Commentary: Is There Room for Religion in Sports Media?

by - Correspondent -
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It has long been said that football in the South is a religion. But how welcome is religion in college football? Or in sports in general? Or in mainstream media?

It's a question which has many answers, and yet may have none. One thing, though, is without question:

Any public talk of religion, especially where amateur sports are concerned, is talk littered with land mines - mostly scattered by the PC (Politically Correct) Police, watchdogged by groups such as the ACLU, and protected by a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the separation of church and state.

It is the entire political correctness movement, after all, which has made it a virtual sin to have an original opinion or dare tell an obvious truth - all in the name of making sure this person or that group isn't offended.

And at the same time, it should be noted that these few hundred words shouldn't be taken as an attempt to offend those who fall into the PC category. Not at all. But they do represent an original, strong opinion, and in today's world that's enough to be considered more dangerous than a chainsaw-wielding movie villain.

That alone guarantees someone will be offended. So be it.

However, one gets the idea that with a little more black and white reality in our daily lives, there wouldn't be so much gray area where race relations, politics and religion are concerned.

Yet anytime a coach or athlete speaks out about his or her faith - particularly if that faith is Christianity - recent history shows those individuals will be either ignored or castigated.

Granted, athletes themselves bring on warranted skepticism from time to time.

One moment Joe Tailback is thanking God for allowing him to score the go-ahead touchdown. The next minute our hero is trash-talking an opposing player with language so vile a longshoreman would be embarrassed.

Such behavior is a byproduct of today's society, where it has become acceptable to use religion, morals, ethics, etc. at one's own convenience.

But what about the sports figure who truly is bound by religion, led by faith and puts all his or her stock in the idea that to be Christian is indeed to be Christ-like? Further, what if that person refuses to apologize for having such personal convictions, and isn't afraid to use his or her public forum to send an occasional message?

Those media members working the Clemson beat come across just such a person every day this time of year.

Tigers' head coach Tommy Bowden professes to be a Christian - a devout Southern Baptist, in fact - and isn't afraid to draw Biblical comparisons to real-life situations. His fiery furnace-to-Lazuras comparison to his team's sudden turnaround last season was good for both copy and a laugh.

But Bowden also draws on more serious examples which reflect his personal beliefs. And it's interesting to see how the media treats these little tidbits.

A week or so ago, in response to a question about concerns that his starting five offensive lineman hadn't been named, and therefore hadn't worked together very often as a unit, Bowden likened the situation to raising children.

The best type of home, he said, was a two-parent home. He then took it a step further, clarifying that by two parents he meant male and female. That was the best family situation. A one-parent home would be second best.

The idea was that the type of work his offensive line was getting at the time was okay, but was only the second most preferable option.

Yet when one writer quoted Bowden verbatim in his post-practice story, his editor sliced out the quote and left it on the cutting room floor. The next day's paper had no sign of Bowden's parable.

Then earlier this week, while talking to the media following practice, Bowden made mention of the fact that two of his players had been baptized the previous weekend, bringing to three to total number to "take the dunk," as he said, in the last two weeks.

Yet of all the writers present, only this scribe and one other chose to include the mention in our notes. The rest of the group, for one reason or another, chose not to run it at all.

One writer, it must be pointed out, was saving the information for a feature story to come later in the week.

But for the most part Bowden's statement didn't draw a sniff from the local media.

Yet two years ago when he made an obvious joke about being wary of hiring new defensive coordinator John Lovett because Lovett is Catholic, a mini-firestorm broke out. Bowden was hounded by the media until he was virtually forced to explain the whole thing was a joke and semi-apologized for causing the stir.

Ironically, many of the some folks who wrote about the politically incorrect remark were the same ones standing around Bowden when he made the initial comment, laughing right along with him.

A classic case of selective reporting.

But do I blame the writers? Some perhaps, but for the most part no.

Most know their beat well, understand what is or isn't news and usually make good judgment calls on such matters. They interact with Bowden and cover him fairly, religious differences aside.

But reporters also know the folks who run their publications are in the business of selling newspapers and - more importantly - advertising.

Offend a client, you lose an account. Lose an account, the bottom line suffers.

What we're left with, then, is a sometimes-sanitized version of the news which still tells the story, but only the part of the story ownership wants you to see.

I know this first hand. Of the three publications for whom I write, two ran the baptism note just as I wrote it.

The third cut it completely from the story.

Whether or not a coach or an athlete should use his or her position to showcase religious beliefs is debated virtually every day. But there are laws on the books which keep those like Bowden tap-dancing in public where religion is concerned.

Anything church or prayer-oriented, regardless of the faith, must be strictly voluntary and team-led. Coaches can have no direct involvement or influence over such matters. Some have even had the use of team chaplains challenged in court.

Given a chance to address many of these issues, Bowden searched for the right words.

What he wanted to say, and what he ultimately said, proved to be markedly different. He ended up with a statement about understanding what he can and can't say or do in his job because of laws, the ACLU, etc.

But he also made it plain that he understands to Whom he is ultimately responsible, an understanding no law or politically correct attack apparently can cause to waver.

So the question remains unanswered. Is there room for religion in sports and sports media?

Like everything else, I suppose we'll know the final score when The Clock expires.

Dan Scott covers Clemson University for the Seneca Daily Journal/Clemson Messenger. He also hosts SportsTalk from 9 a.m.-Noon, Monday-Friday, on WCCP-Fm, 104.9. Click here for Dan Scott's SportsTalk discussion board.

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