Mormon Media Observer: The media, basketball and religious freedom

Published: Monday, March 7 2011 4:30 a.m. MST

With little doubt, the most prominent Mormon news story this year has been the rise of BYU's basketball team and the recent discipline involving star center Brandon Davies.

Even though I am fairly tall, I have limited expertise in basketball. I tell my friends that I dunk like John Stockton (who doesn't dunk), shoot free throws like Shaquille O'Neal (at about a 50-percent rate) and have the dashing good looks of — name your plodding NBA center — so I should have a bright future in the NBA. What has been said by many Mormons has been terrific, especially the work of KSL's Greg Wrubell. I can add little.

But let me say this:

First, I sometimes hear that the national media ignores BYU or doesn't take its sports seriously enough. It's hard to say that has been the case this year. Few players have received the attention of Jimmer Fredette this year and few the attention of this team.

Second, I am aware that I, as a Mormon, sometimes feel treated unfairly by the national media. It is true that some people — like Dana Milbank and Alexandra Petri of the Washington Post — can be glib in their treatment of Mormons and BYU as they did calling BYU a "bizzare environment." Still, my take listening to sports coverage of this issue has generally been one where I saw a deep deference and a willingness to listen to BYU's point of view.

Writing about the honor code at BYU and at BYU-Idaho is a challenge. I thought reporters that I saw handled the story with respect, even when they think BYU's standards are out-of-date.

Third, I feel so bad for Brandon Davies. It is obvious to me that he made a mistake. But, the timing magnifies this violation in a way no other honor code violation has before. Not pretending to know any of the specifics of his situation, if it is appropriate, I wish that he has a chance to return to his team and gets a chance to finish his career at BYU strong and perhaps find his way to playing professionally. Media's power to heighten pain and error is certainly exemplified in this case.

And Dave Rose seems a special coach. As a fan who studies communication, few things annoy me more than when a player or coach implies in an interview that it is my responsibility to come and cheer on their achievements — to come out and "support" them. I enjoy the game and try to be a warm fan when I go, but it isn't my responsibility to support any team. What I see with Dave Rose is different. He shows gratitude for support in the way he speaks. Kudos to how he has publicly handled this distressing situation.

Finally, maybe its an obvious point to make, but this week I was spending considerable time pondering the coverage of Elder Oaks' talk on religious freedom and the limited, uneven coverage it received nationally.

Elder Oaks' talk was a tour de force of scholarly reasoning, and he said things I have been thinking for many years in ways I haven't been able to articulate. I commend it to anyone.

Despite excellent publicitity by the church, I found only two media outlets outside of Utah that took the time to examine the genuine, serious and fresh arguments Elder Oaks made, and one of those was quite glib. This lack suggests again how media sometimes get lost in the minutiae of daily living of celebrities and athletes as they miss the more important things around us.

That's not to say BYU's honor code isn't important and worthy of news coverage. It is. And basketball is important and fun to cover. Sports can unite people, and sports stories do move us.

What I am saying is that in the larger scheme of things, basketball is a game of little import next to the threats to religious freedom. Media missed the more important story this last month.

Professional media do this over and over again. Because media sometimes operate in packs, because they focus on the easy stories, they often neglect the deeper waters and issues vital to American democracy and world conversation.

I remember one quick study I did contrasting the amount of coverage received by singer Britney Spears in contrast with the coverage of the terrible civil war in the Congo — a war that by some counts has killed five times as many people as the American Civil War. No surprise here, but Britney was nearly as frequently mentioned as the entire country of Congo.

The media has spent page after page evaluating the strange behavior of actor Charlie Sheen while neglecting detailed conversations about — well, how about religious freedom or the intellectual roots of Middle Eastern protests or of government malfeasance or of drastic wars in Afghanistan?

This isn't to say news media don't do extraordinary stories of often deeply moving and lasting significance. They do.

What I am saying is that I wish the news media would take a little more time dealing with important issues and a little less time dealing with celebrity lives. As a media observer, that is the prominent lesson for me of BYU's recent experience in the national spotlight.

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