It was hard to find any relevant art to accompany this post about the recent New York Times feature that ran with this headline: "Football Among the Old Believers, in Alaska."
That's a compliment. This was a really unique subject for a news story.
I couldn't run the Times art, of course, because it's brand new and under copyright (and the newspaper didn't post a YouTube feature about the piece, as news organizations often do). The subject matter was so strange and specific that it was hard to find other art that combined the various subjects at the heart of the story. I mean, look at the second part of the double-decker headline:
Keeping a high school football team together is tough, between a Russian Orthodox sect leery of the outside world and the chores of life in an isolated village.
So we have high-school football, way up north, in a village that's home to a very specific "sect" -- I would have said "splinter group" -- linked to the Russian Orthodox faith that is a crucial part of the history of Alaska. Remote? We're talking 50 or 60 families on the Kenai Peninsula 200-plus miles south of Anchorage.
It's a classic old-faith wrestles with modernity tale, the kind of semi-National Geographic feature often written after a visit to Amish country.
What is missing? The whole point is that these people practice a bizarre faith that makes it hard to do "normal things" -- like play football -- in the "real" world. Readers are shown many symbolic details that illustrate what that looks like. The problem is that the Times team all but ignored the contents of the faith that defines these lives. It's like reading a sociological report about monks that ignores their prayers and worship. Imagine a story about members of the New York Philharmonic that ignores their love of music.
Here is the overture:
VOZNESENKA, Alaska -- The football players wore their black and yellow jerseys to class last Friday, a day before the home opener for Voznesenka School, the smallest high school in Alaska to field a team.
But a game required at least 11 players. And so far at practice this summer, the Cougars had fielded no more than 10. The roster is customarily thin at the beginning of the season in this lush and remote community where sports for boys and girls have progressed carefully, with an evolving balance of contemporary life and the old ways of tradition and religion.
Players were still trickling into school after a summer on commercial fishing boats, drift-netting for salmon with their fathers, brothers, uncles and cousins. For some it had been a record haul for sockeye, a variety of wild salmon known here as reds, and a number of players had been on the water for two months.
Practice began in late July, but it was haphazard. Five players showed up one day, six or seven the next. It went on that way, week after week.
Each absence was acutely felt at a school of 109 students, in prekindergarten through 12th grade, with only 29 in high school. The first game, scheduled on the road for Aug. 17, was canceled. It was Voznesenka’s first forfeit in the five seasons it has played 11-man football, after brief participation in the unofficial, eight-man version.
“Heartbreaking,” said Justin Zank, 34, Voznesenka’s football and wrestling coach.
You know that, at some point, there has to be a block of background material describing the history of the "Old Believers." There is one -- sort of.
If you are interested in the religion angle of this piece, it helps to pay close attention to the words in this passage -- such as "reforms," and "traditionalist" -- that appear to provide information, but actually fail to do so.
Voznesenka is a community of Old Believers, a secluded offshoot of the Russian Orthodox Church that resisted reforms in the mid-17th century and still adheres to traditionalist worship, customs, dietary restrictions and styles of dress.
The local church, with its onion dome, sits next to the school. All students speak English and Russian. Depending on the strategy of a particular football game, placards are sometimes held aloft on the sideline, signaling plays in Cyrillic. ...
Isolation has been long pursued by Old Believers in places like Siberia, China, Brazil, Canada, Oregon and -- beginning in the late 1960s -- Alaska, as they sought to practice their faith, avoid persecution and escape unwanted influences from the outside world.
In terms of history, that's it. What changed in the 17th century that was rejected by the Old Believers? Since worship is at the heart of Orthodox life, it would be good for readers to know what these believers refused to surrender, and why.
However, there are no signs -- in the published text -- that anyone from the Times attended any worship services or talked to anyone about them. As far as readers know, the young people at the heart of this story are taken to these services (and there are a lot of services) in chains and then locked to the walls. Who knows, they probably aren't even allowed to use smartphones during the rites. Are there young people who still believe? Can they talk?
... Football is of only secondary importance in these Old Believer villages. Sports are scheduled around more than 40 religious celebrations held each year. On Sundays, church begins as early as 2 a.m. and lasts four to six hours. And athletes have to adjust their diets according to certain restrictions.
Meat and dairy are prohibited on Wednesdays and Fridays. And the opening of the 2017 football season coincided in the Julian calendar with a two-week period of dietary restrictions, when fish was also mostly excluded, ahead of the Feast of the Assumption.
OK, I am an Orthodox guy myself, currently worshiping in a church with Russian roots. All of that sounds quite rigorous to me, but also familiar. In most Orthodox churches the priest would work with individual athletes to arrange fasting disciplines that balance health and religious practice. Maybe talk to a priest?
Again -- it would have been good, at some point, to talk about what these people believe and why they do what they do. How many of the young people stay? How many leave? What are the joys of this life, as well as the challenges?
Did anyone think to interview an Orthodox church historian about the contents of this faith?
A journalism hint: There is an Orthodox seminary just north of Manhattan. You can get to St. Vladimir's Orthodox Seminary by using the North Harlem train out of Grand Central Station. The experts may even have telephones.
In other words, this is a story about football, young people, remote village life and a very specific religious faith. What happened to the religion in this piece?
Read the story. Do you see any sign that the journalists involved in this piece were actually interested in the beliefs that shape the lives of these believers? The end result was a story with a very large hole in it. You might even say it is haunted by religious ghosts.