This story from the Baltimore Sun has been hanging around in my imagination for several days. Let's just say that I find it hard to ignore a story that starts with this lead:
The Rev. Jerry Falwell doesn't body surf anymore.
In years past, Liberty University's famed founder and chancellor, a self-described "sports nut," occasionally allowed himself to be passed hand by hand up seating sections by delighted students during football and basketball games at the Lynchburg, Va., school. But with age creeping up on him, the 72-year-old has mellowed a bit.
Yes, I searched for a picture of that.
The goal of this story by reporter Joshua Cooley is to describe some of the challenges that Liberty University faces in its quest to have a football team that can compete at the I-A level of NCAA competition. Recruiting can be tough, after all, for a perfectly logical reason:
There is a modest dress code, curfew (midnight most days), three mandatory convocation services each week and many other regulations, including prohibitions on dancing, R-rated movies and certain music. Any infraction, even during semester breaks, is subject to a strict system of reprimands. As with all other students, these are the conditions that athletes on Liberty's teams are expected to conform. ... According to redshirt junior linebacker Manny Rojas, a four-year Liberty veteran, each year brings new complaints about the rules from the incoming freshman class, but they usually fade with time.
None of this is surprising, especially not for me (as a former sports editor at Baylor University, the world's largest Southern Baptist university). Baylor has -- cue the theme from "Jaws" -- had its struggles competing in the lofty air of the Big 12 and people have always linked this with tough classrooms and the alleged Baptist atmosphere on campus. Let's just say that my alma mater has rarely achieved a state of bliss.
But back to the Liberty story. I think this report misses, or buries, two stories that are much more interesting than the football angle. The first is one that I have seen my own journalism students write on two different campuses. When Christian schools recruit non-believers to beef up their teams, what happens to these student athletes? Are they treated with sympathy and compassion? Do some happily convert and live changed lives? To some rebel? Do tensions exist? Do some students try to browbeat them into converting? Or (hint, here is the answer) is the truth "all of the above"? Whatever. This is interesting territory.
But here is the story I wonder about and it skips by way down in the body of the story:
Even in this unique environment, most of the Flames' athletic teams have thrived at one point or another and won Big South Conference titles. The women's basketball team is seeking its 10th straight conference crown, and, last year, thanks in large part to 2005 WNBA lottery pick Katie Feenstra, it defeated Penn State and DePaul en route to the school's first appearance in the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16.
Stop and read that again. They have won 10 straight titles in women's basketball?
Now when you see something like that you have to stop and think: What is it in the nature of this school that allows that to happen? What is drawing those young women to Liberty and keeping them there? What's the connection? What is unique about these teams and these coaches? Do we see similar success, or at least unusual success, in other similar programs? I sense the presence of a ghost and, maybe, more than one.
One thing for sure, there is a good Godbeat story in there somewhere.