An article's headline sometimes gives away the strength or weakness of a story. This example, from an article in the Quad City Times (Iowa) on the impact religion has on organized sports, gave me little hope that it would have much substance. The choice of words -- "Strong men, stronger faith: Religion plays central role in many local athletes' lives" -- states the obvious. Of course religion plays a central role in the lives of some athletes. So may television or beer.
To my surprise, once I arrived at the eighth paragraph of the very long lead, my interest sparked:
Ten River Bandits follow Chambers into a small equipment room. They sit in folding chairs. On one end of the room is 2007 first-round draft pick Pete Kozma. The other end has manager Steve Dillard.
All eyes are looking up to an older man who does the team's weekly chapel service. He softly asks the players to bow their heads in prayer.
The rest of the players stay in the clubhouse watching the ballgame. For 15 minutes a week, the clubhouse is split into two groups: One that shows its faith and another that chooses not to.
What I expected to follow in this rather lengthy article (just over 1,200 words) was a serious discussion of how religion can play a role -- positive and negative -- in organized sports. Unfortunately, we only get hints of the perspective that religion can play a controversial role. At least for some. However, they were apparently not interviewed for this story or willing to be quoted:
Raterink is one of the athletes who said he believes religion is talked about more often in the locker room than many would think.
Raterink said he believes his gift from God is football. He said he understands people might not agree with his faith, but that doesn't bother him.
"Sure, everybody doesn't agree on religion, but that's OK," Raterink said. "People might be a little taken aback, but I see guys playing for more than wins and losses."
Allan Ross, the executive director at the Jewish Federation of the Quad-Cities, said he believes religion is being translated into sports more than ever before.
"I think religion is being extended to the playing field more than ever before," he said. "It's gaining in popularity and will continue. It doesn't matter what athletes believe in. Religion will give them more inner strength to compete."
A sidebar to this story examines the challenges athletes face in expressing their faith. According to this article, some fans and athletes declined to speak on the record "about their dislike of religious athletes," while others expressed the view that religion has "nothing to do with sports" and that they should stay separate. The rest of the sidebar explains away this point of view with quotes from a Fellowship of Christian Athletes official and the local baseball team's manager.
Here is my sense of this story. Open expression of religious faith is on the rise in the Quad Cities for a variety of factors that are reasonably explained in these articles. This is a good story to tell. However, there is another side of that story in any American community. There are those in the community who do not appreciate the rise of religious faith in sports. However, they do not want to talk about it for one reason or another. That factor is rather significant.
This is the side of the story I was hoping to find when I read the paragraph about how religion divided the baseball team's clubhouse. The issue often goes missing when sports reporters look at religion. Accusations of insincerity are easily thrown at those who are openly religious. Vague suggestions that there are those frustrated when they see religion involved in sports are also easy to make. Reporting on this aspect is much more difficult but must be done if journalists are going to adequately cover the role of religion in sports.
Photo of the Quad-Cities River Bandits Modern Woodmen Park picturesquely located on the bank of the Mississippi river taken by the author of this post in the summer of 2003.