Sports and games

Religion at World Cup 2018: Christianity Today spots valid hard-news hook worth covering

Religion at World Cup 2018: Christianity Today spots valid hard-news hook worth covering

Over the nearly 15 years of GetReligion's run, I have learned quite a few lessons about content and online clicks.

No, I'm not talking about the sad reality that hardly anyone reads and retweets positive posts that praise good religion reporting in the mainstream press.

I am referring to the fact that GetReligion readers are way, way, way, way less interested in sports that most readers. However, the GetReligion team has always included some sports fans -- in addition to me -- and we persist in thinking that "religion ghosts" and quality reporting on faith issues matter just as much in sports journalism as anywhere else. And we're not just talking about Tim Tebow updates.

This brings me, of course, to the biggest thing that is happening in the world right now. Yes, a news event bigger than that open seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.

We're talking about World Cup 2018, of course. When you look at global media and passionate fans, nothing can touch it.

Now, there are always religion-news hooks during a World Cup, because religion plays a huge role in most cultures around the world. In the past decade or so, for example, there has been lots of coverage of the strong evangelical and Pentecostal presence on the high-profile squad fielded by Brazil. Of course, some scribes have found political implications of that trend.

This year, if you've been tuned in, it’s been interesting to watch Fox Sports trying to figure out how to handle all of the Russian churches that keep showing up whenever the graphics team needs to produce dramatic, sweeping images of the host nation. Was it just (Orthodox) me or, early on, had the Fox digital tech team removed some crosses from the top of some of those signature onion domes?

Anyway, the religion-news coverage has been rather right, this time around. However, Christianity Today just ran a story that I would like to recommend to journalists who are looking for valid news angles in the Russia World Cup.

Once again, the Brazilian squad is involved, but there's more to this story than that. Check out the dramatic double-decker headline:

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One year later: BuzzFeed feature gets the 'miracle' details in GOP baseball shooting

One year later: BuzzFeed feature gets the 'miracle' details in GOP baseball shooting

Did you notice that Rep. Steve Scalise returned, to the best of his abilities, to the annual Congressional Baseball game the other night?

It has been a year since that stunning mass shooting, when an angry liberal Democrat came close, close, close to gunning down most of the Republican leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives. Here is a link to a nice NPR update on how Scalise is doing, using the 1-year anniversary as a news hook,

Sure enough, the word "miracle" is a key part of the story.

The anniversary reminded me of a magazine-length piece at BuzzFeed that has been buried deep in my GetReligion folder of guilt for several weeks. This happens, sometimes, with long, long stories. They are hard to critique in a short post and, well, they rarely draw responses from GetReligion readers. We are all rather busy, aren't we?

Anyway, the BuzzFeed story focused on two primary angles of the near massacre -- one political (and rooted in journalism) and the other is religious. This is the rare case in which the religion angle was handled better than the political one. The massive headline on this piece proclaimed:


How The Congressional Baseball Shooting Didn't Become The Deadliest Political Assassination In American History

The political angle?

Why wasn't this bizarre and troubling event a bigger deal -- a bigger news story -- than it was? Why did the story slide on A1 so quickly? This story almost, almost, almost was one of the biggest events in the history of American politics. BuzzFeed noted:

What is certain is the disquieting way June 14 slipped beneath the news so quickly. The shooting felt much further away by July, August, September than mere months. If people joke about how the weeks feel like years in the current era, there’s an unsettling truth behind the joke -- the way anything can lose scale and proportion. Two dozen members of Congress were nearly killed one morning last year, and the country didn’t change very much at all.

Was the problem blunt politics, including bias in newsrooms?

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Muslim reporter helps the Seattle Times grasp the complexity of Ramadan in schools

Muslim reporter helps the Seattle Times grasp the complexity of Ramadan in schools

While zipping through the Seattle Times website for stories about religion, which are usually scarce, what should appear but a piece about how local schools are adapting to students who observe Ramadan while playing sports and attending graduation ceremonies.

The article showed an insider knowledge of local Muslims, a group most reporters would not have access to. It's pretty obvious when you are dealing with a reporter who is getting the details and facts right.

Investigating further, I saw one of the writers, Dahlia Bazzazz, is not only Muslim herself, but her family was from Iraq. She was born in Oregon, grew up close to my alma mater (Lewis & Clark College in Portland) and was editor-in-chief of the Daily Emerald, the student newspaper for the University of Oregon.

More recently, she’s been covering the education beat for the Seattle Times, which is how she came to write this:

As Renton High School seniors walked across the graduation stage on Wednesday, fellow graduate Sawda Mohamed stayed home with her family.

The 18-year-old had purchased her cap and gown, but earlier in the school year decided to skip the ceremony. Despite her mother’s protest, Mohamed described her choice as a fitting end to years of frustration she experienced in a school system she felt had little respect for her Muslim faith.

“Honestly, because everything I’ve dealt with in the past, just let it be,” Mohamed said earlier this week. “I bought the cap and gown for memories of the hard work and everything I accomplished, but it’s just not worth it at this point.”

This year, the most stressful time of the school year coincided with the holiest time for Mohamed: Ramadan, when Muslims abstain from food and drink from sunrise to sunset for a month in order to focus on spiritual growth, family and charity.

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Despite a few holy ghosts, sweet Father's Day story involving a major-league catcher warms the heart

Despite a few holy ghosts, sweet Father's Day story involving a major-league catcher warms the heart

Heartwarming. Powerful. Definitely worth a read.

All of those descriptions fit a Father's Day sports column published by The Detroit News.

The piece by John Niyo concerns the personal journey of Detroit Tigers catcher James McCann and his wife, Jessica, as they brought premature twin sons into the world six months ago. My friend Ron Hadfield, a longtime Tigers fan, tipped me to the story. 

I mostly loved it. But — if you'll indulge just a little constructive criticism — I thought it was haunted by a few holy ghosts. As in, I wish the writer had been a bit more specific in places about the couple's faith. More on that in a moment.

First, let's check out the compelling opening:

DETROIT  It’s not just the double vision he gets every day. Sometimes, it feels like James McCann is looking in the mirror, too.

The Tigers’ stalwart catcher sees it before he heads to work most afternoons, and often when he gets home at night as well, depending on how late the Rally Goose keeps him at the ballpark. He’ll take one look at his sons, Christian and Kane  6-month-old twins with a remarkable story to share on Father’s Day  and Christian will give him one right back.

“He’ll give me those eyebrows like, ‘What are you lookin’ at?’” McCann said, laughing as he dressed in the Tigers’ clubhouse before a game this week against the Twins, of course. “And my parents both say, ‘Yep, that was you.’

“Christian is a little bit more laid-back. Kane, he’ll let you know how he feels. And he’s a little bit quicker to smile, quicker to laugh, where Christian is more stoic, stone-faced, sort of like, ‘You’re gonna have to work for this smile.’”

At that, McCann, who celebrated his 28th birthday Wednesday, cracks a smile of his own  a grin, really  and the square-jawed stoicism is nowhere to be found. Funny what fatherhood can do to a man, or as his wife Jessica notes, what six blessed months can do for a young couple raising premature babies.

Keep reading, and the writer explains the nature of the high-risk pregnancy and how the boys were born 10 weeks early and weighed only 3 pounds each. 

And then there's the first mention of faith:

The McCanns would spend the next seven weeks in the neonatal intensive care unit at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital, and for a time, James and his wife were only allowed to hold the twins once a day. The doctors and nurses made no promises early on, but the parents parried any doubts with prayer. The devout couple named the firstborn Christian, and they settled on Kane for the second boy after looking up the name and learning it meant “little warrior.”

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Different motives for kneeling? Faith-based logic for some Eagles to miss White House rite?

Different motives for kneeling? Faith-based logic for some Eagles to miss White House rite?

If you have been anywhere near social media (or a television) in the past couple of days, then you know that the latest media storm linked to America's Tweeter In Chief concerns the National Football League, the world-champion Philadelphia Eagles, kneeling and the National Anthem.

Of course, when it comes to the NFL and images of kneeling, not all kneelers are considered equal (based on past controversies). Hold that thought.

The current controversy centers on the fact that many Eagles players were not planning to go to a White House rite to celebrate their Super Bowl win. For some -- repeat "some" -- of the players, their decision was linked to ongoing #BlackLivesMatter efforts to protest disturbing acts of police violence against African Americans. But other players had other places that they needed to be. Hold that thought, as well.

In response, President Donald Trump did that thing that he does. Here is a bite from a typical news story, at ESPN:

The White House has blamed the Philadelphia Eagles for President Donald Trump's decision to cancel the ceremony to celebrate their Super Bowl victory. ... White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders sensed "a lack of good faith" by the Eagles during discussions about the scheduled event.

According to Sanders, the Eagles notified the White House on Thursday that 81 people would attend the event, which was scheduled for Tuesday. A group of 1,000 Eagles fans also were scheduled to be a part of the ceremony.

Trump also took to Twitter to knock the NFL's decision to allow players, in the future, to choose to remain in the locker room during the National Anthem. This move accompanied an order attempting to shut down various forms of visible protest, including kneeling.

The president’s next move was easy to predict. On Twitter, he added this:

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One F-word appears (repeatedly) in ESPN's profile of Golden State star Stephen Curry, but another doesn't

One F-word appears (repeatedly) in ESPN's profile of Golden State star Stephen Curry, but another doesn't

With the NBA Finals starting tonight, ESPN has published an in-depth feature on "Joy and secret rage: How Steph Curry ignites the Warriors."

The story explores the role of fun and joy in the success of the Golden State Warriors star and his team.

Those familiar with Curry's Christian background might be curious if the F-word makes an appearance in this thought-provoking piece.

Nope, it doesn't — if you were thinking of the word "faith."

But interestingly enough, another F-word is used — even out of the mouth of Curry — in this story. More on that in a moment.

First, though, let's consider a key section of the feature that sets the scene early:

As Steve Kerr is to Stephen Curry, so is Curry to Kerr. It was a revelation that came early in Kerr's first season as Warriors coach. And so mere months into his tenure in Oakland, Kerr decided the dream culture he desired would embody the star player at the very center of it. They would strive to make one of Curry's defining traits their cornerstone. It would be a constant, felt in the practice facility (where music thumps) and film sessions (where jokes fly) and far beyond. It would be one of the few qualities that, in the age of analytics, remained difficult to tally: happiness.

Happiness, huh?

Might Curry's faith have something to do with that?

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Another faith angle with a Detroit Tigers pitcher: Free Press nails how Matthew Boyd raised his game

Another faith angle with a Detroit Tigers pitcher: Free Press nails how Matthew Boyd raised his game

Apparently, I'm not the only journalist interested in the faith of Detroit Tigers pitchers.

To refresh those who haven't committed all my baseball stories to memory: A few years ago, I interviewed Tigers pitcher Daniel Norris about his baptism in his uniform as a high school player.

Just a few weeks ago, I interviewed a different Tigers pitcher — Michael Fulmer — about the role of faith in his approach to baseball and life, including his offseason job as a part-time plumber.

And now — thanks to my friend Ron Hadfield, one of the world's most devoted Detroit fans — I have come across a feature about the faith of yet another Tigers pitcher: Matthew Boyd.

The recent Detroit Free Press story notes that Boyd has "raised his game."

How'd he do it?

Let's check out the subhead:

Family, faith, fatherhood have helped take Matthew Boyd to a new level over his eight starts for the Detroit Tigers this season

Alrighty. That sounds like a religion story.

Often, we at GetReligion complain about holy ghosts in sports stories. But in this case, give the Free Press credit for its willingness to focus on that angle.

The paper even quotes Boyd's pastor up high:

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Nothing but net: Boston Globe nails story of faith and prayer guiding a Celtics rookie

Nothing but net: Boston Globe nails story of faith and prayer guiding a Celtics rookie

Here at GetReligion, we talk a lot about holy ghosts in sports stories.

These are just a handful of cases (here, here, here, here and here) where we have pointed out God-sized holes in mainstream press coverage of athletes.

But here's a nice change: a major newspaper feature about an NBA rookie that nails the crucial faith angle.

Boston Globe sports editor Matt Pepin tweeted that "No one brings you more insight about Celtics players than @AdamHimmelsbach." If this piece is any indication, I'd have to agree with him.

The headline gets right to the point:

Faith and prayers help guide Celtics’ Semi Ojeleye

And the opening narrative sets the scene:

As Gordon Hayward lay on the court Oct. 17, his left ankle snapped sideways, his season over essentially before it even began, Celtics assistant coach Micah Shrewsberry knew he had to do something about the rest of the team.

Head coach Brad Stevens was with Hayward, touching his shoulder and letting his former Butler University pupil know he was there. The other Celtics were scattered around the court, several with their hands on their heads, lost in a daze. It was just five minutes into a season that held such promise, and now it was already dissolving in front of them.

Shrewsberry called to rookie forward Semi Ojeleye, a second-round pick from Southern Methodist who didn’t expect to have much of a role on this night. Shrewsberry had gotten to know Ojeleye over the previous few months and knew how much he was guided by his faith. And in this crushing moment, that’s what the Celtics needed.

Ojeleye was initially startled, because he thought Shrewsberry was telling him that he would be going into the game. Instead, the request was about something more comfortable.

“Semi,” Shrewsberry said, “can you just bring everybody together, and can you help us pray for Gordon?”

This is not a long profile — it's a concise, 800-word feature for a daily paper. 

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Morgan Shepherd has started 1,000 NASCAR series races: What exactly inspires him?

Morgan Shepherd has started 1,000 NASCAR series races: What exactly inspires him?

"At 76, Morgan Shepherd is driven to inspire others."

That was the headline on a recent ESPN story on a driver making his 1,000th career NASCAR national series start.

Enter a faithful GetReligion reader — Father Geoff Horton of the Roman Catholic diocese of Peoria, Ill. — who shared the link with us.

"Another ESPN Holy Ghost story for you," Horton said in an email. "Morgan Shepherd keeps racing at age 76 to promote his mission to ... Gosh. The article never really quite says."

True enough.

Yes, ESPN hints at a faith angle:

"I don't keep count," Shepherd said. "I enjoy the race fans and the racing. God has blessed us being here this long."

And the story notes the cross on the hood of Shepherd's car:

"It's more or less an opportunity," Shepherd said. "We carry the cross on the hood of our car and we're ministry-minded. I try to encourage people to get up off the couch and do something with their life.
"That's what I do."
He said the ministry that drives him possibly keeps companies from sponsoring him, although he has had some support from Visone RV and race fans.
"It's hard to find people when you've got the cross on the hood," Shepherd said. "We do have race fans that help us. ... We don't do big deals, but we keep coming.
"We know we can't go but so many laps because you can't buy the tires and the engines with the money you're going to get."

Give ESPN credit for including those details. But I'm with the reader. I'd like to know more about the specific nature of Stewart's faith and ministry.

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