Peter King, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, admits his own skepticism when players bring up their faith after a game. "I've seen enough examples of players who claim to be very religious and then they get divorced three times or get in trouble with the law," Mr. King said earlier this week. "I'm not sure that the public is crying out for us to discover the religious beliefs of the athletes we're writing about."
Faith is the belief in things unseen. Sportswriters are trained to write about the observable. "One of the problems that we have is determining the veracity of a person's claim that he has just won this game for his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ," Mr. King said.
In the Baltimore Sun before last year's Super Bowl, Washington Post reporter Rick Maese characterized his fellow journalists as "notebook-toting cynics who worship at the altar of the free media buffet." But he softened his language and cut his colleagues some slack when I spoke to him recently. A sports reporter might write one story with a strong religion angle and feel like the idea is no longer fresh for the next athlete he covers, Mr. Maese told me. "It's not like the reporter's going to bring an athlete's beliefs or religious affiliation up out of the blue," he said. But "if that's something the player cites as a motivating factor, I don't think you're telling the full story if you don't explore that angle a little bit."
Reporters might also be apprehensive about giving an athlete a platform to espouse his beliefs. "When athletes give their testimonies in interviews, there's impatience, sometimes an outright hostility to religion, because they feel like an athlete is pushing religion on people," says Shirl James Hoffman, author of "Good Game: Christianity and the Culture of Sports." "Sportswriters who write on Christian athletes might be generally sympathetic to the moral life that they present off the field. When an athlete says anything that hits on their faith as the only way to salvation, now you're in real trouble."
On occasion, an athlete's religion cannot be ignored by the press, as when the superstar boxer Cassius Clay became a Muslim in 1964, changing his name to Muhammad Ali and citing his religious beliefs as the reason he refused to be inducted into the military.
More recently, reporters have found it hard to ignore Jesus-professing athletes like the quarterback Kurt Warner, who retired on Jan. 29. Mr. Warner, who went from stocking shelves at a grocery store to winning two MVPs, is outspoken about his faith. When a reporter attempts to separate the high-caliber athletes from average ones, they begin to look for some intangible qualities, and faith is sometimes a part of that. "There is dishonesty in telling his story if you ignore what drives him, especially if you accept its role in one of the NFL's great success stories," the Arizona Republic's Paola Boivin wrote before last year's Super Bowl.
Sports journalism often lends itself to lengthy profile-driven features. Sportswriters have some of the best opportunities to tell human-interest stories, and in some cases that means connecting the religious dots for people. But when you look closer into what it means to be religious, it usually involves divisive opinions on matters like heaven and hell, and, in some cases, abortion.
Millions of people will watch Mr. Tebow's mother recount her story on Sunday. But fewer people may know that Brett Favre's wife, Deanna, faced a similar decision when she became pregnant after her second year of college, before the couple were married. Their Catholic faith was a key factor in their decision not to seek an abortion, Catholic News Service reports.
In 2006, Mr. Warner cited his faith as his reason for appearing in a political advertisement opposing a proposal that would have allowed embryonic stem cell research in Missouri.
If journalists are asking the right motivational questions (why did an athlete retire? why does he do prison ministry?) they might find religion in the answers. When appropriate, it's the reporter's responsibility to dig out the underlying story and present it to readers.
Despite his expressed skepticism of athletes' God talk, SI's Mr. King recounted on Jan. 8, 2008, how former Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs's faith affected his decision to retire. "We don't write things like this very often in this business," Mr. King said in his Web column. "But devout people say and feel devout things and are driven by their relationship with their God. I think Gibbs is one of those people."
Even Mr. King, it seems, admits that faith can force itself into a journalist's notebook—and into the final version of the story.
Ms. Bailey is online editor for Christianity Today and a contributor to GetReligion.org.