football

Hail Mary passes and Lombardi in daily Mass: Catholicism ignored in NFL 100 coverage

Hail Mary passes and Lombardi in daily Mass: Catholicism ignored in NFL 100 coverage

The NFL turns 100 this season. You may have noticed the “100” anniversary logo on footballs, jerseys and in TV commercials. You may have noticed all of those Peyton Manning mini-documentaries.

This anniversary has also given newspapers, sports sites and TV stations a chance to look back at the players and coaches who made NFL history.

Exactly what is included in those histories matters. Mentioning statistics, great plays, Super Bowl performances and impact on the sport are all a given. What about what players and coaches believed? What about their motivations? es, how about religion and the impact it left on the game? These are very important questions that have not been answered fully (or some cases even explored) in many of the retrospectives that have been rolled out this season.

Football and religion are not such strange bedfellows. The league has been — and currently is — loaded with outspoken Christians. Evangelicals have included Tim Tebow, Kurt Warner, Reggie White, Tony Dungy, Nick Foles and Carson Wentz. There have also been some prominent men who also happen to be devout Roman Catholics to make gridiron history. Harrison Butker, Matt Birk, Philip Rivers, Don Shula, Roger Staubach and Vince Lombardi are a few notable ones.

Before players took a knee to protest the national anthem, it wasn’t so unusual to see them praying before the opening kickoff. And, of course, some of those kneeling protesters have been praying.

It’s the faith of some of these men that has been overlooked — whether intentionally or not — in the “NFL 100” celebrations. Let’s look specifically at Lombardi, the great Green Bay Packers coach.

Under Lombardi, the team won five NFL championships in a span of just seven years during the 1960s (including three in a row). Those victories also included winning the first two Super Bowls. After all, Super Bowl champions are presented with the Lombardi trophy.

Lombardi isn’t only arguably the best coach in NFL history, but he was a devout Catholic who wasn’t shy about his faith. Major mainstream newspapers and TV networks have largely ignored the Lombardi faith angle.

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Touchdown! Oklahoman scores with smart feature on Sunday Sooners game combining two faiths

Touchdown! Oklahoman scores with smart feature on Sunday Sooners game combining two faiths

If you follow college football, you probably know that Oklahoma opened with an impressive win Sunday night, highlighted by 508 yards of total offense by Alabama transfer quarterback Jalen Hurts.

One game into the season (a small sample size, no doubt), it even seems possible that a different Sooners QB could claim the Heisman Trophy for the third straight year.

To which I say: Boomer Sooner!

Here in Oklahoma, The Oklahoman offered readers a special treat on the front page Sunday: a smart news-feature by longtime sports columnist Jenni Carlson on the Sooners playing on what many consider the Lord’s Day. (FYI: Carlson recently celebrated 20 years with the newspaper, which sparked a tribute column by colleague Berry Tramel.)

I loved the headline, which captures the storyline perfectly:

Why the Sooners playing on Sunday combines two religions — football and faith

Carlson sets the scene this way:

NORMAN — Joe Castiglione knew playing a home football game on a Sunday might cause a crimson and cream kerfuffle.

He understands, after all, where he is.

The Bible Belt.

Before deciding to move the season opener against Houston to Sunday, the Oklahoma athletic director talked to faith leaders, devout Christians and Sooner fans about a home game on a holy day. Would it be OK? Or would it be sacrilege?

During his conversations and his research earlier this year, Castiglione came across one tidbit that helped ease his mind — three years ago, Notre Dame played on Sunday.

“OK, now,” he remembers thinking, “this throws me off.”

The most predominant Catholic university in America played football on a Sunday, and it didn’t cause wailing and gnashing of teeth. Castiglione would know; he’s Catholic.

“I probably made some assumptions on what I had always heard, always thought … were the concerns of the day,” he said. “And then found they really weren’t.”

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In the jaw-dropping story of an NFL coach's search for his family, glimpses of faith emerge

In the jaw-dropping story of an NFL coach's search for his family, glimpses of faith emerge

Even without a religion angle, this would be an incredible story.

I'm talking about ESPN's in-depth narrative on an NFL coach's long search for his birth parents.

"Absolutely amazing." "Unbelievable." "Just astounding." That's how various readers have described the piece.

Others have seen God at work in the outcome.

"Wow Just, wow," said one reader. "This story has all the feels. The God of Heaven watches over us all. No, that doesnt mean life is all roses & picnics. But His hand can be seen...for those who have 'eyes that they might see..'" 

"This ESPN story about @coachdmc finding his birth parents is absolutely worth the read," said another. "Someone recently said to me that God is doing more behind your back than in front of your face. This story says yes and amen to that."

Intrigued yet?

I'm doing my best not to give away any spoilers, in case you haven't read the story yet and would like to check it out before I offer a few hints.

Basic storyline: A young mother gives up her baby for adoption. The baby grows up to become a football player and later a coach. All the while, although he loves his adoptive mother, he searches for his birth parents. He eventually finds them — and it turns out he had known his birth father almost his entire life. 

But yes, faith makes various cameo appearances as the ESPN writer, Sarah Spain, allows the spiritual angle to unfold naturally.

Early in the story, the adoptive mother references God:

By March of that year, Jon Kenneth Briggs had been renamed Deland Scott McCullough, and he was living at home with his new parents, Adelle and A.C.

"We were still in love, a good couple," Comer says. "We went to church, partied, went to cookouts. We were working together and doing this together and wanting to make a home for our children. We knew that God's hand was in it. Deland came so fast to us. We knew that it was meant to be. Both of us."

But things changed quickly. Comer's father had a stroke, and though A.C. wanted to put him in a nursing home, Comer brought her dad to live with the family in Youngstown. Their marriage deteriorated, and when Deland was just 2 years old, A.C. moved out.

"They went through a lot of hurt and disappointment, but they took it," Comer says of her sons. "I said, 'God gives you an example of what to be and what not to be. You have to make the choice.' And that's all I had to say, and they got it."

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You like that! ESPN gets religion (a little bit) on Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins

You like that! ESPN gets religion (a little bit) on Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins

Hey, ESPN "got religion" for a change.

A little bit, anyway.

In an in-depth piece on "The roots of Kirk Cousins' uneasy marriage with the Redskins," ESPN The Magazine allows the NFL quarterback — known for his "You like that!" rallying cry — to talk about his "Lord."

Based on the context, I'm assuming Cousins' Lord must be Jesus.

But strangely enough, ESPN never actually elaborates on the quotes. 

So if the glass half-full or half-empty here? You tell me.

To make a case for half-full, this is, after all, a sports article, not a theological exploration. Even if the first holy ghost shows up in the first sentence.

A big chunk of the opening:

KIRK COUSINS WAS glowing. He'd spent months praying and patiently waiting for a moment like this, and now it had improbably arrived on Dec. 16, 2012. With their playoff hopes on the ropes, the Redskins had turned to the rookie backup in desperation after starter Robert Griffin III injured his knee. Cousins responded in his first career start by throwing for 329 yards and a pair of touchdowns in a comeback win against the Browns.
The visitors locker room in Cleveland was buzzing. Cousins was standing by his locker, receiving celebratory handshakes and backslaps from teammates, when Redskins owner Dan Snyder and team president Bruce Allen entered the room-and essentially breezed right past him. Snyder, according to a witness, patted Cousins on the shoulder and kept walking.
Snyder and Allen were on their way to see Griffin, the dynamic multi-threat quarterback who was seen as maybe the future of the NFL. Griffin seemed annoyed that the team had given the start to Cousins, and would later confess as much to reporters. He felt his knee was healthy enough for him to play; the team's medical staff felt otherwise. Snyder and Allen were aware of the tension and sought to reassure Griffin that no matter what Cousins did, RG3 was still the Chosen One. Cousins is polite and charming but also a fiery competitor who has been dismissed his entire football career as "just a guy." On that day, he soaked up the scene and tried not to let the snub bug him. His teammates, however, were furious. When head coach Mike Shanahan heard what happened, he paid a visit to Snyder's office. "Kirk is a strong guy, and he can handle it, but his teammates are pissed at you," Shanahan says he told Snyder. "That's not the way you handle things. If you do that, you run the risk of losing the football team in the future."

Much later, as ESPN contemplates Cousins' future with the Redskins, the faith angle creeps into the piece:

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Hey New York Times: Why visit the 'Old Believers' in Alaska and then ignore what they believe?

Hey New York Times: Why visit the 'Old Believers' in Alaska and then ignore what they believe?

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.

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Sin and scandal at Ole Miss: This is what happens when outspoken Christian coach calls escort service

Sin and scandal at Ole Miss: This is what happens when outspoken Christian coach calls escort service

Jesus. God. Church. Faith.

Read ESPN's in-depth, behind-the-scenes account of the Ole Miss football coach's resignation — titled "How a phone call to an escort service led to Hugh Freeze's downfall" — and you won't come across any of the above words.

"Sin," too, is missing from ESPN's 2,400-plus words.

Granted, nobody expects a deep exploration of theology by ESPN. Right? The fact that the story focuses on NCAA football is certainly expected and appropriate.

But — and this is a big "but" — it's difficult to give readers a full picture of Freeze and just how far his reputation has plunged without mentioning his outspoken Christianity. More on that in a moment.

First, though, ESPN's dramatic opening provides important background:

STARKVILLE, Miss. -- The man who helped take down Ole Missfootball coach Hugh Freeze is a lifelong Mississippi State fan who attended his first Bulldogs game 37 years ago and has the university's logo tattooed on his left hand.
But he insists he never set out to bring down the Rebels and their coach.
It just kind of happened that way.
When Steve Robertson was sifting through Freeze's phone records on July 5 as part of his research for an upcoming book he's writing, he discovered phone calls he expected to see. There were mostly calls to recruits and assistant coaches.
But when Robertson saw a phone number with a 313 area code, he was stunned by what he discovered in a Google search. A call made on Jan. 19, 2016, lasting one minute, was made to a number connected with several advertisements for female escorts. Robertson then asked his wife to read him the telephone number again to make sure it was correct. The escort service ads came up again.
Robertson called Thomas Mars, an attorney who is representing former Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt in his defamation lawsuit against Ole Miss. Mars had been introduced to Robertson through a third party he found while doing online research into Nutt's case. They've since developed a close working relationship, talking on the phone several times a day and sharing what they found in their investigations.
"He asked me to fill in some blanks," Robertson said.
When Robertson told Mars to enter the phone number in Google, Mars was silent for nearly a minute before yelling an expletive in excitement.
Ole Miss had unwittingly provided information that would lead to Freeze's resignation.

The rest of the story is worth a read if you have time before finishing the rest of this post.

But the closest the piece gets to any religion is a mention of "Sunday school" — and not the kind at my church:

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Tampa football team sues to pray, but media still don’t score a touchdown

Tampa football team sues to pray, but media still don’t score a touchdown

The Lancers of Cambridge Christian School may have lost their championship game; but in court, they have just begun to fight. The Tampa school this week made good on its threat to sue for the right to lead public prayer before a game.

In January, the Florida High School Athletic Association denied them the mic and speakers at Orlando's Citrus Bowl, even though they were facing another Christian school -- University Christian of Jacksonville. Mainstream media coverage varied greatly, as I wrote in a January GR post.

Unfortunately, they did little better this time around.

The fracas turns on whether the FHSAA, as a "state actor" -- commissioned by the state legislature to regulate high school sports -- is responsible for speech flowing through public-address systems at stadiums like the Citrus Bowl (renamed Camping World Stadium). If so, they argue, they can't allow religious talk like prayer.

Cambridge Christian, as you can guess, is standing on the First Amendment rights of free speech and exercise of religion.  They argue also that the athletic association is doing the opposite of the First Amendment by opposing religious free speech.

In January, the Tampa Tribune did much better than the Tampa Bay Times. Now that the Times has bought the Trib, their better side seems to have taken over -- at least with this story:

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Houston Chronicle team shows (again) that it just doesn't 'get' the struggles at Baylor

Houston Chronicle team shows (again) that it just doesn't 'get' the struggles at Baylor

How many Southern Baptists are there in the greater Houston area, out of a population of four to six million people?

This is not an easy question to answer, just poking around online. It doesn't help, of course, that Texas Baptists are a rather divided bunch and things have been that way for several decades. But one thing is sure, there are hundreds of Southern Baptist congregations in the area and several of them are, even in Donald Trump terms, YYHHUUGGEE.

Now, the important journalism question -- when looking at Houston Chronicle coverage of Baylor University issues -- is whether there are any Southern Baptists, or even former Southern Baptists, who work on this newspaper's copy desk or in its suite of management offices.

Can I get a witness?!? Is there anybody there who knows anything about events in recent Southern Baptist life and how they affect the news?

It would appear that the answer is "no." I base that judgement on the following passage in a rather bizarre Chronicle report about the current Baylor crisis (it's much bigger than a football crisis) about sexual assaults involving Baylor students.

Baylor is the nation’s largest Baptist school and has deep Christian roots. As the university has moved into the modern era -- allowing dancing on campus, adding non-Baptist board members and, most recently, removing a long-standing ban on “homosexual acts” -- it has angered some Baptist leaders. In recent years, school officials have acted to dilute the influence of the state’s Baptist convention. In return, the convention has cut its financial support by millions.
Baylor leaders must walk a fine line.

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So far, news media avoiding big faith questions in Baylor sexual assault case

So far, news media avoiding big faith questions in Baylor sexual assault case

As long-time GetReligion readers know, I am a conflicted Baylor University graduate. I had great times there and rough times, as well. The later were almost all linked to attempts by student journalists, including me, to do journalism about subjects that cause tension on all campuses (think Penn State), but especially at private, religious colleges and universities.

What kinds of subjects? Well, like sexual assaults. Hold that thought.

These ties that bind have led to lots of GetReligion work because Baylor is frequently in the news. Open the search engine here, enter "Baylor" and you will find pages of material about press coverage of complicated events at my alma mater. Here's how one early post opened:

A long, long time ago, I was a journalism major at Baylor University, which, as you may know, is the world's largest Baptist university. Baylor is located in Waco, Texas, which many folks in the Lone Star state like to call "Jerusalem on the Brazos." It didn't take long, as a young journalist, to realize that stories linking Baylor to anything having to do with sin and sex were like journalistic catnip in mainstream news newsrooms.

Or how about this language, drawn from one of my national "On Religion" columns?

Every decade or so Baylor University endures another media storm about Southern Baptists, sex and freedom of the press. Take, for example, the historic 1981 Playboy controversy. It proved that few journalists can resist a chance to use phrases such as "seminude Baylor coeds pose for Playboy." ...
I know how these Baylor dramas tend to play out, because in the mid-1970s there was another blowup in which students tried to write some dangerously candid news reports. In that case, I was one of the journalism students who got caught in the crossfire.

So now we have another Baylor controversy in the news, potentially a scandal, that involves sin, sex and, wait for it, college football. As you would expect, there has been coverage. But has the word "Baptist" played a significant role? This is an important question, since Baylor has plenty of critics that consider it a hive for right-wing fundamentalists, while others believe it has compromised and modernized too much.

In terms of hard news, the key story is from The Waco Tribune-Herald.

 

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