't this football coach working on Sundays?

Man, that's a tough question: Why isn't this football coach working on Sundays?

College football Saturdays are back, so let's stop and ponder a journalism mystery linked to the new football coaching regime at the University of Virginia.

The feature at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville is pretty direct, starting with the headline: "Part of the Bronco way is no work on Sunday."

Bronco is not a reference to a mascot, in Wahoo land, but to the school's new head coach -- Bronco Mendenhall. Things are not off to a good start there, so times are a bit tense. Here is the overture:

The day after Virginia’s season-opening loss to Richmond, Ruffin McNeill, the team’s associate head coach and defensive line coach, did what he’s always done. He got up and went to work Sunday morning.
Problem was, when McNeill reached the McCue Center, home of Wahoo football, nobody was there. He went home, came back later, and nobody was there.
Cavaliers coach Bronco Mendenhall told everyone in the program that his philosophy has always been to take Sunday off during the season, and come back refreshed on Monday. McNeill didn’t believe it.
“Coach Ruff went back home and told his wife Erlene, they’re really not there,” Mendenhall chuckled during his weekly press conference on Monday. “He thought the BYU staff was just tricking him.”

So, gentle readers, why does this particular head coach not work on Sundays?

Did you catch that passing reference to "BYU"?

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Yes, that AP style issue again: OMg! That Christian McCaffrey guy is a real threat!

Yes, that AP style issue again: OMg! That Christian McCaffrey guy is a real threat!

Remember that Christian McCaffrey guy, the do-everything running back for Stanford University who is named “Christian” for some pretty obvious reasons?

Right, ESPN folks?

It seems that it is pretty hard to talk about this guy’s talents without references to near miracles and other religious topics. You can see that in the headline in a recent Los Angeles Times story, the one with this headline: “USC hopes for more tackling, less praying, against Christian McCaffrey.”

While this is pretty much a run-of-the-mill advance story for an upcoming game, there is a reason for that headline. You can see that in the opening anecdote:

When USC Coach Clay Helton saw the play develop during last season’s Pac-12 title game, he started to pray.
Christian McCaffrey, Stanford’s All-American running back, had angled out for a pass and darted to the middle. USC was caught covering him with an inside linebacker.
“I’m like, ‘Please god, don’t throw it to him,’ ” Helton said. “And they did.”
McCaffrey took the third-down pass 67 yards to the seven-yard line, setting up the touchdown that erased USC’s lead and sprung Stanford to the Pac-12 title.

Yes, here we go again.

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Southern-fried stereotypes? Surprise, but this faith-and-football story serves up real meat

Southern-fried stereotypes? Surprise, but this faith-and-football story serves up real meat

When I saw the headline on the Washington Post's in-depth feature on college football as a Southern religion, I braced myself for plenty of Belt Belt cliches and stereotypes.

To be sure, there's some of that in this 3,000-word sports opus.

But mainly, the writer, Kent Babb, weaves a fascinating tale full of colorful characters and compelling scenes. Along the way, he peppers the Southern-fried narrative with a diverse variety of voices, both pro and con.

Some of the meat-and-potatoes up high:

In this part of America, college football fits somewhere between pastime and obsession, and like church, it is more than a weekend activity. Nothing says more about a Southerner than the team he cheers on Saturdays and the church he attends on Sundays — “the two things we love the most,” says author Chad Gibbs, Auburn fan and Methodist. To many, the merging of cultural forces feels natural; to others, the most stark instances are uncomfortable — maybe even inappropriate.
Throughout most of the United States, church attendance is on the decline, but according to a “religion census” sponsored by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies, eight states in the South, including Mississippi, saw increases between 2000 and 2010 — in some cases dramatically

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Deep in the heart of Texas: Any faith ghosts in the dramatic story of Charlie Strong?

Deep in the heart of Texas: Any faith ghosts in the dramatic story of Charlie Strong?

You know you are in the great state of Texas when even the mega-state university has a fight song that ends with a clear reference to the Second Coming. I still can't believe that the powers that be in hip, secular Austin allow folks to stand up in their burnt orange and belt out the following:

The Eyes of Texas are upon you, 
All the live long day. 
The Eyes of Texas are upon you, 
You can not get away. 
Do not think you can escape them 
At night or early in the morn- 
The Eyes of Texas are upon you 
'Till Gabriel blows his horn.

Yes, it's football season again, that time of year when your GetReligionistas ask all kinds of God-shaped questions about major figures in the land's most popular sport, to the sound of crickets chirping in the comments pages. We will continue to treat sports news as a major element of American life (duh!) and even journalism (duh!). So there. 

Yes, I'm smiling as a type that.

What does this have to do with the University of Texas fight song?

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