When it comes to issues of sports and faith, your GetReligionistas have one basic rule and here it is. If journalists are going to let a sports figure play the "God card" -- especially if this person is in any way controversial (think Michael Vick) -- then the publication owes the reader at least one paragraph of information that actually attempts to report some basic facts about this alleged religious influence in his or her life. I know, I know, that's very idealistic.
But, you see, we're sort of crazy around here. We think it is possible to do actual reporting about religion, even in its most rare and intimate forms -- like people going to church. So sue us.
Take, for example, that USA Today news feature the other day about a coach who was at the heart of one of the worst, if not THE worst, scandal in the history of college athletics, one involving dirty money, NCAA violations (a ton of them), drugs and, finally, murder. Oh, and all of this took place at Baylor University, in what Baptists often call "Jerusalem on the Brazos" during a hot national debate about the nature of "Christian" higher education.
Anyway, here is the lede:
BRYAN, Texas -- Dave Bliss could have chosen to live outside the public eye in the state where he was the public face in one of college athletics' darkest episodes seven years ago. Instead, the man who resigned in disgrace as men's basketball coach at Baylor is back in the public spotlight again as he starts his first high school coaching job.
"I love Baylor University, so I didn't come here to dredge that up," Bliss, 66, said recently at Allen Academy. He was hired in early May on a one-year contract at the pre-kindergarten-through-12 private school about 100 miles southeast of Baylor's campus in Waco. He was hired as dean of students, athletics director and boys varsity basketball coach. The school declined to reveal salary details.
"Everybody deserves a second chance; it's just part of life," he said. "But the second chance is to do what God plans for your life, to get back to doing what you were created to do. This is what I do."
When believers read that "second chance" reference, their minds leap to words such as "sin," "repentance," "grace" and "forgiveness." However, this is a sports story, so it would be asking a bit too much to expect a trip into theological territory (although readers do find out that Bliss "confessed" his role in the scandal when investigators, who had evidence on audiotape, confronted him).
But Bliss has clearly played the "God card," right? It's controversial that he's back working with young people in a setting that involves sports and academics. Parents were sure to ask questions and, sure enough, they did.
First, we need to know what Bliss did when his house of cards at Baylor collapsed.
Bliss' career path has had its stops and starts since his resignation at Baylor.
The father of three, Bliss, wife Claudia and youngest son Jeff moved near in-laws in a Denver suburb in late summer 2003. Bliss coached the then-Continental Basketball Association's Dakota Wizards for the 2005-06 season before resigning.
Bliss and Claudia returned to Texas in 2008 to be near their middle child -- daughter Berkeley Bohner -- who had just started a family. About that time, Bliss began a support group for coaches called Game Plan Ministries.
Note the word "ministries."
That's an important word, in this kind of story. So, who is on the board of this ministry? Is it linked to any particular church or denomination? As it turns out, the website for Game Plan Ministries offers next to no information either, although the "testimonies" page has a strong Baptist flavor.
I would think that, if a man this controversial played the "God card" and started his comeback by starting a religious ministry, you might want to collect a few facts -- maybe a paragraph -- on that.
Now, what about his new job?
Allen Academy is the state's oldest private school, with roots to 1886 and an annual tuition for high school students of nearly $10,000. Its enrollment is about 330. The Rams compete in the second-smallest classification of the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools.
As it turns out, Allen Academy is a secular, college-prep school with a military heritage. So, no religious content there -- which is interesting. The leaders use some vaguely religious language linked to hiring Bliss (more forgiveness and "second chance" references), but that's about it.
In the end, the reader knows almost nothing about the role that faith plays or has played in the life of this coach, even though he has held himself out as a minister to other coaches. We do not hear from his pastor. We do not hear from another coach touched by Bliss and his counseling work with other troubled coaches.
Come to think of it, we don't even know where he goes to church (if he goes to church). Is he walking his talk? Does he give 10 percent of his income to a congregation and other religious causes? Who is in his entourage, so to speak?
What we need is some information. To tweak some questions I used to use when working on this kind of story, it might be good to ask: How does Bliss spend his time? How does he spend his money? How does he make his decisions?
Questions are good. Facts are good. It is possible, I think, to ask questions and gather facts, even when covering a famous (or infamous) person who has played the "God card."
Just do it.
IMAGES: Photo from the homepage of Game Plan Ministries. Pat Neff Hall at Baylor University.