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.

Women athletes honor God with their bodies

Women athletes honor God with their bodies

I can’t remember not being an athlete. From the time that I could walk, I participated in sports and extracurricular activities. During my earliest years of life, I danced. I did gymnastics for several more years, though I wasn’t good at it. (I was too tall and flimsy to control my body.) By the time I was 11, I started racing competitively, and that’s where I found my niche. I was fast and strong with nearly a perfect hurdle technique. I worked hard. I won often. I grew confident.

As I reflect on those small wins in life, I think about the women Olympians I looked up to over the years … gymnasts like Dominique Dawes and Mary Lou Retton. (As a young girl, I actually met Mary Lou at a “Healthy Mind, Healthy Body Winning Without Drugs” event.) I looked up to track stars like Jackie Joyner-Kersee, the late Florence Griffith-Joyner (“Flo Jo”), and of course the star hurdler, Gail Devers.


Video Courtesy of Uninterrupted


These women athletes are God’s image bearers who display his confidence and character. They remind us with their physical ability and strength that our bodies are good. With their performances, they sacrifice not only for personal honor, the team, or our country, but by disciplining their bodies, they honor their creator who is the Lord.

As they perform with neatly placed hair and perfect makeup (I never did that), they celebrate God’s beauty in the masterful creation that is the human body. They acknowledge that God does care about our bodies and participating in sports is one way we can celebrate its beauty.

Our bodies are created to worship. With so many negative images bombarding our young women today (see the video clip below), it is important that we raise our voices to share a different message. Young girls need to know that they are not simply a consequence of what they wear, their body size, what they eat, or how men (or other women) view them. The airbrushed images in magazines and commercials should not define them.

I am calling now for a release … freedom … a proclamation that young girls everywhere have a choice to take on positive images. I am not implying that we encourage more self-help or self-esteem building techniques. I am rather stating that we should encourage girls to value the mind, body, and soul, realizing that they are not separate entities from each other.

By the time I entered college, I was meditating on passages like the Apostle Paul calling all Christians to approach life as a runner who desires to win a prize. In order to win, Paul says we must all go into strict training (1 Cor. 9:24-27). Strict physical training requires countless hours of focus, dedication, and hard work. It requires personal sacrifice and a reordering of priorities if you want to win. With that understanding, this passage provides a simple truth: focusing to develop physical discipline (particularly early in one’s life) can correlate to the development of spiritual discipline. Disciplining ourselves in mind, body, and spirit is as an act of holistic worship toward God since we are called to do everything as unto the Lord.

God’s image bearers should reflect his character and the reality that his creation is indeed good. God’s image bearers should reflect his desire for creativity and honor and excellence. Encourage girls to honor God with their bodies for “the body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body” (1 Cor. 6:13b, NIV).

We can honor God through physical conditioning; therefore, in the words of that great motivator Edna Mode from The Incredibles, “Go! Fight! Win!” Let the girls run, jump, spike, throw, leap. Let them sweat, burn, and sacrifice. Let them honor God with their bodies. Let them play sports.


Courtesy of Adobe Creative Cloud

The Story of Fox’s ‘PITCH’ Is Nothing New

The Story of Fox’s ‘PITCH’ Is Nothing New

The Fox series is wrapping up its first season, but perhaps you’ve heard this story before.

For the past several weeks, Fox’s new hit series “PITCH” has shown us that it is possible for a woman to continue smashing through the glass ceiling in a male-dominated world—bat, beauty, and brains in hand.

The series tells the story of Ginny (Kylie Bunbury), a woman with beauty, brains and athleticism, who is groomed by her now-deceased father to play Major League Baseball. During the first season, we have seen Ginny become not only the first female Major League Baseball player for the San Diego Padres, but the best, and this is all done in her father’s honor who’s mantra was, “We ain’t done nothing yet.”

For the past several weeks, “PITCH” has shed light on a variety of challenges that affect women everywhere, particularly women of color. These challenges include the ability to simultaneously balance being an athlete, a responsible feminist, and evolving brand. In fact, many would argue that women—namely Black women—are constantly forced to prove their worth and abilities in our society, and this ever-present theme is reflected in the first several episodes of “PITCH.”

Fortunately for the show’s main character, she has allies in the dugout who protect her honor by making her an exemplary player, regardless of the blatant undermining sexism. And, although “PITCH” presents an exciting concept in the world of fiction, Ginny’s rise to fame as a fictional character isn’t as far from reality as you may think. Let’s travel back and take a closer look at the untold story of Toni Stone.

pitch-fox-2

Dirt in the Skirt

Toni Stone made history in 1953 when she became the first female player in Negro League baseball. Stone, who was born Marcenia Lyle Stone, also played for the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League—although segregated—and several Negro League teams.

And, although she negotiated her pay and established how she wanted to be treated as a professional athlete, Stone’s notoriety has dissipated into American history. This is drastically different from the stories of some of her white counterparts as portrayed in the 1990’s blockbuster A League of Their Own. However, her legacy lives on in both fiction and non-fiction black, professional, female athletes by inspiring us all to say, “I am next.”

Shot Caller

Outside of its brilliant soundtrack and incredible writing, “PITCH” embraces the spirit of women empowerment and the unsung legacy of Stone with a main character who calls the shots. Even though Ginny receives guidance from her agent she also takes charge of her own life.

Instead of allowing people to tell her how to play the game, she decides how she wants to play the game and she plays to win. However, like Stone, Ginny is quite literally a team player and heeds the advice of her teammates to be the best against all odds.

No Crying in Baseball

As the story progresses Ginny becomes more and more like “one of the guys” and a true member of the team, with all of the baseball politics in tow. Ginny is very aware of how uncomfortable the atmosphere is with the novelty and jealousy, but she takes it in stride.

Like the real-life Toni Stone, Ginny is steadfast in her strength and keeps playing the game when adversity strikes her or the team. It was not easy to get her onto the mound, but all season long, she has been knocking it out of the park and captivating audiences everywhere. Most have never heard the story of Toni Stone, but thanks to both fictional and non-fiction female athletes like Ginny, her unsung legacy lives on. We ain’t done nothin’ yet!

The “PITCH” season finale airs Thursday, December 8, at 9/8c.