Sports reporting is a place where you can increasingly find stories about people who have leaned on their faith and lost — and regained — it, says sports-feature producer Lisa Fenn, who shared the stage with ESPN NBA Report Chris Broussard at the Baylor Institute for Faith and Learning’s annual Symposium on Faith and Culture, which drew about 350 attendees from across the country from Nov. 5-7 to hear 120 presentations on “The Spirit of Sports,” including a panel with President Ken Starr and former football coach Grant Teaff.
“Under the hot lights, there’s an accelerated vulnerability,” Fenn said. “They share more and I can lend an ear, develop a long-term relationship, and at times even pray with them.”
Broussard led off his panel remarks talking about how great it was to be at a “place of higher learning where you can share your faith,” noting that the university must avoid “compromising on critical values. Baylor needs to shine as a light.”
“The job is not the biggest thing; it’s not the biggest moment, Broussard said as he recounted his path to being one of the nation’s best known basketball reporters. “You have to keep it in its proper place. When I’m on the biggest stages, I try to keep my composure – even when I’m sitting down next to Magic (Johnson). But sports is no longer an idol,” which has much to do with my faith.
For Fenn, producing sports segment is a far different place – some might say the opposite, she concedes – of what she thought was her calling as a missionary. She found herself craving “deeper stories” and found that opportunity in 2003 with then high-school basketball player Chris Paul (now Los Angeles Clippers point guard), whose grandfather had been brutally murdered. A few days later, Paul decided to salute his grandfather by scoring his age – 61 – in a single game. He did it, finishing off the game by intentionally missing a free throw and walking off the court to hug his father, knowing that he was just a few points from breaking the state single-game scoring record.
Fenn’s subsequent story fully embraced the intersection of faith and sport and won her an Emmy, helping her realize that “this is what I want to do and be. I found I was touched by the dignity” of the moment.
Fenn says she figured out at some point that her job is actually a ministry, arguing that the stories about faith that places like ESPN now regularly puts on the air help develop “pockets of vulnerability and enable people to reflect on how they’d respond if faced with something similar.”
But that doesn’t mean getting stories like that on the air are easy. Broussard was widely criticized outside of ESPN for his strongly stated views on air about whether NBA journeyman Jason Collins, who had just come out as gay, could be considered a Christian, arguing instead that he was “a sinner.” Fenn recalled the fight she had with ESPN executives over including prayer from a segment on “baseball grannies” and whether Southern women praying was a cliché. She won out by convincing them that the story didn’t make sense and wouldn’t resonate without the scene.
“We hire football players because they’re knowledgeable,” she said. “Why wouldn’t you send a person of faith to talk to people of faith? It takes stamina to keep fighting but it’s worth it because these stories matter.”
Broussard believes that demonstrating his faith is about how he carries himself and “letting people see the light. I’m not witnessing in the office. But I can tell stories that tell God’s larger stories and offer a good counter to all the bad stories out there.”
Broussard said he did an interview at former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis’s home and saw things that so went against his personal views that he refused to edit the segment when he got back to the studio…and that his bosses understood.
Fenn agreed that the sound-bite culture on TV and the pressures of the daily news cycle make it less likely that faith will be part of the most visible stories.
“It’s pray vs. prey,” she said. “We should cover the recovery as vigorously as we cover their fall.”
What do you think? Is the national media striking an appropriate balance with its coverage of faith in its stories about sports?