GetReligion readers know that I am a big sports fan, even during these days of NFL confusion. I lived in greater Baltimore for 12 years and followed the Ravens quite closely.
So, yes, I watched the NFL Hall of Fame speeches the other day, in part because Ray "God's linebacker" Lewis was a first-ballot pick and he spoke at the end of the program.
Now, you knew that Lewis was going to go into full-tilt preacher mode when given this kind of platform. Right?
So imagine my rather cynical surprise when I picked up my Knoxville News Sentinel the next day and saw this headline on the Associated Press story covering this event: "Hall of Fame speeches get political." That was a shorter version of the AP's own headline: "Hall of Fame speeches get political in Canton, Chattanooga."
Ah come on. Yes, there was obvious political implications to many of the remarks. I get that.
But several of the speakers packed their speeches with so much Godtalk that I thought the NFL police were going to have to rush in to prevent them from ending with an altar call. Many of the most striking remarks, in terms of politics, were mixed with religious content. I mean, Lewis -- in a plea for safer schools -- even talked about prayer in American schools.
This was a classic example of one of GetReligion's major themes: "Politics is real. Religion? Not so much." Here is the AP overture, which is long -- but essential. You have to see how hard AP worked to stress the political over the spiritual.
CANTON, Ohio (AP) -- Just as the demonstrations of players during the national anthem have become a means of expression for NFL players, the stage at the Hall of Fame inductions often turns into a political platform. It certainly did Saturday night.
Ray Lewis did so with his words, and Randy Moss with his tie.
There even were political tones with a different target 600 miles away during Terrell Owens’ speech at his personal celebration of entering the pro football shrine.
Lewis was a man on the prowl as he concluded proceedings in Canton, just as he was on the field as the greatest linebacker of his generation. He eschewed the lectern, wearing a cordless microphone for his 33-minute oratory focusing on “hope, faith and love,” on “family, honor, legacy.”
Of course, Lewis was quoting First Corinthians 13:13, one of a tsunami of biblical references woven into his long, long, speech-sermon. That verse is part of one of the most quoted passages in the New Testament, which ends like this:
Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away.
When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.
And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
To which the Associated Press team said, sort of: Hey! Which political party says that? Let's read on:
“Our country needs real leaders,” Lewis said. “We need people that are willing to step up and take action. We need people willing to fight for what is good and what is right.
“How do we react to challenges in our country right now? Think about this,” he added, looking around at his fellow Hall of Famers. “We can go from being legends to building a legacy bigger than football, bigger than sports. I want us to work together to really take on these challenges, to look at our goals and what unites us. Surely, there is something.”
While he never specifically mentioned anyone or any political party, Lewis delivered a message about unity that stretched far beyond the football field.
My basic question: Was there anyone in the editing chain for this news report who has ever attended a black church and heard a preacher take flight with -- metaphorically speaking -- a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other?
From one end to the other, Lewis framed his Hall of Fame remarks in Godtalk.
At some point, readers who care about these issues need to read the whole text -- which rambles all over the place, because this was a vocal performance, not an essay. Click here for the ESPN transcript. Here is a crucial -- long -- passage near the end. See any faith language here?
How can we come together? The answer is simple. The answer is love. Hope, faith and love and the greatest is love. I'm talking about a selfless love. A true love from my mother and my God. The love described by Dr. Martin Luther King. The love that sacrifices and is defined by action taken for others. The actions of stepping up and being a leader. It's no different than we all did to get here. We rose to the challenge, week after week for the love of the game and for the love of our team. That love just doesn't go away when we retire. It's still in us burning to be used.
"I'm talking to you at home, too. Martin said everybody can be great because anybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subs [subjects] and verb agree to serve. You don't have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. The next 30 days, I want you to think about why you get up in the morning. What's the most important to you in this life? Are you living every day to make this world better?
"We must come together as brothers and sisters. If I keep my hands separated, anybody can come and bend my fingers. But I promise you if I put my fists together, there is nothing we can't do. Think what we can do if we work together as a country. For me, my guiding purpose is to carry our God's destiny for my life. How do I do that? Not just loving my neighbors as I love myself but by challenging people to walk with me and teaching our nation how to love each other again. What wouldn't I do to make this happen?
Lewis was not alone. The often controversial Randy Moss also talked about his faith, at crucial moments in his speech.
But the day's other stunner was the riveting remarks made by Brian Dawkins of the Philadelphia Eagles.
Yes, he courageously talked about his near-death encounter with alcohol, depression and suicide. Click here to read the Washington Post coverage of the Dawkin's speech, since his remarks didn't make it into the AP's more "political" approach. Here's the top of the Post report (a story that did include several faith references):
On the weekend that marked the crowning achievement of his pro football career, Brian Dawkins paused to take stock of the low points, the moments that, he said, nearly brought him to suicide.
Dawkins, the former Philadelphia Eagles and Denver Broncos safety, delivered a powerful message about his battle with depression ... at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. “There’s hope. There is something on the other side of this,” he told the crowd in an emotional 22-minute speech. “Don’t get caught up where you are. Don’t stay where you are. Keep moving. Keep pushing through.”
At times, Dawkins said, he was in such a difficult place that he considered the way in which to kill himself so that his family could still collect his life insurance. As a new husband, father and NFL player, he struggled with the pressure of managing all three roles.
Yes, that issue was the headline out of his speech. That was the valid lede.
But look where Dawkins chose to start (click here for the transcript), with his very first words at the podium. This was a speech about pain and repentance. But it also was baptized in words of thanksgiving.
First of all, hallelujah!
As you look on my shirt, it says, 'Blessed by the Best.' And throughout my life, the Lord has blessed me with so many individuals, so if it was up to me Hall of Fame, this is what I would do with my jacket if you would appease me. I would like to put every last one of the individuals that I told you was special in my life in my jacket somewhere, so every time that I put this thing on it reminds me, it reminds me visually and emotionally that I did not do this by myself because I did not do this by myself. I did not.
Also, what about that reference in the Post story to there being something better "on the other side of this," on the other side of the pain and struggle? Check out the context of those thoughts, in the full Dawkins text:
Don't settle in this life. Don't settle. Don't allow yourself to settle. Push through the pain. On the other side of that pain is something special for you to go in the next level of what God has for you. Now see, my (Hall of Fame) number is 313, right. So, three, the first three, I think about the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit. That's the Trinity, right? Second 13 I think about my birthday because I was born on October 13, 1973. Now, if you (add) three plus one plus three, I believe that's seven. And so many of you believe that to be the number of completion, right? So this chapter of my life is complete, it is. But I believe that this next chapter is going to be something special with His guidance. And the only way I can have that thought in my head is the fact that I think and I believe that there's going to be some painful things to come. It is. I know it is. But I'm prepared for the pain. I'm prepared to push through it. I'm a persevere through it with His help and His guidance. And with that purpose and with that pain, I'm going to be able to bless so many more people with what God has put inside of me.
So, was he telling people to be brave and push on -- with their own power? Was he offering a kind of gridiron existentialism?
No way. Why strip away the context?
Now, if you have doubts about what I have written here, please watch the speeches and let me know what you think.
Were there political implications of some of these remarks?
Yes. Of course. But, as is often the case, it was impossible to separate the words about issues in the here and now from the testimonies several athletes offered about their faith and their grasp in issues that they would say are eternal.
So here's that headline, once again: "Hall of Fame speeches get political."