Gordon Monson: Here’s the difference between writing commentary about the LDS Church and about sports

The fans and the faithful care about their teams and their tenets, their coaches and their clergy — and they let you know when they think you’re wrong and going to hell.

This is fun. No, really, it is.

A peek behind the curtain.

I’ve often been asked what the difference is in writing about sports and writing about religion, the Latter-day Saint faith in particular. Not just the difference in writing and commenting — an important distinction — on them, I am a columnist, after all, but also the difference in reaction to what is written. Readers are as much a part of this as I am.

I’ve spent 45 years writing about sports, about two years and change writing columns about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but I’ve spent 66 years living inside the faith, attempting to do so, anyway.

This is what I have discovered in my endeavors for The Salt Lake Tribune, and, on the sports end, other publications.

People care deeply about their sports teams, be they dressed out in red, blue, purple, yellow and/or black. These teams represent something for them that engenders connection and loyalty, a kind of emotional community allegiance and bond that causes them to spend half their kids’ college funds buying season tickets to games, buying additional jerseys and gear of all kinds, hoisting team flags out their car windows (as though their team and its fans are part of a breakaway republic), screaming their guts out at games, getting so wrapped up in wins and losses that when defeat comes, especially in important games, they go into a funk that stays with them for days, months, years.

Jordan pushed off. Need more be said?

It’s why, on any given autumn Saturday in Utah, more than 100,000 fans gather at stadiums to watch two major college teams — Utah and BYU — pass and run and kick a football, and block and cover and tackle opponents whom they usually know almost nothing about, and yet losing to them is downright hurtful.

The Jazz aren’t good right now, but when they are or have been good, competing to be great, fans latch onto them as though these guys were their sons or brothers. Family. Their identity, their self-esteem, get caught up in the process. And so, they take these matters seriously.

Fans can be, well, fanatic

Writing commentary on teams’ highlights and lowlights often touches a nerve with some fans. Complimenting their teams is all good. Criticizing them sometimes is taken personally. At times, the reaction is launched into the realm of extremism, of obsession, of, yeah, fanaticism.

I’ve had only two death threats, which I consider pretty good fortune. I take almost nothing personally but have been called just about every name in the book, a book so profane that it would be banned nowadays by some moralistic bit-chompers. Been told to do anatomically impossible things to myself on more than a few occasions.

I’m not complaining. It’s cool. All good, even the sick-and-twisted responses. If The Tribune never got protestations over what it writes, it wouldn’t be doing its job properly. No need to manufacture outrage for the sake of outrage, just say what’s on your mind. Think about it, whether you’re typing on a computer, talking into a microphone or into a camera, or eating Thanksgiving dinner with your family. What happens the second you express an opinion? Yes, you divide the room.

Sometimes reasonable people, if there are any such folks among us — and, thankfully, there are plenty — can see things differently, can watch the same game, the same performance, the same coaching job, the same result, and then disagree about issues of varying kinds.

Nothing wrong with that. Agreeing on every matter is grossly overrated and on some occasions unhelpful, less than educational, and useless. Echo chambers are a joke when it comes to conjuring thought and healthy discussion. I get it.

This agreement/disagreement dichotomy can be taken to the nth degree in our modern world, taken to an outer limit that is not just harmful but also dangerous. Disagreement, even in matters of sports, isn’t always as beneficial as it once was because it can spiral from joyful debate to verbal combat.

That’s just the way it is, and, in truth, it’s been that way for a long time. I have the dusty letters, the phone calls, the emails, the texts, the tweets to prove it. Sometimes for the most unexpected positions taken. I wrote a column once criticizing a college coach for recruiting a prep player who had sexually assaulted a girl under a stairwell at his school. Even the coach phoned to thank me for the fair criticism. But I took a call thereafter from a woman, a fan of the coach, who tersely told me to leave my naivete behind, to get off my high horse because such underage offenses were the way of the world, that I should drop it. There are some ugly surprises like that.

So, you get a truckload of positive reactions, a boatload of negative ones. If you’re going to offer an opinion in and around sports for a living, you best be ready for the heat.

Catching hell

Writing commentary on religion, though, on my own religion, about all things Latter-day Saint, took the yellow, orange and red heat I had grown so accustomed to and turned it white and blue.

Apparently, some people of my faith are offended not just by slight bits of criticism but even by questions asked and ideas and suggestions offered.

Such responses have departed from mere disagreement to fervent concern to threats to insults and epithets to condemnation. Now, I’m not just a Mormon moron, I’m also a Mormon moron who’s going to burn in hell for my apostasy.

I’m good with it, all of it, outside the burning-in-hell part. I love it when people draw their own conclusions, whatever they are.

A confession here: I’m far from perfect and nobody’s idea of a human riding a rocket to celestial realms. I am, like we all are, a sinner. I need God’s love and grace. I need a Savior’s Atonement. These are all things I believe and believe in. I don’t know squat, but I believe in God and Jesus, and I scrounge together pieces of faith as I take one step up, two steps down, two steps forward, one step back. I attend church, I try to be honest, I give financial offerings. I teach a priesthood class and am pretty good at it. I was a ward clerk once and was lousy at that.

Just because you ask questions and give suggestions does not make you an apostate. It makes you inquisitive, it makes you curious, it makes you caring about the direction your church is taking. I’m no prophet, no apostle, but sometimes I think I have a thought or two they could and should consider — for the benefit of a church that, according to ecclesiastical leaders, does make mistakes and is yet being restored in its fullness.

Maybe you have great suggestions, too. Everybody, in the pool.

One of the more unexpected aspects of commenting on the church in any way other than simply accepting and confirming and parroting what comes directly from official church pronouncements is that the harshest blowback comes from folks who identify themselves as the most fervent, the most devout, the true followers of Christ, the most diligent and righteous. I won’t include examples of the criticism that boomerangs back this way, other than to say it is angry and aggressive, fired at an individual, the zealous say, who is hateful toward the church, who is trying to tear down the faith, who is mad because church-owned KSL Radio took over his radio station and dropped him from the endeavor he formed and founded some 23 years ago, that he’s sad and bitter and wicked and doesn’t understand the church he has been a part of his whole life.

Sorry for slipping into third person there.

This is what I’ve found commenting in written form on my Latter-day Saint faith: First, some people who truly dislike the church and most of what it stands for want to read all criticism, no compliments. They loathe it and see little good in it. Second, a portion of the hardcore members already referenced here are the nastiest reactors of all, the meanest, least Christlike (at least in their communications on social media), the defenders of the faith, the warriors for Jesus who respond in the protection of their anonymity with pricked vehemence. Third, and this is the best part, many, many people, both believers and nonbelievers, really are interested in faith discussion. They have questions about the church and their faith, legitimate and important questions that too often are either left unspoken or have no place to be considered without feeling severely judged.

One more suggestion for church leaders: Encourage space inside and outside of chapel doors where these questions can be safely asked. Granted, there are places in the church that permit it, and some places that do not, places where only sunshine can be allowed, not serious and conscientious conversation.

That’s my experience with readers in writing commentary on sports and on religion; among those who cheer loudly on the front row and in the cheap seats, those sitting reverently on the stand and in the pews, and those who park themselves on a couch in their TV den, never attending any church; among nonbelievers and believers who earnestly seek the truth and don’t always concur with what they are told; among those who adore orthodoxy, who brush aside folks who, apparently, are not as faithful and righteous as they.

It’s fun. No, really, it is.

A peek behind the curtain.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tribune columnist Gordon Monson.

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