This February, when Matt Forte decided to retire, he could have leaked the news to any NFL insider he wanted. Adam Schefter has the biggest reach. Handing the scoop to a reporter in Chicago, where Forte spent most of his career, would’ve counted as a goodwill gesture. But the reporter Forte settled on had one distinct advantage over the rest: He and Forte had talked about their faith in Christ.
On February 27, Forte called Jason Romano, who writes for a Christian website called Sports Spectrum. “I am a Christian athlete,” Forte told me. “Actually, I’m more Christian than athlete, and I wanted people to realize that first. I felt if I used one of the regular publications that are strictly sports-oriented that they’d leave Jesus’s name out of it.”
Romano prepared the scoop in just the way Forte wanted: with a brief statement and a podcast interview. Then Romano went to bed and hoped the news held. “My honest to God thought was, I hope this doesn’t get leaked to Adam Schefter or any of the guys on the NFL Network,” he said. The next morning, Sports Spectrum published its exclusive. In a competitive season of NFL scoopage, the site was credited by everyone from ESPN.com’s Rich Cimini to the Associated Press.
Sports Spectrum has bigger ambitions than turning out the tales of uplift that have filled Christian sports magazines for years. It wants to become a faith-based Players’ Tribune, a place where an athlete might break some news. Forte chose Sports Spectrum in part because he liked the way the site had unveiled Ravens running back Justin Forsett’s retirement last year.
When Sports Spectrum doesn’t get a scoop, it sometimes snags the first-person “why I signed with Team X” piece. Last week, the Eagles’ Trey Burton, who threw the pass that Nick Foles caught for a touchdown in the Super Bowl, posted his goodbye letter to Philly on Sports Spectrum after signing with the Bears. Demario Davis, the Jets linebacker, penned an as-told-to piece about his free-agency process when he signed with New Orleans: “I prayed, ‘OK God, send me where You want me.’”
Last August, Anquan Boldin gave one of his first post-retirement interviews on the Sports Spectrum podcast. At Romano’s prodding, he moved from talking about faith to topics like the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville and protests happening during the national anthem.
There are two ways to understand how a small Christian website got into the scoops business. On the one hand, it’s the convergence of a well-connected reporter, an athletes’ ministry, and a magazine-cum-digital publishing arm. On the other, it’s nothing short of a parable about modern NFL content. When you’re trying to get attention in a crowded marketplace, even religious websites wind up playing the same ballgame as everybody else.
Sports Spectrum was founded as a magazine called SportsFocus in 1985. At its launch, the magazine had a companion ESPN show hosted by none other than Julius Erving. “Our underlying message is to spread the Gospel,” Erving said at the time; everyone who worked on the show was a born-again Christian.
The magazine was a vehicle for athletes like Dr. J and the Royals’ Dan Quisenberry to talk ball, faith, and clean living. “For the ‘what happened’s,’ read the sports page,” the editors counseled. “For the ‘why’s,’ read SportsFocus.” Paul Putz, a Baylor doctoral student whose website explores the nexus of sports and Christianity, subscribed to Sports Spectrum when he was growing up in the ’90s. “This is how we knew which athletes were born-again, and which ones we could root for, because they were Christians just like us,” he said.
Meanwhile, a ministry called Pro Athletes Outreach was bringing together athletes and God in a different way. Founded in 1971 by an NFL offensive lineman named Norm Evans, Pro Athletes Outreach sought to create an elite “pro to pro” ministry. They do little advertising or brand promotion. Their signature events are offseason conferences where almost all the attendees are pro baseball and NFL players. Athletes are encouraged to come by their peers; on their first visit, Forte and his wife were sponsored by Josh McCown.
“We don’t invite outsiders, and we keep it free of distractions,” said Steve Stenstrom, a former Chicago Bears quarterback who serves as the group’s president. “No autographs, no lights, nothing else they commonly experience in their world.”
Last month, the Pro Athletes Outreach NFL conference took place at the Ritz-Carlton outside Tucson, Arizona. Typically, the conference’s culminating event is a baptism. Two years ago, Jameis Winston and his girlfriend, Breion Allen, were baptized. This year, Vikings (now Broncos) quarterback Case Keenum stood in a pool while tight end Kyle Carter, a former teammate, was baptized. Forte had been baptized when he was younger but chose to be baptized again at the conference.
Pro Athletes Outreach has dabbled in media. The ministry has a Players’ Tribune–style website called The Increase. (John the Baptist on Jesus, in John 3:30: “He must increase, but I must decrease.”) The ministry produces an annual video of football players talking about their faith, which it gives to churches as a “sermon replacement” for Super Bowl Sunday. (This year’s version was narrated by CBS’s James Brown.) But in 2016, when Pro Athletes Outreach bought Sports Spectrum, the ministry needed a writer who was willing to devote his life to his faith and also knew something about digital content.
Romano, who’s 44, was the perfect candidate. He spent more than 16 years as a well-liked “glue guy” at ESPN. As a booker for shows like Mike & Mike, Romano got friendly with athletes in nearly every sport. He later created ESPN’s NFL Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram accounts, which have a combined 8 million followers.
When he first got to Bristol, Romano wasn’t a Christian. But in 2003, his wife Dawn finally got pregnant after years of trying. Romano was overcome. “I just dropped to my knees and I cried like a 2-year-old …” he once told a congregation. “God truly just covered my body with His spirit.”
Romano had thought about leaving ESPN a few times before. By 2016, God was “nudging” him, he said. When Stenstrom offered him a job at Sports Spectrum, Romano decided to leave his dream job and take a pay cut. “I do not want to look back at my life and wish I had done more for God ...” he wrote in a Facebook post. “Now is that time to say Yes to that calling and take that risk. Now is the time to fly.”
Part of Sports Spectrum’s strategy is to deliver the old inspirational tales at new-media speeds. This year, the site sent three reporters to the Super Bowl and used press availabilities to ask athletes questions like, “How important is it for you to use your platform to glorify God?” A video of Eagles tight end Zach Ertz’s answer, which Sports Spectrum quickly posted online, got 161,000 shares.
With a tiny staff (six people work on the site more or less full-time), Romano and his team also figured out that aggregation can cover a lot of content holes. When Nate Solder signs a new contract, Sports Spectrum posts the news and adds a link to Solder talking about his faith.
But Romano learned from watching Adam Schefter that a scoop can grab the public’s attention like nothing else. There’s precedent for this kind of media strategy, Paul Putz noted. In the ’70s, Gary Warner’s magazine The Christian Athlete emulated the muckraking style of Sports Illustrated by exploring issues like drugs in sports. Sports Spectrum is following the rhythms of digital media in the same way.
Most of Sports Spectrum’s scoops come from players that gather at Pro Athletes Outreach conferences. In February, the site’s team told the 150 current and former NFL players in attendance that if they ever wanted to break some news, or just tell their story, they had a waiting platform.
As Stenstrom tells it, Christian athletes have an age-old gripe about the sports media. Let’s say a player like Justin Forsett tells a reporter he’s retiring, and includes a line in which he thanks God. When the story gets published, the player will almost inevitably find the reporter has deleted all the religious stuff. “It would all mysteriously disappear somehow,” Forsett told me.
Sports Spectrum, the Saints’ Demario Davis said, “Puts things in a way that’s glorifying to God and really captures the story holistically. If you want to incorporate something about the Word, they help you piece it together.”
It’s a surgical removal of the journalist-intermediary just like the one performed by The Players’ Tribune. “We like to say we’re putting Jesus back in the conversation,” Stenstrom said.
The annual conferences—where you can find Winston and Keenum and Malcolm Jenkins—activate Romano’s old journalistic instincts. He told me, “If you only knew some of the things you hear, some of the players you saw, you’d think, Oh, my, this is like a walking into a breaking newsroom.” But Sports Spectrum never posts a video of a player being baptized at a conference. If the player puts the video on social media, however, the site is happy to aggregate it—c.f., “Eric Ebron gives life to Christ, gets baptized.”
Sports Spectrum is still tiny. On the day the Trey Burton story went up, the site’s traffic went from a few thousand unique visitors to about 15,000, Romano said. But the brand is slowly seeping into the mainstream. Last summer, when Sports Spectrum broke the news that quarterback Dan Orlovsky had signed with the Rams, Romano even got a Twitter nod from Adam Schefter.
One of the questions that hangs over Sports Spectrum is how to handle issues like the NFL protests. Romano is well aware of the recent New York Times story about African Americans leaving evangelical churches because their pastors failed to reckon with racial violence and Donald Trump. “The church that claims to believe in the same Savior, in Jesus Christ, is divided on so many issues—especially on issues of culture and race,” Romano said. “That’s alarming to me.”
So when Romano had Anquan Boldin on his podcast, he pushed the receiver to talk about what was on his mind. The results were fascinating. About NFL owners who claimed to “support” protesting players, Boldin said, “That isn’t support. That’s permission.”
Stenstrom told me: “We want to build a platform where our athletes have the opportunity to share about all aspects of their life as it pertains to or flows from their faith.” If that includes kneeling during the anthem, he said, so be it.
Romano and Stenstrom aren’t the kind of guys who crow like the founders of The Athletic. “I’m not trying to get any glory,” Romano said. “Obviously, I want God to get the glory. But from a media perspective, it’s cool that our little Sports Spectrum brand had something the big four letters and everybody else in the media business didn’t have.”
If modesty weren’t enough of a check, last week the Sports Spectrum team learned that beating the best NFL reporters isn’t easy. The site’s team thought it might break the Demario Davis signing. The news was splashed on social media before they knew themselves. Maybe that’s the parable of modern NFL content. There is faith and there is fellowship and then there’s an agent who can’t wait to leak something to Schefter.