Sports reporters write stories very quickly, feeding editors literally on deadline. My sports reporter husband jokes that political reporters stress out maybe once a year during election nights when nearly every weekend has at least two election-like nights for sports. In many ways, they have been doing what Twitter users are now figuring out, how to report reactions professionally as you experience them before writing the big picture piece later.
Often you need at least a day or two to let something really sink in, to figure out what sets each athlete or athletic feat apart from one another. In an interesting way, sports reporters are trained to think both on the fly and then later on a deeper level, analyzing what made that particular moment special.
As soon as gymnast Gabby Douglas won the gold medal earlier this week, it was clear she could be set for life. Assuming she has good people around her, she will long be a spokeswoman for something, someone or practically whatever she wants. She should be set financially and she is well loved by many. It's hard to beat that, an all-American story to rally around.
Stories like Douglas's, though, seem to make sports journalists queazy. It's too easy. It's too predictable. They've seen it before. They don't like anything that seems too packaged. Everything from her stunning performance to her beautiful smile to the audience's immediate love for her is just too convenient, it seems.
But when you dig deeper than just the stats, there's something else going on. Her mother gave her up to go live in Iowa with another family so she could train with Olympian gymnast Shawn Johnson's coach. There are obviously stories about her race and hair and other aspects that set her apart. Her mom filed for bankruptcy earlier this year. The story really does have several angles for sports reporters to take, if they want them.
As Anthea Butler points out, it can't be too shocking that Douglas would attribute her win to God. Really, it isn't. Many, many excellent athletes are also religious. So what do we do with the faith angle, if many athletes are religious and give thanks to a higher power for accomplishments? Sports journalists hear and see this all the time, and then they watch many of the same athletes crash and burn and they're not sure what to believe anymore. Christian athletes would probably attribute it to humankind's fallen human nature, that of course people will crash and burn and then rely on God to pick them up again.
Let's take ESPN's initial piece right after her win, which highlighted her race as a point of uniqueness.
From the start, Douglas shattered the mold of the uber-intense gymnast who isolates herself in a shrink-wrapped, uniform Olympic bubble. Not Douglas. She was a personality, a bit of a rebel, who laughed often and became easily distracted. She was different, and not just because she is the first African-American to win the individual all-around gold medal.
"I hope I inspire people," she said. "That would be cool."
Her race is certainly a big part of the story, no doubt about it. But it seems, from the words that she said and the tweets that she tweeted, that faith is core to her identity. She said, "I just give all the glory to God. It's kind of a win-win situation: the glory goes up to Him and the blessings come down to me," not something about her race. The quote used in the piece where she says, "I hope I inspire people," would be doing a disservice to her if it were only about race. Douglas is much more than her race, and by not including her mentions of faith and how she presents herself, sports reporters do a disservice to the audience who want to really understanding all sides.
Just because many athletes are religious, that doesn't mean each faith angle is cliche just because we think we've seen or read it before. If we dig as deeply as we do into her stats, we'll probably find details about her Christian faith, whether she belongs to a specific church, whether her biological mother and her mother in Iowa also have similar religious beliefs and other details.
Clicking around, I found a YouTube interview with Gabby Douglas at Valley Church on her faith and time spent while training in Des Moines. Sure, this might be too specific for NBC to air on its primetime show, but hinting that there are more details will give people the cues to look up more on the Internet. Really, people are Googling for these details, just as much as other people are googling for information about her hair.
Please let us know if you see links to either specific blogs that uncover details or any good or bad mainstream coverage that's catching on or missing the larger picture. I'm waiting to read the longview pieces that will go into detail about her faith, because I know there's an audience looking for them.