[interview originally written for UrbanFaith.com]
In a nation where pro sports are the most socially acceptable form of religion, what happens when a pastor’s other job is shepherding NBA fans over the internet?
David Deckard, like many pastors, is bivocational. He works another job, squeezing it in alongside his role as pastor, husband and dad. But unlike many pastors, his other job is as the managing editor of BlazersEdge.com, the leading source of fan-based coverage of the Portland Trail Blazers. 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.”
Portland native Jelani Greenidge sat down with Deckard for a wide-ranging interview, covering the curious intersection between faith and sports.
Given your lifestyle as both pastor and sports blogger, give us a little background in how you got into these roles. How would you describe your faith background? And how did you come to be affiliated with Blazersedge?
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 ten 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.
I was honored, and 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 for the tenets of my theology, it’ll either take a billion words or none. 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, if that helps. 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 general, and your role in particular, in the life of an average Blazers fan. 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.
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 ratings 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.
Accountability, justice, decorum, diversity… these are universal principles that people can relate to, both inside and outside the church, which is probably one reason why 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 if/when they don’t perform up to expectations (i.e. Ray 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-60’s 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, 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.
There are good things about this, though. 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. 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.
In this way I think churches can take a cue from sports. It’s not enough to have 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 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 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 role 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. They’re in charge of, and have ultimate responsibility for, their own truth and situation. 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.
Trolls are never fun, but it seems like in both venues (in church and in NBA basketball) the line between trolling to get a reaction and genuine conflict that’s a byproduct of passion and enthusiasm … seems like that line gets blurrier and blurrier.
And now, with the intensity of the NBA playoffs, tensions are running really high. It seems like every year there is at least one high-profile incident of violence and/or poor sportsmanship, and it seems like this year we’ve already had several (Metta World Peace, Rajon Rondo, Amare Stoudamire).
What do you say to people who really want to enjoy the emotional thrill ride of the playoffs, but who don’t want to totally lose their minds and/or souls? How do you enjoy it and still have some sort of life balance? What are some healthy ways of expressing fandom?
I don’t know that I’d want to presume.
I suppose I’d say that 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 on the court. Your environment will influence your choices. I root for Blazers players to do things on the hardwood that I’d be horrified by in real life. For instance, you’d get plenty angry if a guy stood in front of you trying to stop every single step you made towards a goal in life. It’s much better when Nicolas Batum does it to Chris Paul on the court.
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?”
Now, if you want to get into an interesting discussion, start thinking about your average church—not the people in the church, but the organization itself—and ask, “Is this institution honoring, supporting, and serving the people around it (even people it disagrees with) or is this institution serving itself so it can look good?”
One other disturbing parallel I’ve noticed about people losing perspective in both fields: 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, rather 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 are church leagues, and I’ve also seen a few Christian music events before/after sporting events, but can’t we do better? Where’s the innovation in this area? I guess I’m asking about both existing partnerships as well as hypothetical ones. After all, the league has the “NBA Cares” campaign, and all kinds of churches across numerous denominations launch service projects large and small to have a positive impact on local, regional, even international levels. Given this, you’d think there would be more crossover, so to speak. Why doesn’t this happen more? Or is it happening but just not making headlines?
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 spent 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 embrace or be curious. So modeling Christ-like behavior online might be the first commitment we all need to make.
That accomplished, I suspect there’s plenty of room if an organization were to engage in a sports-related service project without demonstrating self-interest, rather self-giving. People are eager to participate in greater purposes. They bridge the disconnect we all feel in this fast-paced, “communication-lite” world. Folks are looking for something more meaningful than a Facebook status update, not to replace the new media, but to supplement them. Churches could certainly be part of that conversation, building connections between the world at large and people in need through the communal exercise of sports.