Where Faith and the NBA Intersect

Where Faith and the NBA Intersect

CHURCH OF BASKETBALL: Blazersedge.com managing editor and Lutheran minister David Deckard is part sports journalist / part online pastor.

David Deckard, like many pastors, is bivocational. He works another job, squeezing it in alongside his role as clergyman, husband, and dad. But unlike many pastors, who might hold jobs in sales or construction, his other job is in sports entertainment — specifically as the managing editor of Blazersedge.com, the leading source of fan-based coverage of the Portland Trail Blazers professional basketball team. Part of the SBNation, Blazersedge stands apart from other sites because of the rich sense of community its members provide.

And in the center of it all is Deckard, the man known to the masses simply as “Dave.”

As a Portland native and devoted Blazers fan, I sat down with Deckard for a wide-ranging interview covering the curious intersection of sports and faith.

 

JELANI: Given your lifestyle as both pastor and sports blogger, give us a little background on how you got into these roles. Plus, how did you become affiliated with Blazersedge?

DAVE DECKARD: Hah! I could tell a thousand stories about each of those things.

I grew up in a very non-churchy-type family. I sang in a Catholic boys choir when I was 10 or so, and that was it. But my high school choir director took a job at a downtown Portland church and I wanted to sing with her after I graduated, so I started singing in that church choir. That’s where I got my first inkling that God was a decent person to know and that faith might be part of my make-up. I went from that to a summer as a counselor at a church camp, then another, then youth directing, then to seminary. So be careful what you do! God is sneaky like that. You go in one day just wanting to sing a little and BAM!  You’re working for the guy for life.

I’ve been a Blazers fan since I was quite young. It’s all I cared about as a kid. I went through all the ups and downs. When the Internet came in vogue, I got mixed up with an e-mail group talking about the team. A friend was blogging for the local paper’s website, and he became part of the group. He had to leave for a short emergency trip and asked me to fill in for him for a few days. I did and got the bug, then started my own site. Casey Holdahl, now with the Blazers, was running Blazersedge.com at that time. He left and contacted me about taking over Blazersedge. The rest is history.

So be careful what you do! You just start chatting about the Blazers and do a favor for a friend one day and BAM! You’re the managing editor at the biggest Trail Blazers site in the world.

As a pastor who also operates in the public square, I think you have an interesting perspective on practical theology.

Personally I think theology suffers when placed in the abstract, such as, “I believe in Doctrine X.” So often that’s a shorthand way around knowing people and God, instead of an invitation to know both better. Doctrine is like underwear. It’s indispensable, but meant to support the rest of the stuff you’re wearing. If you’re just into flashing the doctrine in public, people should run.

I’m Lutheran, to be specific. But even people within a denomination usually don’t know or understand its teachings fully. The best thing to say is just, “Let’s talk about God and life and such and you’ll get the idea.”

A few years back, I was trying to explain to my wife the significance of Blazersedge in the life of an average Blazers fan, and your role with it in particular. And I think it was after reading a commentary you wrote that touched on the whole Erin-Andrews-hotel-room thing that, in my attempt to contextualize the situation, I referred to you as “the Internet pastor of Blazer nation.” Is that a fair label, informal or not?

I haven’t heard that one before! I suspect plenty of people would bristle at that, either because the pastoral relation implies voluntary consent or because the entire idea is anathema to their worldview. However, it’s accurate to say that my outlook (read: faith) determines how I speak, how I react to folks, and in general how the site functions.

UPS AND DOWNS: After a string of misfortune with once-promising players, forward LaMarcus Aldridge is one of the few solid players left on the Blazers’ roster. (Photo: Mark Halmas/Newscom)

Oddly enough, most people misread the role faith plays. They assume that our site’s non-profanity rule stems from a religious source. I am not overly offended by swearing in personal conversation, nor do I find it more ungodly than a hundred other things people do every day. The no-profanity thing is out of concern for public decorum and being welcoming of all people without having something as insignificant as swearing get in the way.

That’s where the real faith issues come in: Diverse voices are welcome, you’ve been given power to add to this conversation, use that power for good, and frame your assertions to welcome others as you’ve been welcomed. People get banned at Blazersedge for one reason:  they’re exercising their power of speech for the good of the self, hurting or ignoring others in the process. That’s a statement of faith — valuing the neighbor as oneself translated to Internet conversation.

In my writing I try to be fair and thoughtful, to treat my subjects like real people and not just objects, and to do justice to the topic instead of writing to gain more traffic for myself. I try not to take things too seriously, as a sense of humor is an asset to faith. I don’t draw too much of a distinction between my on-site life and the rest of my life. I try to write in such a way that I could be held accountable for what I say. So I guess in that way you could say that my approach is pastoral. But it’s found more in example than preaching. I’m not the center of attention. Just like church isn’t about everybody looking at me, but all of us discovering God together, the site isn’t about everybody looking at me, but all of us discovering the Blazers together.

The best compliment I get regarding faith — and it happens reasonably often — is when Blazersedge folks find out what I do for a living and say, “I didn’t know you were a pastor, but that makes total sense now that I think about it.” Instead of faith being this distinct moment with a distinct person separate from “real life,” it’s breathed in organically in the course of doing what you love. It’s not about me or you, it’s all around, filling the space between us and making things good whether we realize it or not.

People often equate intense sports fandom with religion. In a post, you once compared sports teams with churches in the sense that they are both public trusts that have strong traditions, but at the end of the day the people who work there are still responsible for making their own choices and protecting their own financial interests. You were trying to balance the perspective of fans who expect loyalty from their sports heroes but treat them as fungible assets when they don’t perform up to expectations — such as with Blazers point guard Raymond Felton. In your opinion, is there more loyalty in the church compared to the sports world? Should there be?

Oh yeah, Felton was about as fungible as it gets.

Back in the day, multiple ties bound people to their church. Doctrine was part of it but social ties, ethnicity, and survival in this strange New World (cultural, if not actual in the form of propagation) made church all but inescapable. If you came here as an Italian Catholic you couldn’t very well flip to a British Episcopalian without losing your identity and community. As descendants in successive generations identified as American, those ties loosened. But even then the idea of “American” and “good, church-going person” were intertwined. You might not go to your grandparents’ church but you went to some church … at least on Christmas and Easter.

In the post-’60s world folks began to question what it meant to be American, even. In most groups ethnic ties had disappeared, now national ties were following. Then came instant global communication and all of a sudden you didn’t have to be tied to local neighbors at all. You could talk to anyone and get anything you want, with the push of a button. In this environment churches have become fungible. Only those truly interested in faith (or too stubborn to let go of the old culture) remain engaged. Even among those, most won’t remain at a church that doesn’t closely align with their personal convictions.

In spirit, loyalty is still a part of the church relationship. In practice, it’s at an ebb … it has to be taught where it was once assumed.

So, do you think we’re worse off today?

Actually, there are good things about this. Those cultural and national ties overwhelmed faith back in the day. Church served the cultural perception rather than transcending it. Faith bound in service to anything but God is not faith at all. We don’t have to worry about that now. People participate in church because they desire a relationship with God, not because it’s the thing to do. Oddly enough, it’s far easier to hear God without all the cultural expectations getting in the way. I actually prefer the small, wandering group of faithful seekers to the large congregation of “good people” set in their ways. We’re just now rediscovering what faith is supposed to be.

I’m not as conversant with loyalty trends in sports but I suspect pro leagues, at least, follow the same trend. We’ll always have diehard Steelers or Blazers fans just like some folks will always be “church goers.” But most folks have a myriad of choices for their leisure time and disposable income today. Teams can no longer assume their fans will follow. The fans that do remain tend to be more knowledgeable and involved and demand more from their teams.

So is that a lesson for church leaders, too?

I believe so. It’s not enough to have just the name anymore; you have to show quality to keep folks engaged. The uniforms still said, “Trail Blazers” in 2011-12 but few fans felt that Ray Felton and company reflected true Blazer basketball. Their complaints and rejection of the product reflected that. For years people of faith have been willing to swallow almost anything that claimed a “Christian” label no matter what it said. If some idiot gets on TV and says he’s for God or a presidential candidate shows up at a church one Sunday they’re supposedly “on our side.” People of faith need to be more discerning. You’ll know where a person’s coming from by the fruit they produce. It’s not enough to divide the world into teams and then say you’re on the right one. Your claims and actions have to do something good in the world before they can be considered godly. Otherwise the uniform you’re trying to claim doesn’t matter.

Yeah, I think it was Jerry Seinfeld who, in a moment of existential gloom, referred to sports fandom as essentially “cheering for laundry.” There are few things more disaffecting than the realization that your emotional investment is not going to yield the dividends you hoped for, and that’s true in the church as much as it is in sports.

Speaking of which, many fans will look at the 2011-2012 Trail Blazers season as The Year the Dream Died, with Roy announcing his sudden retirement, Greg Oden being waived, Nate McMillan being fired, etc.  And when I think about some of my episodes of basketball-related frustration (the Western Conference Finals in 2000 come to mind), Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grief strike a familiar chord.

Do you find much correlation between the work you do as a pastor to walk your parishioners through grief and the way you help Blazers fans cope with wave after wave of disappointment?

There’s overlap, for sure. Grief is grief. I remember the Western Conference Finals loss in ’91 almost like a death. It was, really … the death of a dream. It hurt. We certainly do our fair share of putting things into perspective, reminding that there’s goodness that circumstances can’t touch, that there are reasons to believe, that the important part is taking the journey together instead of the lumps you take on the way.

But the roles of “journalist/analyst” and “pastor/counselor” also differ significantly. At the end of the day my role at Blazersedge is to speak the truth as I see it. I make bold proclamations about the Blazers’ prospects that I’d never make to a person sitting in my office in crisis. In counseling it doesn’t matter what you know and feel, it’s what the person in need knows and feels. Sports are more predictable and less important ultimately. They also lie outside of the domain of any individual. Abstract truths become more valuable in that kind of situation. Truth is truth in this venue in a way that isn’t possible in interpersonal relationships.

I find myself contradicting the popular wave of opinion at Blazersedge far more often (and stridently) than I’d contradict a parishioner making decisions about their own life. When the Blazers started this season 7-2 but still evidenced serious holes, I went ahead and spoke out about it. I probably wouldn’t do that so baldly in church because people need to figure that out for themselves.

The other overlap is trolling. Trolls blossom on websites and in churches alike. I must admit having to deal with trolls online has better prepared me for the unhealthy, bad behavior that people sometimes evidence in church. Whatever unfair tactic they’re using, I’ve probably seen it before. I’m much more forward in pointing out those things now than I was before my online experience.

As you know, Dave, fans can get really crazy. Sometimes it’s just fun, but at times it goes too far — like pouring beer on the opposing team’s star player. What do you say to people who really want to enjoy the emotional thrill ride of sports, but who don’t want to totally lose their minds or souls? What are some healthy ways of expressing fandom?

The idea that you can be one person in one venue and a different one in another is overblown. I’m thinking primarily of the Internet here, but I suppose it also applies at the arena or stadium. Your environment will influence your choices. But even allowing that environment determines methodology, you’re still either going to conduct yourself with honor for the greater good or you’re going to make it all about yourself and how you can get ahead. You can’t let that self-serving, “screw everyone else as long as I get ahead and look good” mentality take hold. As soon as you start basing your decisions on that, it’ll color the rest of your life. You can’t really pretend to be a jerk without actually becoming one. That’s true whether you’re clocking somebody from behind on the floor or abusing someone on a website. Act in ways that honor the people around you no matter what the venue (even when arguing or playing against them) and you’re going to bring something good to the world. That’s true whether you’re playing sports, talking about them, or just watching them while your kids say, “Daddy, can you play with me?”

Once again, bigger life lessons from the world of sports …

One other disturbing parallel I’ve noticed about people losing perspective: whether it’s in sports or church, folks seem to value being right more than enjoying the experience and each other. Both sports and faith are communal endeavors. Yet people use their knowledge to try and prove they’re better and/or more correct than the other person. This is silly. What’s the point of following sports at all if you’re not enjoying it with the people around you? The striking phenomenon from the ’77 championship in Portland wasn’t just the title but also the massive parade and community unification in the wake of the event. Fandom requires company to reach full flower. When you destroy the community to exalt yourself, you’re winning a Pyrrhic victory at best.

The phenomenon is even more ridiculous when applied to faith. If any of us could have gotten it right, there would have been no need for Jesus to die for us. God would have simply said, “Nice, Bob! I’ve been waiting forever for someone to get it! Come on up to heaven, you perfectly correct dude, you!” Since Jesus, you know, died for our sins, that seems to imply the necessity and thus our falling short. In many ways arguing about who’s the most correct is arguing who needs Christ the least … a curious argument for Christians to try to win. Missing the greater picture in favor of making your point is a bad idea whether you’re in an online forum or in church.

It seems like it all comes back to the question of “How do we build, sustain, and reflect authentic community?” In what ways can you see the communities of sport and faith combining for the greater good?

There’s always potential. Every year we hold “Blazersedge Night” where the people of our community donate to send underprivileged young folks to a Blazers game. Last year we exceeded 700 kids and chaperones sent so we know people are willing to participate in something good.

I think you’ve hit on the main point, though … it has to be something good, as in “service to others.” Much of the overt “Christian” presence I see online (and I use the term loosely) makes me shudder. People screaming at each other, dividing the world into camps and picking fights, gloating over people’s misfortunes and saying, “I told you so.” It’s not everybody, of course, but it doesn’t take too much of that to turn the name sour. I had to spend years online showing who I am and what I’m about before I was overt at all about my profession. The field has been poisoned enough that when people hear the name “Christian” or “church” they’re just as likely to run or scroll onward as to engage or be curious. So modeling Christ-like behavior online might be the first commitment we sports fanatics all need to make.

What Happens to the News When Corporations Dominate Media?

What Happens to the News When Corporations Dominate Media?

50 Cent at the Daytona 500, where he garnered headlines for a failed attempt to kiss ESPN sportscaster Erin Andrews. Andrews is a spokesperson for SK Energy, the energy drink company cofounded by 50 Cent. (Photo Credit: Marc Serota/Newscom).

Recently it was announced that Erin Andrews, a prominent ESPN sportscaster, is the newest spokesperson for an energy drink owned by rapper and entrepreneur 50 Cent. Days before the announcement, Andrews and 50 Cent made the news during coverage of the Daytona 500. While Andrews was scrambling live on air for an interview with Danica Patrick, the popular female driver on the racecar circuit, Andrews just happened to bump into 50 Cent, who is apparently a motorsports fan as well. The rapper (I respect his marketing genius) attempted to kiss Andrews, but she turned away. The video of the “non kiss” went viral across the Web, garnering substantial attention on social media. In a Huffington Post article posted after her spokesperson deal announcement, Andrews explained that the incident “was my fault,” while mentioning – yet again – the energy drink. Annual spending on energy drinks is estimated at $2.3 billion and it is the fastest growing segment of the soft drink industry.

There’s nothing wrong with journalists promoting a product if it falls outside of their coverage beat and they disclose their relationship to it. Andrews disclosed her relationship to SK Energy after the “non kiss” news event. If someone wants me to pitch a brand, I’ll take the check, as long as I believe in the product. But pitching can be a problem if it involves manufactured news.

Product placement in journalism is becoming more and more of an issue as large corporations take over news organizations and the Internet continues to disrupt traditional revenue models. TV news anchors have been on air live sipping iced coffee paid and provided for by the brand. In 1999, The Los Angeles Times was ripped for a scandal over its revenue sharing agreement with the Staples Center in which part of the deal was to publish a 168-page supplement.

Product placement can erode journalism’s critical role as the defender of the public trust. Soon, we may not be able to tell if what we’re consuming is objective news or a marketing script. During the second inauguration of President Barack Obama, CNN reporters commented on how many people were taking photos with a particular brand of mobile phone and its compatible tablet. Innocent statements? Maybe, but then again CNN anchor Don Lemon has been very giddy on twitter and elsewhere about his affinity for the same brand.

If the people can’t trust the press to deliver real straight news, then whom can they trust? This is where the Church can do some good. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution reads:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

There’s a reason why the Founders put the Church and the press in this clause, which is at the heart of what keeps Americans free. The Church and the press are two important institutions that deal with our minds. How we think determines what we do. If you can control a person’s thoughts, you can control his life. As mega corporations gain more control of the media, through ownership and advertising, and use that power to influence and control the government through lobbying and elections, we will be living within a very different America.

Preachers often rail against the media from the pulpit, yet underutilize the media’s power on behalf of the Kingdom. When people distrust the information they’re getting in the world, we must ask: can they honestly turn to your church for the truth? Congregations can learn something from Andrews and 50 Cent and become more media savvy.

I Killed Borders

I Killed Borders

BYE-BYE BORDERS: The erstwhile retail giant announced last week that it's closing its book covers for good. Stores like this one in Augusta, Ga., began liquidating inventory last Friday. Photo: Newscom.

Last week, I learned that Borders Books and Music is about to leave this earth forever. While I was truly saddened to learn of its demise, there is something I have to get off my chest. So let this serve as an admission of my guilt and an official confession.

I am a murderer. I killed Borders.

First of all, I suppose I should come clean. Borders was not my first “brick and mortar” bookstore experience; I remember spending hours in B. Dalton and Waldenbooks in my youth, as well as Barnes and Noble. And of course there was the Beloit Public Library. But for the last half-decade plus, there has been something special about Borders. Whether it was the proximity to our house, or the convenience of being able to hang out there before and after seeing a movie at the mall, I’m not sure.  But my heart has held a special place for Borders, which by definition makes this a crime of passion.

Borders was where I saw my wife for the first time. We shared a coffee and smiles, and I bought her a copy of The Time Traveler’s Wife there. We kissed in the parking lot. Over the years our daughters have enjoyed numerous story-time sessions and have come to view Borders as a shopping destination second only to Target in sheer awesomeness.

We have parted with much coin at our local Borders. But that doesn’t change the fact that there is blood on my hands. I may not have pulled the trigger, but my hands were on the grip. I killed Borders. 

Can I be blamed for falling victim to the seductive wiles of free shipping, unlimited selection, and low price guarantees? I love the indescribable pleasure that my finger feels after I’ve clicked my mouse and made a purchase …

My mistress — let’s not be coy; her name is Amazon — first courted me years ago by offering me half-price DVDs on Tuesdays. Now I consult her for everything; she has replaced Best Buy, Fry’s Electronics, eBay, and, yes, Borders as my preferred shopping destination for the cool stuff that I think I need. I’ve even used my phone to take pictures of books I’ve leafed through at Borders in order to check the price on Amazon.

It’s embarrassing to admit that, but confession is good for the soul, I guess.

When I explained to my 6-year-old about online shopping and Borders’ demise, she asked, “Why would anyone get in their car and drive to the bookstore?” Why indeed.

I mourn the loss of Borders. And as the guilty party, I can only offer my sincere condolences to the victim’s family. I feel, however, that I must also share this troubling fact.

I can’t stop.

While I’m not sure who my next victim will be, I do know that this isn’t over.

Non-News Is Bad News

inteentiger2.jpg

Photo by Keith Allison

The Tiger Woods scandal is just one more example of how the media use irrelevant gossip and slanted opinion to distract us from what really matters.

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Non-News Is Bad News

Non-News Is Bad News for urban faithThe Tiger Woods scandal is just one more example of how the media use irrelevant gossip and slanted opinion to distract us from what really matters.

Sex isn’t the only thing that sells; so do lies, rumors, and gossip. But these do more than sell merchandise. When they dominate our television news reports, online news flashes, and newspaper/ magazine headlines, they distract, divert attention, and keep our thoughts in the gutter.

I remember when I used to respect the news. I used to think that reporters reported trustworthy facts. I used to think that the majority of the information on the 5:30 news was meaningful and relevant. While I do not know if my memory serves me correctly or if I was just naïve as a youth, I do know that I believe very little of what I hear from the news media today. As a matter of fact, much of what I hear I don’t even categorize as news at all. Take the Tiger Woods coverage, for instance.

Winning his first Masters in 1997 was newsworthy. So was his record-breaking assent to No. 1 in the Official World Golf Rankings only 42 weeks after becoming a professional. And holding one of the greatest sustained periods of dominance in the history of men’s golf is newsworthy. But Tiger Woods’ recent “scandal” is not news.

The circumstances that caused his car accident a week ago or whether or not he had an extramarital relationship is none of our business, and it doesn’t take an MBA student to know that. Why, then, do news reporters and their producers insist on giving the American people information that is meaningless and irrelevant to our everyday lives?

Well, of course ratings and money have something to do with it. But let’s suppose for a moment that the men and women who work in media have enough self-respect to truly believe what they’re doing is more important than ratings and dollars. If so, either they really believe their gossip-laden cover stories impact our day-to-day living, or they are saturating us with information about nonsensical elementary matters to keep us ignorant of information they don’t want us to know about. My suspicion is the latter.

Do people really care what celebrities are wearing when they are not in the spotlight, who they are sleeping with, or who doesn’t pay their parking tickets? While there may be a modicum of curiosity, I don’t think people care to the degree that they want to have these questions answered in the lead stories on the nightly news — especially when their sons and daughters and friends and loved ones are being deployed to the Middle East to fight in wars for reasons that too few people can fluently articulate, and especially when they are living in an economy where jobs and homes are being lost faster than New Jersey Nets basketball games.

I am not saying that the news should be filled with stories that scare us (which has been done too). I am, however, saying that as a viewing public, we should look at news media with more critical eyes. Some guiding suggestions:

• Listen to what the reporters are saying

• Listen to what they are not saying

• Notice the amount of time news media spend on various subjects and question their reasons and judgment

• Ask why the reports sound so similar from news station to news station

• Become aware of how you feel after watching the news and how that impacts your day

• Note how stories are spun to shape your opinion — everything from the reporter’s tone and facial expression, to language and visual images

Have you noticed how many successful Black men have been targeted in recent events in the news? Black men have always been treated harshly and unfairly in the media, but now even our successful role models are under attack. Tiger Woods (guilty or innocent) is not the first. Remember how Henry Louis Gates was treated when he responded to an unjust arrest? How Michael Jackson was re-scandalized after his death? How Michael Jordan was criticized for his Hall of Fame speech? And how even Barack Obama was assailed for something as innocuous as a “stay in school” speech to American students?

Something is going on, and we can’t wait for news editors and producers to tell us what it is. We have to be skeptical about what we hear. We have to open our eyes. We have to read between the lines. We have to have eyes to see what is being deliberately hidden. And when we do, we must act swiftly to expose the darkness with light.
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Tiger Woods photo by Jim Epler from Wikipedia.

Related Post: Talking About Tiger.