Sports Illustrated has come to my mailbox for nearly 40 years. I hope it comes for 40 more. But I also hope whomever is assigning the stories in the future begins to think more about the readers than their political and social agendas.
Super Bowl week featured a cover of a praying Ray Lewis rising from the water, and a cover story by New York Times’ religion columnist Mark Oppenheimer on Christians in the NFL. The story was enough to cause PJMedia writer Andrew Klavan to declare he would not renew his SI subscription, and most serious Christian athletes are almost certain to have at least some problems with the piece.
Which led me to wonder why this writer was picked to write that piece? So I tracked down Oppenheimer and hosted him on Thursday’s radio show for a two hour talk about his piece, his own religious background, and the subject of faith and football.
The transcript of the interview is here. The emails from listeners who stayed in their cars in driveways until a break when they could rush into their homes to keep listening confirm it was a very good conversation. Football and God? A Harvard radio host and a Yalie Bonesman-debater-turned New York Times columnist? An evangelical Roman Catholic Presbyterian Browns fan and a cross-country loving soccer-coach Conservative Jew? What could go wrong?
This same week a collection of on-air debates I have hosted between the most prominent of the new atheists –Hitchens and Dawkins and others—and skilled Christian apologists appeared as an eBook, titled Talking with Pagans. I am thus used to navigating the faith space and to the vast gaps that exist between believers of all sorts.
I enjoy arraying sharply divergent viewpoints against each other and allowing for a full and fair debate between them. A series of long debates serves a quite different role than does the SI feature story in a week devoted to a sports’ biggest game. Talking with Pagans is supposed to provoke, educate and inspire, and is intended for small group discussions and debates. SI is supposed to entertain and inform sports fans, not berate them for their beliefs or their enthusiasms, but Oppenheimer's piece reads like an assault on Christians who like football and of course the evangelical Christians who play the game at the highest level.
Oppenheimer joked that I could include our interview in a future book, Talking with Jews,” and since Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, Ambassador Michael Oren, Michael Medved and Dennis Prager have all been my on air guests perhaps that will work out, and Oppenheimer –a fine journalist and gentleman—would be included in that volume.
But not in the volume of Talking with Sportswriters. Oppenheimer isn’t a sportswriter. And that’s the problem. He's a religion columnist, a left-wing religion columnist though an exceptionally talented one. He cares a lot about same sex marriage, a concern which made its way into his SI piece. He is tin-eared and off key when it comes to evangelical Christians in the way I would be tin-eared and off-key if Symphony Magazine asked me for 10,000 words on Buddhists in the New York and Cleveland orchestras.
(Well, I did interview the Dalai Lama for three hours, so I have got that going for me.)
You don’t have to be an NFL player or even a serious fan of the game to write about the NFL, of course, and you don’t have to be Christian to write about the faith, but to ask a non-Christian non-fan to write the SI Super Bowl cover story on Christians in the NFL is just bizarre.
Bizarre, but the product of a modern media elite that increasingly sees the indulgence of its own views, beliefs and indeed political agendas as the way to organize the media they are attempting to sell to the public.
There are some terrific sports writers who are also men and women of faith who could easily have taken SI’s $2 a word and pocketed the $8K –Oppenheimer gave us a glimpse of the economics behind the piece—and produced a penetrating piece on the impact of evangelical Christianity on the game. The Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Terry Pluto immediately jumps to mind because Pluto is not only a distinguished sportswriter but also a weekly columnist on faith for the paper and his books of essays on God and everyday life could serve as devotionals for many.
But SI was looking for something else. They were looking to provoke. They succeeded, as can be seen in Klavan’s piece. That provocation in turn generated secondary attention—my two hour interview—which is itself another sort of reward for editors hoping to get their bosses interested in a metric unrelated to subscriptions.
They couldn’t have helped in that department, however, because the Oppenheimer piece didn’t serve the reader. It isn’t why subscribers subscribe.
The article did manage to bash Christians, bluntly arguing that NFL football is bad for the soul and a lot of chaplaincy organizations serving the league are broken when it comes to Christian values. Oppenheimer, as noted, is a fine writer and he found a couple of obscure academics to support his claims (and that journalist technique is discussed in our exchange.)
So the piece is a nice trophy-on-the-mantle for the SI editor who has contempt for praying athletes, or the editor who strongly believes in same-sex marriage, or the editor who is sick to death of Ray Lewis or Tim Tebow getting all the love.
SI though, lost ground. Just like CNN loses ground every day it jams an unctuous Piers Morgan down its dwindling audience’s throats, just like Politico loses ground every day it pretends Dylan Byers is other than a left-wing activist dressed up as a media critic.
Well into the second decade of MSM meltdown, left-wing editors insist on throwing gas on the many fires burning through the established brands. Politics has consumed MSM. And with it the quality of its journalism.