I'm going to dig into my GetReligion file of guilt for this post, in part because it's another weekend of NBA playoffs action and I have hoops on my mind.
The New York Times recently ran an interesting feature story about one of those new old trends that may have been around for many years but, once it's in the pages of the Times, its relevant again. In this case, we are talking about something controversial -- NBA players meeting for Bible study and prayers, as opposed to staying out late at night enjoying the bright lights and the other pleasures common among multimillionaire sports stars.
At the heart of the story is Andrew Lang, a former NBA player who now serves as a team chaplain -- which makes me wonder if he is now actually the Rev. Andrew Lang, an ordained minister. Why does Lang not receive a clergyperson's title, under Associated Press style? I don't know for sure, but I have noticed that this seems to happen more often with African-Americans than with white clergy, for some reason. Here's the opening:
ATLANTA -- Like so many of his N.B.A. peers, Andrew Lang chose to stay close to the game when his playing days came to an end. But the second act of his career did not relocate him behind a front-office desk or onto a coach’s chair or inside a broadcast booth.
It brought him, instead, to a small auxiliary locker room at Philips Arena, bare except for some padded folding chairs. There, before every Atlanta Hawks home game, Lang fulfills his responsibilities as the team’s chaplain, taking prayer requests and imparting a prepared message to players before they step onto the court.
Some nights, Lang might sit there alone. Some nights, he might find himself holding hands and praying with nearly a full N.B.A. squad. Whether or not anyone shows up, Lang has made it his duty for the last 14 years to be there, ready to help.
Truth be told, this story is surprisingly positive and well researched. But there are important holes in it.
Apparently, the chapel pro-level chapel tradition dates to 1979 and one of the key early players was All-Star forward Bobby Jones, long known for his work in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and similar networks. The story notes that the first small congregation included the legendary Julius "Doctor J" Erving and Chuck Daly, then an assistant coach with the 76ers.
So where did this story come from? I think we can see a hint in paragraph in which the Times notes that "all 30 N.B.A. teams have volunteer chaplains, with no guidance or oversight from the league." Uh-oh. That sounds dangerous, doesn't it? These meetings might, you know, be some form of free exercise of religious freedom, dealing with all kinds of controversial and judgmental doctrines.
So who opposes these meetings? There was some some controversy back when Jeff Van Gundy, then coach of the New York Knicks, claimed that the chapel services were distractions that could hurt a team. Lang noted that the players that frequently attended Knicks services -- Allan Houston, Kurt Thomas and Charlie Ward -- consistently avoided getting into trouble off the court. See what I mean about dangerous moral judgments?
Thus, readers are told:
Opposition to chapel services still exists, though it tends to be discreet. One former N.B.A. head coach, granted anonymity to speak freely on the subject, said that pregame chapel services were not uniformly productive.
“God’s not a good-luck charm,” he said.
He said that some players attended chapel because they felt peer pressure from teammates or coaches. And chaplains, he said, sometimes appeared to have ulterior motives, whether it was trying to make connections with the players or promoting their personal projects.
“If it’s not real, it can be worse than useless,” he said.
So what is the issue here and what information -- not opinion, information -- could have helped readers understand the issue explored in this report?
First of all, it would have helped to have known more about the denominations, or nondenominational ministries, that work with most of these chaplains. How many are actually ordained? How many have churches of their own? Why not provide these facts? Are these "generic" chapel services or what?
There is no mention of ministries involving Catholic priests, for example, and there are no references to mainline, progressive churches being involved. Is this story rooted in discomfort with evangelical Protestantism and, in particular, African-American churches that are truly evangelical or Pentecostal? A few simple facts about these chaplains would have helped.
If journalists say something linked to religious faith is controversial, and have to use anonymous voices to tell the story, then it is crucial to provide basic religious facts that shed light on the situation. It's journalism. Let readers know the basic facts. Please.