While I am not trying to turn this into a sports blog, we are in the bowls and playoff session -- a series of secular holy days -- and the topics keep coming up. Thus, I spend a really interesting hour the other day on the telephone with Washington Post sportswriter Kathy Orton, who will, apparently, be writing an ongoing feature at the "On Faith" weblog called "Praying Fields."
Our conversation started with the nervous, very nervous, speech that Florida University quarterback Tim Tebow made when he received the Heisman Trophy. Thus, the pushy headline on Orton's interesting column: "Tebow Talks God, Media Ignores Him." She notes:
Many people who watched the Heisman Trophy ceremony earlier this month were bewildered when reading their newspapers the next morning. In the countless articles that were printed about Florida quarterback Tim Tebow winning the award, few cited his religious beliefs even though he clearly made several references to God in his three-minute acceptance speech. His opening remarks -- "I'd just like to first start off by thanking my Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ who gave me the ability to play football" -- didn't appear in any mainstream news stories.
Sportswriters seemed to go out of their way to avoid any mention by Tebow to God or religion.
This question gets asked here all the time at GetReligion, which is why we were talking in the first place.
A key question in all of this is, "When did this Godtalk really start in sports?" Here is a large chunk of Orton's piece:
I've always wondered why athletes felt compelled to mention their faith during an athletic event. It didn't seem to me to be the time or the place for such declarations. Yet as William J. Baker explains in his recent book Playing With God, this aggressive proselytizing grew out of a religious revival that came in the wake of World War II, when evangelicals and fundamentalists reversed their attitudes toward sports and began to embrace athletics as a means for witnessing for Christ. Baker refers to it as "Sportianity," a term coined by Sports Illustrated writer Frank Deford.
Baker, a former quarterback at Furman who is professor emeritus of history at the University of Maine, was once a youth evangelist much like Tebow. I asked him if he thought Tebow really believed he was winning souls for Jesus when he stood up there and proclaimed his faith.
"Having lived that experience, I think [Tebow] thinks that, whether he convinces anybody to believe or not, that he is planting the seed and that's all God wants," Baker said. "His church and/or family teachings tell him that to be a good Christian means that he needs to witness every chance he gets."
Of course, if the media edit the messages, the messages do not get out. That's interesting, but it is also crucial to note that journalists are simply ignoring a topic that the athletes themselves think is at the heart of their own personal stories.
The question is, "Why?" Orton let me take several shots at that question and published this:
Tebow is the son of missionary parents. His faith is clearly a large part of who he is. Yet, the media is reluctant to touch on this aspect of his story. Terry Mattingly, a longtime religion writer for Scripps Howard news service who also blogs on Getreligion.org, has watched the media struggle with this topic.
Covering religion is "awkward. It's divisive," Mattingly said. "We live in a culture right now that pretty much whatever you put up on a moral and social issue is going to be decided on a 51-49 vote. ... This has been my academic field and professional field of study for a quarter of a century, and you just have to say there is something about religion that makes people's palms sweat."
Let me clarify that the word "people" in that last sentence was a reference to journalists, first and foremost.
I enjoyed the talk, so much so that I decided to come back to the topic this week writing for Scripps Howard -- with a clear salute to Orton's work. At the same time, I wanted to put some more material on the record. You can read that for yourself -- click here. But I also want to underline that the "muscular Christianity" actually started in England in the mainstream, or even "high church," world. Here's a glimpse of that background material:
Sportswriters never know quite what to do when athletes and coaches turn into preachers and evangelists. It's an old tension, one that been around since the birth of what historians call "muscular Christianity" in mid-19th century Victorian England.
Then, in the early 20th century, the "flying Scotsman" Eric Liddell proved that -- with the right blend of skill and charisma -- a superstar athlete could hold his own in the pulpit. The Olympic champion, whose story was later told in the Academy Award winning movie "Chariots of Fire," inspired legions of athletes to dare to be evangelists, especially in youth rallies organized by Athletes in Action, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and similar groups.
On to the playoffs, where we can expect more Godtalk, perhaps even in the news.