Sportswriters don't get religion

colts prayingThe National Football League's 2008 regular season is underway, and once again the issue of religion is sliding through the cracks of the league's public image control machine. For starters, The Indianapolis Star kicked off the 2008 season with a nice front-page feature on Indianapolis Colts head coach Tony Dungy as a run-up to that night's season opener. The story by Mark Montieth, who typically writes about basketball and the NBA, is local. The headline reminds us all that Dungy is still a man of faith, if we somehow forgot after his post-Super Bowl talk and his book publicity tour. The final section of the multi-section story, and the most interesting, deals with the "few complaints" about Dungy's frequent mentions of his faith:

Religion can be a divisive subject, and any publicly expressed opinion on it is likely to draw criticism. Dungy, grandson of a Baptist minister, isn't immune.

Some people thinks he blurs the line between church and football by crediting God for victories, as he did after the Super Bowl.

Rick Telander, a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, counted 10 references to "God," "Lord" or "Christian" in Dungy's post-game remarks after the Super Bowl and objected to Dungy stating that he and Bears coach Lovie Smith were "Christian coaches showing you can win doing it the Lord's way."

"Where does the sports teaching end and the proselytizing begin?" Telander wrote.

Maybe Telander is still sore over the events earlier this year in Miami, but aren't there better things to complain about regarding the NFL than Dungy's frequent Jesus-is-the-center-of-my-life remarks? Maybe Dungy has something good going for him and he wants to share it? There is little evidence that league officials are concerned about Dungy's frequent mentioning of his faith, but if they are, their priorities are out of sorts.

I'm glad Montieth mentioned this issue in the news story, because the facts show that for the most part these complaints are sour grapes.

faith in footballChristianity Today took on the subject in its most recent cover story by Mark Moring, asking whether the NFL is fumbling religion. The story focuses on the cease-and-desist order sent to an Indianapolis church regarding its Super Bowl party plans, the league's efforts in the 1990s to discourage players from gathering midfield after games to pray and the league's policies on not wearing anything but league gear, which resulted in a player being fined for wearing a baseball cap that had a cross on it:

When its public image is threatened, the NFL is quick to do damage control. Still, are these just isolated incidents? Or does the league have a begrudging acceptance of Christians -- and Christianity? ...

Generally, the NFL has no problem with players "loving God with their lives." But talking about Jesus Christ can be trickier. Several Christian players said the league would prefer that its players act like Christians, but not necessarily say they're Christians.

"The NFL certainly adores the manner in which Christians walk," said Bears team chaplain Harry Swayne, who played in the league for 14 years. "But they surely wish we'd do less proselytizing, absolutely."

Good questions are raised about the league's policies, but the most revealing quotes come from some sports journalists who cover the league:

Post-game prayer huddles -- where players from both teams gather to kneel at midfield—became popular around 1990. That's when Sports Illustrated columnist Rick Reilly penned a blistering commentary, saying that the prayer huddles were offensive to people of other faiths and that he didn't want players to "shove their religion down my throat."

Peter King, a Sports Illustrated senior writer who has covered the league for nearly two decades, said he sometimes tires of players bringing up their faith after a game. "To be honest with you, people like me just totally ignore that, because we're not writing about religion," King said. "We're not writing about somebody's Christianity. Once the questions veer off into game-oriented things, that's when I start taking notes."

King isn't down on Christians. Some of his favorite players -- including Dilfer and Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner -- are believers. King lauds them as men of integrity, and added that Smith and Dungy "are among the most moral men you will ever find."

What does that tell us about "people like" Peter King? I hope most journalists don't "just totally ignore" things that coaches bring up after a football game. Does King speak for other sports journalists when he says this? I hope not.

I am not convinced that the league is anything but what it says it is on religious issues. As the NFL's spokesman says, the league has no policies restricting players or coaches from expressing their faith within the uniform policies and onfield conduct rules. But that doesn't mean there isn't a story here.

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