Fellow sports fans, how do you feel when you are watching the post-game show of a major sporting event -- let's say college football -- and Jesus shows up in the commentary on the sideline?
I am not referring to the tradition that many players have of kneeling together -- a circle involving players from both teams who want to take part -- to offer prayers of thanksgiving for their safety and to pray for anyone who was injured in the contest. That isn't a situation in which television cameras are automatically part of the scene (especially in the National Football League, in which the powers on high never show these images).
I'm talking about the moment when the sideline reporter asks a player a basic question and he opens his remarks with a few phrases of personal testimony about his faith. Let me be clear: The players have free will (and the First Amendment) and can say what they want. I am also not saying that these moments are all shallow or fake. No way. I am saying that I understand that many viewers may shake their heads and doubt the sincerity of some of these mini-sermons.
This is even true, for me, when watching Baylor University football games. What can I say? Decades ago I covered the team for the Baylor student newspaper and, well, I knew some of those players and knew that some were much more faithful and sincere about those testimonies than others.
This brings me to a recent ESPN piece about Baylor's star quarterback Seth Russell, who is out for the year after breaking a bone in his neck. Apparently, Russell was part of a remarkable scene the other day in which, with a brace around his neck, he confronted the team and urged them to get behind his replacement and to carry on. Here is how that story opens:
WACO, Texas -- When Baylor’s lifting session ended ... strength coach Kaz Kazadi and his staff stepped out of the weight room. Art Briles wasn’t there, nor were his assistants.
Just Baylor’s players. On most days, they’d gather around Kazadi as he stood over them atop a plyo box and delivered a parting message. Instead, their quarterback was front and center.
Seth Russell got up on the box and made a tearful speech to his fellow Bears a day after learning his neck injury will require surgery and end a promising, prolific junior season.
Only his teammates know the full contents of Russell’s message during their players-only meeting. But players said that moment together in the weight room -- a heartfelt talk on a heartbreaking day -- brought them closer together.
“In true Seth fashion, it was all about us and not really about him,” Baylor offensive tackle Spencer Drango said of the speech. “Keep going. Don’t do it for me. Do it for the team. Keep playing. “He got emotional, so it made all of us get emotional. But that helped us.”
Yes, note the journalistic nod to the fact that only his teammates "know the full contents of Russell’s message," which means that the ESPN team -- when writing about this event -- are left with the answers to the questions that they chose to ask players about that speech. In a way, the results provide a wonderful window into the ESPN mindset.
The result is a very moving, yet totally faith-free, story about remarks by a young man whose personal leadership style is closely connected to his faith.
Why do I say that? Do an online search. It is one thing for a young man to say a few God words on a sideline when a camera is aimed at him. It is something else when he volunteers as a featured speaker in Fellowship of Christian Athletes events.
Now, I am sure that the football team at Baylor -- the world's largest Baptist university -- contains quite a few outspoken Christians and then a mix of other guys who may or may not visit church pews on a regular basis. It was like that when I was there, for sure.
But Russell is known as a young man who is very articulate about his faith and this shows up in basic online searches. I would be stunned if, in this emotional scene, he didn't talk about his faith and the challenges that are ahead for him, after this injury. Did he leave the big God questions out of this drama?
Yes, there is that "theodicy" issue again. Why me? Why right now, when my team is chasing a shot at the national championship?
After all, this is the young man who said the following in social media:
In this case, it's like readers are looking into an amazing drama through a window that is only half open. It certainly appears that the ESPN team asked questions about what went on in that weight room, but certain subjects were off the table.
The bottom line: Did Russell take God out of the equation? I really doubt it.
So readers end up with:
Russell told them he’s not going anywhere. He’ll be on the sideline the rest of the way. He addressed his successor, freshman quarterback Jarrett Stidham, telling him he needs to step up. It’s your team now.
And Russell’s biggest message: Don’t take this opportunity for granted.
“You never know when this game can end for you,” Baylor linebacker Grant Campbell said. “It can be any snap. You never know when your brother is gonna go down.”
And that's that? Probably not.
IMAGE: From Baylor Coach Art Briles on Twitter.