Action Alert!

religious illiteracy, meet NFL coverage

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 17, 2011

If you're a Catholic who follows NFL football, you've probably heard that Troy Polamalu, the safety for the Pittsburgh Steelers, is a devout Roman Catholic. 

It makes for a good story. But it's not true. He's devout, yes; and it is a good story. But he's not Catholic. Polamalu is Orthodox. 

Did you ever see him making the Sign of the Cross during a game-- which he does with some regularity? If you watched carefully-- and if a nervous cameraman didn't swing quickly away, fearful of offending secular sensibilities-- you might have noticed something a bit odd. He touched his right shoulder first, then left, as the Orthodox (and Byzantine Catholic) faithful always do.

It's easy to miss the right-left hand movement when it's done quickly, especially when you're not expecting it to be done at all. But at GetReligion, Terry Mattingly observes that inaccurate references to Polamalu's faith are common. One reporter refers to Polamalu's icons as "religious items," causing the reader to wonder whether the reporter knows what an icon is. Another reporter calls them "photos," which is just plain wrong, and causes the reader to realize that the reporter doesn't have a clue. 

When it comes to matters of faith, reporters usually don't have clues. For those who are interested, Mattingly explains why it's wrong to say that Polamalu is a "devoted follower of the Greek Orthodox religion." 

This isn't a matter of life-and-death urgency. Not many people expect to get their religious education from NFL coverage. But these little inaccuracies reveal a wider ignorance. If a reporter writing a human-interest story on Polamalu described him as a "running back"-- since he does line up in the backfield, and spends much of the game running-- the editors would guffaw and correct it. If a novice reporter described his uniform top as a "sweater," it would be changed to "jersey."

When it comes to football, the reading public is demanding; journalists had better get their facts straight and use the proper terms. When the subject is religion, not so much.


Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Justin8110 - Feb. 08, 2011 6:55 PM ET USA

    Some Orthodox jurisdictions do not recognize our Catholic Baptism but others do and to make matters more difficult even some hardliners in the same jurisdiction have differing opinions. The Greek Orthodox monks in my town rebaptize but the local Greek Orthodox church only requires "Chrismation" which is what Latin Catholics call "Confirmation" Since there is no real unity in Orthodoxy there are differing opinions.

  • Posted by: - Jan. 23, 2011 11:46 AM ET USA

    I followed the link to the Mattingly piece, and found it interesting that Polamalu felt the need to get re-baptized in the Orthodox church. The article says that Polamalu was Catholic at first, and then switched to Orthodoxy. Is the Orthodox church requiring Catholics to forswear their previous baptism, the same way protestants do?