Religious conversion and athletes - Israel Folau

Reporting on sports and religion is a messy business. When these worlds collide in a news story, the finished product is often filtered through the reporter's prism of beliefs and prejudices. The advocacy journalism common to European newspapers, but restricted to the op-ed pages of most quality American papers, tends to run riot. But when it is done well -- such as in this story from the Australian Associated Press (AAP) -- you find no campaigning, no preaching, no smirking or snide remarks. The reporter is true to his task of establishing the facts and letting them dictate how the story is written.  The AAP piece in question is a breaking story about Israel Folau, the Australian football star.

The 22 year-old son of immigrants to Australia from Tonga, Folau played rugby league football for the Melbourne Storm and the Brisbane Broncos from 2007 to 2010 and represented the Australian  and the Queensland rugby league teams in match play, becoming the youngest player to play for both teams. At the close of the 2010 season he switched sports, signing a multimillion dollar contract to play Australian rules football with the Greater Western Sydney Giants. Folau is a familiar figure to Australian television viewers as a spokesman for the Coca-Cola sports drink,  Powerade, and sportswear giant Adidas.

He is also a Mormon. Folau's image as rugby's "Mr Clean" stood in sharp contrast to the antics of other rugby league players whose drunken debaucheries enlivened the tabloid press.  This 2010 story from The Australian was typical of the attention paid to his private life.

[Mormon] Bishop Sietu said the younger members of his flock looked up to Folau. "He's a real role model for all of the young ones," he said. "For his (football) teammates, as well."

Mormons are taught to abstain from alcohol, tobacco and drugs, and pre-marital sex is forbidden.

The Queensland spokesman for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Grant Pitman, said those principles had helped Mormon footballers, such as Folau, to avoid the controversy that had dogged the NRL in recent years.

"They have principles or standards in their life which basically help them to cope with the lifestyle that they live in football," Mr Pitman said. "The health code and the moral code is helpful to them."

Last week, however, the AAP reported that Folau had left the LDS church. While the story was the same, Australia's newspapers titled the report in different ways, emphasizing the conversion in positive or negative tones. The Sydney Morning Herald's title was "Folau content after ditching Mormonism". The Australian ran with "New faith for Folau in AFL". The Canberra Times used "Folau happy with his leap of faith."

The lede of the AAP story written by Rob Forsaith opened with:

A change of faith has steeled Israel Folau ahead of the immense challenges awaiting him in the 2012 AFL season.

Folau was a devout Mormon since childhood but his family cut ties with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints earlier this year.

Greater Western Sydney's code-hopping star now practises under the Assemblies of God fellowship, at a Tongan service similar to the Hillsong Church.

(Hillsong Church is a 20,000-member Sydney pentecostal AOG church.) At this stage, Folau is allowed to tell his own story.

"I had a personal experience with the holy spirit touching my heart," Folau told AAP.

"I've never felt that before while I was involved in the Mormon church - until I came to the AOG church and accepted Christ.

"It's been an amazing experience for me personally and I know a lot of people on the outside have been saying stuff about why we left.

"And some people (are) assuming that we left because of money, and all that sort of stuff.

"I know for myself that it wasn't.

"But I guess at the moment, the people on the outside don't really know the main reason why we left."

I applaud Forsaith for crafting his story in this way. By getting out of the way, and allowing Folau to explain his conversion in his terms the reader is given a sense of who this young man is, and what motivates him. The AAP also answers several questions and provides background.

The 22-year-old instigated the change himself after researching the history of Mormonism, and said the move was easy to make.

Folau's friends have been understanding and supportive for the most part, but he admits it has been hard on a few of them.

And this being a sports story, it turns the article back to the coming season and ties the conversion experience and sport together.

God will play a large role in Folau's life as he attempts to secure a berth in the Giants' side for their season opener against Sydney.

"He's certainly going to help me a lot out next year (in the AFL) and throughout my whole career," he said.

"It's going to be very important."

The story closes with a discussion of the coming AFL season. Given the constraints of a wire service story, this is a solid sports/religion piece. If there were more space available, I would have wanted to hear from the LDS church and the Assembly of God congregation Folau had joined. Loosing their poster boy is a hard knock for an image conscious church and I would have wanted to hear more on this point. However, this was a wire story article, not a magazine piece with the room to examine these issues.

Cudos to the AAP for this finely written story.

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