ESPN's big gay ghosts

ESPN has been pretty good at getting religion in the past few years. On average, they seem to do much better than non-Godbeat reporters at most daily newspapers and even better than some of the religion reporters at major metros. A few examples come to mind: the magazine's profile of Jon Kitna; the website's tribute to John Wooden and a profile of Tony Dungy as football's "messenger of God"; this story asking how to mourn a sinner after Steve McNair was killed by his mistress. A few have also wiffed, but as I mentioned in a post about a great feature on the Detroit Tigers' voice of God, there is a lot that other media outlets could learn from ESPN about teasing out the religion subtleties in non-obviously religious stories.

ESPN.com's massive feature story about Will Sheridan is good, but is certainly haunted by some religion ghosts. The focus of the story is on Sheridan, a former basketball player at Villanova -- the Big East powerhouse of Roman Catholic affiliation -- and the challenges he faced when he came out as a gay athlete.

In part, the story using Sheridan to talk about how taboo homosexuality remains for male athletes. (And for sports some executives. See Peter Vidmar resigning as chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee after reports revealed he supported initiatives opposing same-sex marriage; and the Phoenix Suns president revealing he is gay). Overall, the Sheridan story is compelling and long. Though I wouldn't say it is thoroughly reported.

It spends a lot of time talking about how the biggest opposition Sheridan experienced came from his family. And that's where, assuming that Catholic universities just don't hold their athletes to the same standards of, say, BYU, the real religion ghosts pop up.

ESPN's Dana O'Neil describes Sheridan's father, Will Sr., as a "religious man" who struggled deeply with his son's sexuality but was "turned around" by the "power of prayer." She then writes:

Will Sr. admits he is worried what people will think, what his fellow churchgoers will say, when they read this article. He himself still struggles, straddling the line between enlightenment and ignorance.

Yes, you read that last line correctly. Those who accept homosexuality are enlightened and those who think it is against God's will are ignorant. Funny thing is ESPN's O'Neil doesn't mention what kind of church Will Sr. goes to, which would be influenced by the great variance among Christians regarding treatment of homosexuality.

This section of the profile, which ends with O'Neil suggesting that Will Sr. still lapses into ignorance, deeply cuts against whatever balance existed in an otherwise compelling story about what it was like for Sheridan to come out as gay to his teammates and his efforts to promote understanding in sports.

The point of this GetReligion post is not to discuss whether Sheridan is doing a good thing or whether ESPN had a good newshook for this story; it is to consider how a story that was clearly so extensively reported could be done with such limited diligence.

If Sheridan's family was a big part of this profile and, as reported, Sheridan's father struggled with his son's sexuality in large part because of his Christian beliefs, how is it that Will Sr.'s beliefs are reduced to "religious" and his Christian community is glancingly referred to as ignorant churchgoers?

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