Every now and then, a star in the National Football League gets into trouble and, during his ritual of repentance, decides to play the God card. In some cases this even involves Jesus language, which is always risky in today's media marketplace. In a previous GetReligion post on this issue I have stressed that it's important for reporters to remain skeptical and, above all, to actually try to find out if the athlete in question has any serious, ongoing ties to a faith community. I asked: How does he spend his time? How does he spend his money? How does he make his decisions?
Actually, these are good questions to ask while writing about any major public figure who likes to talk about faith issues all the time.
Take former NFL coach Tony Dungy, for example. The New York Times ran a strange little story the other day about how Dungy is doing, now that he has left coaching and gone into a combination of "ministry" in a variety of settings and television commentary for NBC's "Football Night in America" operation.
I put the word "ministry" in quotation marks because the newspaper keeps talking about Dungy's work in this area, while devoting no ink whatsoever to his faith or how he lives that faith out in connection to an actual, well, church. It's amazing. This is a story about ministry that ignores religion.
Meanwhile, check out the tone of this headline: "Dungy Takes to New Role as Football's Conscience and Scold." Here's a typical chunk of the story, early on:
"He's ministering all the time," said Dick Ebersol, the chairman of NBC Universal Sports and Olympics, who hired Dungy as an analyst for "Football Night in America." "I think he has a mission to minister to people in need."
But if Dungy is becoming a life coach for the pads and cleat set, it raises the question of whether at least some of the people who have sought him out have done so precisely because latching on to his reputation offers some kind of unofficial benediction.
"I guess I'm flattered that people think I can help get things done," Dungy said. "I've always talked to players about perception and reality. I don't worry about perception. There may be some of that, that people want to attach to a good name, but the reality is that some good things can happen. Were Mike Vick's attorneys trying to attach a good name to him? Maybe so, but I thought I could help him and add some insight. So that is more my concern than what the perception is."
In other words, it seems that some people are convinced that Vick and other troubled athletes are managing to play the "God card," and make it stick with top NFL leaders, by playing the Dungy card.
Now, there is news that Dungy will even serve as a special adviser to Commissioner Roger Goodell -- another prominent role for a high-profile African American who is clearly (a) respected by his peers and (b) a moral and cultural conservative. Goodell even says that Dungy quietly played that role for the league while he was still coach of the Indianapolis Colts.
In other words, it appears that Dungy has an unusual amount of credibility. If you read between the lines it seems that some people, perhaps in the Times newsroom, are not convinced that this a good thing. Remember that word scold in the headline?
Meanwhile, Dungy has raised eyebrows with his television work -- offering a low-key, but ultra-candid approach while dissecting everything from video highlights to the strategic mistakes of the coaches on the sidelines. In other words, he is not a softie.
When Ebersol approached Dungy after a production meeting before the Colts' playoff game against San Diego last season to tell him he would have a place for him if he retired, he asked Dungy if he could be critical and honest. He has been, analyzing for the television audience much the way he did for his team, in measured, but sometimes brutally candid, tones. He openly disagreed with Bill Belichick's decision to go for the first down on fourth-and-2 against Indianapolis. He has criticized officiating.
The coaching fraternity is not always happy. Dungy heard through a friend, the Vikings' defensive coordinator, Leslie Frazier, that Vikings Coach Brad Childress was not thrilled when Dungy said he would not have called a play that had Adrian Peterson running on third-and-long. Dungy rues that he might come across as glib because television rarely offers enough time to explain his opinions.
All in all, it's a strange piece.
Dungy is getting more family time now and it appears that he is carrying through on his plans to walk the talk, when it comes to prison ministry and other causes.
But the story has this strange tone that something strange is going on here. Read the story for yourself and see what you think. There's kind of a hole in the story where the man's soul should be.