An out atheist in holy NFL? ESPN and the long, long 'Confession of Arian Foster'

As non-sermon sermons go, this one is a doozy.

ESPN the Magazine has devoted 5,000-plus words to "The Confession of Arian Foster."

If you, like me, don't pay a lot of attention to the National Football League, Foster is a 28-year-old running back for the Houston Texans deep in the Bible Belt. His confession is that he does not believe in God. That unbelief, as ESPN presents it, amounts to a cardinal sin in the NFL. Oh, wait, there was that outspoken born-again Christian who shared the backfield with him who remained a trusted colleague. We'll come back to that.

A scene up high at Foster's Houston home:

THE HOUSE IS a churn of activity. Arian's mother, Bernadette, and sister, Christina, are cooking what they proudly call "authentic New Mexican food." His older brother, Abdul, is splayed out on a room-sized sectional, watching basketball and fielding requests from the five little kids -- three of them Arian's -- who are bouncing from the living room to the large playhouse, complete with slide, in the front room. I tell Abdul why I'm here and he says, "My brother -- the anti-Tebow," with a comic eye roll.
Arian Foster, 28, has spent his entire public football career -- in college at Tennessee, in the NFL with the Texans -- in the Bible Belt. Playing in the sport that most closely aligns itself with religion, in which God and country are both industry and packaging, in which the pregame flyover blends with the postgame prayer, Foster does not believe in God.
"Everybody always says the same thing: You have to have faith," he says. "That's my whole thing: Faith isn't enough for me. For people who are struggling with that, they're nervous about telling their families or afraid of the backlash ... man, don't be afraid to be you. I was, for years."
He has tossed out sly hints in the past, just enough to give himself wink-and-a-nod deniability, but he recently decided to become a public face of the nonreligious. Moved by the testimonials of celebrity atheists like comedian Bill Maher and magicians Penn and Teller, Foster has joined a national campaign by the nonprofit group Openly Secular, which plans to use his story to increase awareness and acceptance of nonbelievers, especially in sports. The organization initially approached ESPN about Foster's willingness to share his story, but ESPN subsequently dealt directly with Foster, and Openly Secular had no involvement.

It's late in the day as I type this, so maybe I'm missing something, but: Who's the source on the notion that football is "the sport that most closely aligns itself with religion?" Despite a noble attempt, I'm not sure ESPN backs up that claim.

Also, the ESPN thesis seems to be that "the anti-Tebow" is an obviously uncomfortable position in the supposedly God-loving NFL. That would, of course, mean that Tim Tebow and his brand of outspoken evangelical Christianity were welcomed with open arms. 


What am I missing?

Meanwhile, the writer mentions Foster's upbringing as a Muslim, then abruptly turns to his father being a Christian who read the Bible. Huh? Some of the personal timeline is rather difficult to follow.

The big picture, though, is clear: Foster was exposed to religion growing up and rejected it for reasons that he -- and ESPN -- go to great lengths to explain. That's a good story. Go for it.

Read the whole, long-winded account, and ESPN runs with the notion that Foster's "confession" could complicate life in the NFL and Bible Belt Houston:

Foster, who has run for more than 6,000 yards and been named to the Pro Bowl four times, understands the sensitivity of the topic and how telling his story might be perceived negatively within the conservative, image-obsessed league. "They're going to stay away from anything taboo, which makes sense," Foster says of the NFL. He also acknowledges the possibility of backlash in heavily evangelical Houston, home of Joel Osteen and the city that helped put the mega in megachurch. "You don't want to ruin endorsements," he says. "People might say, 'I don't want an atheist representing my team.' Now, though, I'm established in this league, and as I'm digging deeper into myself and my truth, just being me is more important than being sexy to Pepsi or whoever. After a while, what's an extra dollar compared to the freedom of being you? That's the choice I made."

Regrettably, ESPN fails to talk to any actual believers in Houston to explore how Foster's "confession" might go over. Instead, the magazine seems content to rely on negative stereotypes. Did I mention the sometimes frustrating nature of this piece?

On the other hand, the story is at times fascinating, such as this section filled with revealing details:

JUSTIN FORSETT NOTICED the tattoo first. coexist, written in religious symbols, running across Foster's right forearm.
The son of a preacher, Forsett had one thought: OK, this guy's different.
It was training camp 2012, Forsett's only season with the Texans, and the combination of Foster's reputation for aloofness and his body art made Forsett decide to keep his distance. "I knew where he was coming from," Forsett says. And then one day Foster asked him a question -- Forsett chooses not to elaborate on the details, only to say it was nothing outrageous -- and Forsett said, "I try to stay away from that because of my faith."
Foster's interest was piqued. They began to discuss religion, and morals, and whether one can exist without the other. Every day, it seemed, Foster presented Forsett with a different question, a new challenge. In Forsett, Foster found a friendly adversary, someone who wouldn't cower, who could back his beliefs with both Bible verses and actions. They discussed their reverse-image lives, how one of them had grown up in the West and gone to college as a nonbeliever in the Bible Belt, while the other was a devout Christian who grew up in Texas and went to college in Berkeley. Each had felt marginalized. Each was extremely accustomed to defending his beliefs to hostile questioners.
"Arian is going to voice his thoughts whether you want them or not, or whether you ask for them or not," says Forsett, now with the Ravens. "He'll make a statement. You can choose to respond or you can let him speak. He's very smart, very witty. If you're not confident in what you believe, and if you don't know what you believe, you'll get caught up and probably look silly. Most guys want to let Arian be Arian. They might get embarrassed, and that's why they don't engage."

That section works because the ESPN team steps away from its assumptions for a moment and actually talks to a real, live human who believes in God and knows Foster. Suddenly, there are nuances as opposed to stereotypes. That's a good thing in journalism. You think?

Again, it's late in the day, so feel free to tell me this critique is a total fumble into the end zone.

By all means, read the whole thing and weigh in with your journalistic thoughts.

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