It was a quiet little National Football League story, tucked away in the back headlines of the sports pages. Former Baltimore Ravens center Matt Birk -- yes, the guy from Harvard -- had been named to one of the quietest, but most influential, slots in pro sports.
The short ESPN report was typical, including the following summary statements:
Matt Birk was named the NFL's director of football development, the league announced Thursday. ...
In his new role, Birk will assist in developing the game at all levels, from players to coaches to front-office personnel. He will guide the evolution of the NFL scouting combine and regional combines as well as the all-star games for prospects, such as the Senior Bowl and the East-West Shrine Game. Birk will also over see the career development symposium and the Bill Walsh minority coaching fellowship program. ...
Birk, 37, played his first 11 seasons in the league with the Minnesota Vikings before joining the Ravens for the final four seasons of his career. He retired after he won his first Super Bowl following the 2012 season. In 2011, he was the recipient of the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award for his excellence on and off the field.
Now, in light of the media tsunami surrounding gay defensive lineman Michael Sam, it showed remarkable restraint that ESPN leaders did not mention that this Matt Birk was also THAT OTHER Matt Birk, the husband of a crisis pregnancy center volunteer, the father of six children, the articulate Catholic whose beliefs on marriage had inspired so many headlines. You know, like this HuffPost offering:
Matt Birk, Baltimore Ravens Center, Makes Anti-Gay Marriage Ad For Catholic Church
Then again, when Birk was actually asked, on the record, about the Sam situation, his comments were not the kind that inspired massive headlines.
The question that Todd Wilken and I discussed during this week's "Crossroads" podcast -- click here to tune in -- was whether Birk's remarks should have received wider attention, especially in light of the earlier controversy about his Catholic faith. We used this case study as a window (one of many) into the reluctance many sports reporters have when it comes to covering the role of religious faith in the lives of many athletes.
But back to Birk for a moment. Here's an NBC Sports take on what he had to say about Sam:
Birk estimated that he played with 10-12 teammates who were homosexual and whose orientation was known to the team and emphasized that he feels the only issue that really matters in the locker room is football.
“There is a difference between trying to talk about what marriage is and what my feelings are toward individuals. There are actually many people that are close to me that are gay,” Birk said, via Kevin Seifert of ESPN.com. “But in the end, the issue is someone’s sexuality: Does it really ever come into play at work? I don’t think so.”
“I know there are stereotypes about football players and what the locker room is like and all that,” Birk continued. “Some of those stereotypes, sometimes we’re our own worst enemies. We take advantage of all the perks of the locker room. Sometimes that means you act like a teenager. But when push comes to shove, when you’re talking about something like this, this serious issue and monumental of an issue, I really think football players will answer the bell.”
Now, contrast the tone of those remarks with the nod, nod, wink, wink tone of the ESPN coverage of the whole "what happens when Michael Sam takes a shower in the locker room" fiasco. Surf the following search-engine file, for an update on that. You see, there were supposed to be all of those bigots in all of those NFL locker rooms and, well, you just know what kind of people they were supposed to be, right? The folks leading the prayer meetings, of course.
Frankly, I don't doubt that a few NFL players would find it hard to cope with the media hurricane that surrounded Sam the gay icon, as opposed to Sam the defensive lineman. That was the issue at the heart of the media furor -- surf these links -- that surrounded the remarks about the Sam story by former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy, yet another outspoken Christian in pro football.
What I doubt is that anyone would find a consistent pattern showing that strong religious believers in NFL locker rooms would react to Sam, or any other gay athlete, in an unprofessional or unkind manner. Might they speak openly about their beliefs? Sure. Might Sam respond? Sure. Would that automatically cause trouble? No way.
You see, there are all kinds of religious people. Religious faith affects the lives of some people in different ways. It's complex. It's human. It's flawed. It's inspiring. It's scary, every now and then. It's the kind of thing that journalists have to cover all the time, when trying to cover stuff that is real.
So why did the Dungy story blow sky high, while the Birk story didn't? Maybe Dungy is more famous? I don't have an answer to that, but I do know that the subject is interesting. I do know -- as someone who reads The Baltimore Sun every day -- that the sports pages are often haunted by religious ghosts, both positive (frequent) and negative (rarely). Some reporters simply refuse to wade into that maze.
Religion plays a huge role in American life. Sports plays a huge role in American life. Do the math. And check out this Religion Link report on all of that.
You see, many scholars think that sports is -- sociologically speaking -- actually one of the major religions in American life. Journalists need to accept this and then cover the religious angles in sports stories early and often, rather than waiting for them to blow sky high.
Which leads me to one final comment. When Sam was cut by the St. Louis Rams, some commentators noted that the media furor that surrounded him -- especially the wall-to-shower-wall coverage at ESPN -- was to blame.
And what was the term many used to describe Sam's fate? The verdict was that ESPN had "Tebowed" him.
Nope. No religion angle there, either.