Holy ghosts in sports stories? It turns out somebody besides GetReligion has noticed them

Holy ghosts in sports stories? It turns out somebody besides GetReligion has noticed them

Holy ghostbusters!

This certainly is an interesting development.

I just came across a piece recently published by The Ringer, the website founded by sportswriter Bill Simmons. The headline: "NFL Scoops From Heaven." (Thanks to Arthur Freyre for the tip!)

Basic gist of the article: Why a Christianity-focused website got the exclusive when running back Matt Forte decided to retire:

This February, when Matt Forte decided to retire, he could have leaked the news to any NFL insider he wanted. Adam Schefter has the biggest reach. Handing the scoop to a reporter in Chicago, where Forte spent most of his career, would’ve counted as a goodwill gesture. But the reporter Forte settled on had one distinct advantage over the rest: He and Forte had talked about their faith in Christ.
On February 27, Forte called Jason Romano, who writes for a Christian website calledSports Spectrum. “I am a Christian athlete,” Forte told me. “Actually, I’m more Christian than athlete, and I wanted people to realize that first. I felt if I used one of the regular publications that are strictly sports-oriented that they’d leave Jesus’s name out of it.”
Romano prepared the scoop in just the way Forte wanted: with a brief statement and a podcast interview. Then Romano went to bed and hoped the news held. “My honest to God thought was, I hope this doesn’t get leaked to Adam Schefter or any of the guys on the NFL Network,” he said. The next morning, Sports Spectrum published its exclusive. In a competitive season of NFL scoopage, the site was credited by everyone from’s Rich Cimini to the Associated Press.

For years, we at GetReligion have been pointing out the God-sized holes in sports stories (examples here, here, here, here and here). For those new to this journalism-focused website, we refer to such holes as "holy ghosts."

In a 2010 piece for the Wall Street Journal, former GetReligion contributor Sarah Pulliam Bailey — now a national religion writer for the Washington Post — delved into why "God" talk tends to get sidelined in sports media:

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ESPN doctrine: Politics and 'social issues' are part of sports, but what about religion?

ESPN doctrine: Politics and 'social issues' are part of sports, but what about religion?

I'm sure there are lots of GetReligion readers who are familiar with the old etiquette rule stating that there are two things people are not supposed to talk about in polite company -- religion and politics.

However, we now know that the same rule -- or half of it -- does not apply to sports talk at ESPN.

This is complicated. The other day, our own Bobby Ross Jr., followed up on a great tip from a reader about some North Caroline State football players who volunteered some of their time to do mission work in Kenya. The headline on that piece stated: "Shhhhh! Don't mention Christian faith because ESPN wants to pretend it doesn't matter."

You see, despite all kinds of social media references to the fact that this was a Christian missions trip (Do secular groups use the word "missions" in this context?), the ESPN team went way out of its way to avoid any references to religious faith. At the end, Bobby said:

Please don't misunderstand me: I think it's great that ESPN decided to report on a "life-changing experience" that made a "profound impact" and "inspired (one of [punter A.J.] Cole's teammates) so much."I just wish ESPN would go ahead and tell the rest of the story -- the one that involves those unmentioned words above.
Seriously, why is ESPN -- seemingly -- so afraid of religion?

As the video at the top of this post notes, Cole has been doing this generic missions work for quite some time now.

Anyway, we have received emails from readers claiming that ESPN has an actual policy forbidding discussions of religion on the air -- but have never been given direct evidence of this. There has also been talk (think Christmas wars) about ESPN banning adds that mention Jesus, etc.

Meanwhile, ESPN ratings have been in a dangerous spiral that some, in addition to the obvious ties to young viewers cutting cables to their screens, have linked to the sports giant airing more and more commentaries backing progressive cultural and political causes, some of which have implications for traditional religious believers.

Now, ESPN Public Editor Jim Brady has written a very interesting essay about new ESPN policies affecting political speech during news reports. The headline: "New ESPN guidelines recognize connection between sports, politics."

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Post-Olympics: The Atlantic sees psychological, emotional issues, but not spiritual ones

Post-Olympics: The Atlantic sees psychological, emotional issues, but not spiritual ones

The Atlantic meant well. Its post-Olympics feature examines the depression that athletes often suffer after such sports events, as they strive to cope with their futures and stress linked to big wins and big defeats.

It's a literate, sympathetic piece, gently but incisively examining the emotional crash; the reluctance to ask for help; how intensely athletes identify with their achievements; how  much they fear losing themselves by losing in competition.

Almost every angle is covered, it seems, but -- you knew this was coming -- the spiritual one. The story leaves Mount Olympus haunted with religious "ghosts."

This is the kind of eloquent passage that makes me loathe to write off the article totally:

Take the Michigan-born swimmer Allison Schmitt. After winning five medals, three of them gold, and setting a world record in the 2012 London Games, Schmitt sank into a hole from which she couldn’t emerge. She had no idea why she felt depressed -- especially considering her undeniable success -- but realized she needed counseling. The decision didn’t come easily; depression is still a dirty word in the locker room.
"I didn’t want to show my weakness," she said in an interview with Channel 4 in Detroit. "I didn’t want to ask for help, but in this situation I found out … that I couldn’t keep fighting it by myself. … There’s this thing that they call post-Olympic blues and I think I had a little bit of that and I kept isolating myself and isolating myself."

The Atlantic also quotes sports psychologist Scott Goldman noting that the Olympics amount to a "hundred-mile-per-hour ride" that "comes to a screeching halt." He says the sudden end leaves athletes "just physiologically depleted, as well as psychologically."

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Man in the Van: ESPN makes solid contact but fails to hit easy fastball out of the park

Man in the Van: ESPN makes solid contact but fails to hit easy fastball out of the park

Time flies.

Five years and roughly 675 posts ago, I made my GetReligion debut on March 8, 2010.

In my introductory post, I wrote:

For a faithful GetReligion reader such as myself, joining the team of contributors is like a baseball fan invited to sit in the press box and share his opinions during the World Series. Although it's not quite in the same league as my beloved Texas Rangers, I'm a big fan of this weblog and its endeavor to pinpoint and expose the religion ghosts in the secular news media.

During GetReligion's 10th anniversary celebration last year, I shared my list of "Five things they didn't tell me."

But for my own GR-versary, the boss man Terry Mattingly — aka tmatt — suggested that I critique ESPN The Magazine's recent "Man in the Van" feature as a tribute to all 10 of our readers who care about religion and sports.

"Sure thing," I replied, welcoming any excuse to write about baseball.

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Who says print is dead? Check out how much space this religion story got

Who says print is dead? Check out how much space this religion story got

Sorry, Carla.

I don't mean to embarrass you.

Just six days ago, my former colleague Carla Hinton — who succeeded me as religion editor of The Oklahoman in 2002 — drew GetReligion praise from James "Not The One Who Created Garfield" Davis.

Now I'm going to say more nice things about Carla and her newspaper. Actually, the story I want to highlight has been in my guilt file for a few weeks. (The guilt file is where we stash stories that we really want to mention but never seem to get around to.)

Before church on a recent Sunday, I was eating a quick breakfast at a fast-food joint when I noticed a giant photo on the front page of that day's Oklahoman. 

The photo (the one embedded with the tweet above) referred to a story by Carla on a "Midnight Basketball" outreach program:

Some youths show up in clusters of three or four, while others arrive alone on Friday nights during the summer.
For many onlookers, the young people’s destination is simply a church parking lot with a couple of basketball goals.
But to die-hard ballers like Jashean Taylor, 14, and Tywon Morton, 12, it’s a blacktop paradise.

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God, prayer and the winner of the Super Bowl

THIS WEEK, the question doesn’t come from a “Religion Q and A” reader but a headline in The Record, the daily newspaper in the New Jersey county that’s hosting a certain athletic event: Spiritual suffering, physical and mental illness, anxiety and loneliness, natural disasters, oppression, wars, terrorism, kidnapping, senseless murders, broken families, kids without dads, homelessness, addiction, materialism, privation, pestilence, prejudice, impossible decisions that must be made, and all manner of other woes and perplexities are abroad in the world. How could the Deity possibly be concerned about the outcome of a mere football game on Feb. 2, no matter how big the TV audience is?

Still. Though such claims of divine attention seem theologically suspect perhaps there’s more to be said about an underlying question: Is it proper to bother God with prayer about life’s trivialities like this? “Religion Q and A” wrestled with a few of the big issues concerning prayer in a Nov. 30, 2013 item, but what do religious figures think we’re supposed to do about “little” prayers?

Personal gridiron prayers are baked into American pop culture. In a January poll for the Public Religion Research Institute, 26 percent of Americans said they’ve prayed to God to help their favorite team, and 19 percent thought God actually plays a role in who wins.

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How should journalists fight back against sacred jargon?

Yesterday, CNN ran a feature highlighting the faith of members of a Bible group the meets on the PGA Tour. The article itself is well-done and provides an superb model for how to address religion in sports.

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