When athletes become evangelists
One of the big questions during last year’s National Football League playoffs was whether Tony Dungy of the Indianapolis Colts and Lovie Smith of the Chicago Bears would make it to the final game.
It was the stuff of headlines. After all, it would make history if two African-American head coaches reached the Super Bowl. However, both men went out of their way to stress that it was also symbolic that two devout Christians were poised to compete, as friends, on their sport’s biggest stage.
“I’m so happy for Lovie, who does things the right way, without cursing, and shows that things can be done differently,” Dungy said in a pre-game report by Baptist Press. “We give God all the credit.”
Dungy and Smith talked the talk and tried to walk the walk, while armies of mainstream journalists responded by ignoring most of the God talk.
Sportswriters never know quite what to do when athletes and coaches turn into preachers and evangelists. It’s an old tension, one that been around since the birth of what historians call “muscular Christianity” in mid-19th-century Victorian England.
Then, in the early 20th century, the “flying Scotsman,” Eric Liddell, proved that — with the right blend of skill and charisma — a superstar athlete could hold his own in the pulpit. The Olympic champion, whose story was later told in the Academy Award winning movie “Chariots of Fire,” inspired legions of athletes to dare to be evangelists, especially in youth rallies organized by Athletes in Action, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and similar groups.
So what are journalists supposed to do when gridiron giants start holding hands and forming prayer circles at midfield? It’s one thing to point in thanks toward heaven after a touchdown. Most journalists think it’s something else to mention Jesus Christ a dozen times a minute on live television.
Take, for example, Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow of Florida. The first words he uttered in his nervous acceptance speech were: “I’d just like to first start off by thanking my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave me the ability to play football.”
This quotation didn’t appear in any mainstream news reports, wrote sportswriter Kathy Orton at WashingtonPost.com. Her “On Faith” column ran with this blunt headline: “Tebow Talks God, Media Ignores Him.”
Orton noted that columnist Michael Wilbon offered this explanation for why journalists ignored Tebow’s testimony.
“People are entitled to express their religious beliefs whenever and wherever,” said Wilbon, known for his work with the Post and ESPN. “But a newspaper (or network) has an obligation to serve a community of people that have all kinds of religious beliefs. … There are times when we explore the relationship of competition and spirituality … but I know I’m not going to be hijacked by those feelings, to let someone preach their beliefs when they’re not important to what’s going on.”
In other words, one person’s bold “evangelism” is another’s pushy “proselytizing.”
There also are political implications lurking in the background, in an age in which recent U.S. elections — decided by razor-thin margins — have pivoted on moral and religious issues. Thus, it was controversial when the late Rev. Reggie White and other black superstars began speaking out on issues of marriage, family and sexuality. Dungy has made similar, but more graceful, remarks rejecting same-sex unions.
Finally, any mixture of rhetoric and hypocrisy is sure to repel many sportswriters who study locker room realities year after year.
After all, it was quarterback Michael Vick who — when facing jail time — suddenly announced that “through this situation, I found Jesus and asked him for forgiveness and turned my life over to God. … I will redeem myself. I have to.”
Nevertheless, Orton has decided that her colleagues need to realize that faith is a crucial element in many dramas and, thus, it’s wrong to edit that out of the news. It’s appropriate to ask an athlete like Tebow hard questions and then quote his answers.
“I’ve also seen plenty of athletes who say one thing and do another, and it’s hard for me to be anything but skeptical,” she said. “Maybe that is why so many sportswriters shy away from writing about religion. Because the moment we do, it comes back to haunt us when that athlete is discovered to be less than a man (or woman) of God.”