Believe it or not, college football season is days away. As always, this opens up a whole new playing field on which religion-news ghosts can play.
In fact, the game has already started. Several GetReligion readers have written to ask for my commentary on a new ESPN: The Magazine piece that ran with this epic double-decker headline:
The Lightness of Being Christian McCaffrey
Stanford star running back Christian McCaffrey, who broke Barry Sanders’ collegiate single-season all-purpose yardage record last year, is on a quest to dispel the misconceptions and stereotypes about athletes, both black and white.
This is another one of those in-depth "We will tell you who this person really is" features. You can tell that at the very top, with this novelty, first-person, talk-to-the-reader opening:
QUICK: WHAT DO you see when you look at Christian McCaffrey? Don't think. Just answer. Say it out loud -- commit to it.
OK, next question: How confident are you in your answer -- that what you say you see, and what you see, are one and the same?
One hundred percent, no doubt. Because the answer is as straightforward as the question is stupid, right? He's an athlete, after all, a visually explicit human being. Call up a YouTube highlight. The who and the what become obvious in five seconds.
At this particular moment, I happen to be watching a Christian McCaffrey high school highlight on YouTube ... while in the presence of the living, breathing, real-time Christian McCaffrey.
Let's turn this around for the ESPN crew: OK, when you look at Christian McCaffrey, who and what do YOU see? What about his name? What about those high-school videos with him playing at Valor High Christian school near Denver? What about his active, outspoken Christian parents, including his NFL pro dad? Might these factors play a role in this in-depth story probing the mystery that is McCaffrey?
Apparently not. Here is a sample of the content in this totally faith-free ESPN report on this young Christian named Christian. This scene is set on an airplane:
The intensity of this kid! There's an immersion and stillness and deep rhythmic groove he achieves as he traces with his right index finger the motions plotted out for him and his teammates while also quietly incanting their mnemonic tethers. White. Sixty. Ox. Robin. One row over, one of McCaffrey's teammates, smirking, unburdens himself. It's silent but deadly -- a weaponized, wet-velvet, all-but-visible wave of flatulence that warps the air of the cabin. I exclaim Save us from Satan while pulling my shirt collar over my nose and mouth. Others around me do the same (more or less). But not McCaffrey. No, McCaffrey is in his bubble, impervious, tracing, incanting, learning, maintaining his rhythm: After "finishing" a given play, he moves on, then returns exactly five minutes later to test his retention.
It's not the intensity that I'm loath to disturb but the earnestness. It somehow seems of a piece with his regard for the flight attendant making the safety announcement, quietly touching in the same way. I table my voice recorder for the moment and open a notebook. Perhaps because McCaffrey happens to be a pretty good self-taught pop-song pianist (again, see YouTube), I scribble this mincing fancy: Like a conservatory piano student working his way through a Chopin ?tude. The instant I do, though, another, even less appetizing, phrase bubbles up to consciousness. That phrase.
He's a student of the game. You know it well. We all do, and what it's code for: He's white.
If you followed college football last year, you may that there were debates about whether McCaffrey failed to receive his fair share of votes for the Heisman Trophy because, well, white guys are not supposed to be great running backs, wide receivers, kick returners, etc. McCaffrey is all of that. This is a provocative and valid angle for a story.
So, yes, Mr. First-Person ESPN Man, all of your points are valid about race and athletics. Narrow-minded folks tend to say that black athletes are (hint, hint) super gifted and talented. White stars are (hint, hint) focused, highly determined and, well, really smart. There are all kinds of myths here to explore.
How about this one: Christians are rarely highly competitive and physically tough. You know, like that low-key Tim Tebow guy. Or because of their moral standards they may struggle to get along with their teammates, since they are more interested in churches than bars. Like that Russell Wilson guy with the Seattle Seahawks.
The problem, once again, is not that the ESPN feature doesn't have a valid angle. It's that ESPN is only interested in the parts of Christian McCaffrey that, well, the ESPN team chooses to see.
Also, this piece follows in the wake of a major Sports Illustrated feature on McCaffrey and his highly gifted family -- the two stories cannot be separated -- that wove a few references to faith into the fabric of their lives, right where it belongs.
The bottom line: With this family, you simply cannot ignore the faith element. I mean, what did they name this young man?
So that recent SI piece: What do we see there?
In pads and a helmet, McCaffrey is a bulky blur. In person, he's surprisingly short and top-heavy, as if the torso of a larger man were grafted onto a smaller man's body. At six feet and 195 pounds he looks more like a wrestler than a sprinter, provided the wrestler were in a boy band. With blue eyes, a cresting wave of blond hair and a square jaw, he does not lack for female admirers. Nor does he lack for attention, and fans are quick to project upon him. Because he is a relatively small, white running back, he represents all small white guys. Because he has been underestimated throughout his life -- assumed to be the kicker at football camps -- he represents underdogs everywhere. Because he is an Academic All-America at Stanford, he carries the flag for smart kids. Throw in his Christian faith and his stoic, almost military bearing, and he's what Middle America might conjure were it to create the perfect Running Back Action Hero, a noble young man who could win the Rose Bowl by day and infiltrate enemy camps at night.
And what about other major figures in his life that have made young Christian the person he is? In addition to his parents, there is that coach at Valor High Christian, the man who prays for Christian McCaffrey (actually for several McCaffreys) all the time:
Rod Sherman is the coach. His first words regarding the McCaffreys are: "God has really blessed us." The latest, Luke, is already on the radar of major colleges. It is not inconceivable that all four brothers will end up in the NFL at the same time, a skinnier, less meat-heady version of the Gronkowski clan. (A few weeks ago Max became the first, signing as a free agent with the Raiders after going undrafted this spring.) Sherman's one complaint: "I told Ed and Lisa once, The only problem is you didn't procreate more!"
Christian seldom got more than 20 carries and at times sat out the second half, but according to Sherman he never once complained. When the team voted on captains before Christian's senior season, the coach says, "pretty much everybody had Christian first." But Christian said, "We don't need captains, we're all in this together," so they were all co-captains. Says Sherman, "He has the ability to make himself less to make others great."
Once again let me stress: The goal of the ESPN feature was -- supposedly -- to get to the heart of McCaffrey's character, his strengths as a person. Why is he who he is? If that is the goal, then why ignore the faith element? Why ignore his name?
So let me ask the ESPN team:
QUICK: WHAT DO you see when you look at Christian McCaffrey?
FIRST IMAGE: From Twitter page of Christian McCaffrey