GUEST POST: Today’s guest post comes from former Northwestern football star Jason Wright, who went on to have a solid seven-year NFL career. I connected with Jason when he was in Atlanta, struggling to make the Falcons’ roster. He retired this season and we’re working on a writing project that talks about his time in the NFL — it’s going to be a great book! But Jason’s also got some smart thoughts on college football and faith. He’s agreed to let me post something he wrote recently on Ohio State’s Jim Tressel and the responsibility of Christians to help these Christian “celebrities.” Enjoy!
I’ll begin by saying this: I believe Jim Tressel loves God. I believe he has faith that Jesus is the Son of God and the Savior of the world. I also believe that he has a real personal relationship with the one true God. During my time playing for the Cleveland Browns, I was repeatedly told of the stellar job he did representing the faith at churches, para-church fundraisers, and other Christian gatherings. And I don’t think he was faking.
That being said, his very public moral failure has caused big headlines and, for those who championed his faith, even bigger disappointment. But before this plank-eyed sinner begins to point out the speck in Coach Tressel’s eye, I need to make a clear statement: Coach Tressel’s fall is our fault. Yes, the church is at fault for this public debacle; at the very least the portion of the church with more than a surface knowledge of college football’s inner workings.
Those of us who have been a chaplain, coach, or player at the collegiate level know that, in certain programs, players get paid. And I’m not talking about that rinky-dink stipend check for off-campus living expenses. Because many college athletes and high school prospects are unfairly denied free market value for their services (a peripheral debate better left for another time), the “corporate” arm of many major athletic departments finds a way to reimburse them. Those of us believers engaged in sports ministry know this for a fact. For some reason we have just ignored it as a non-issue. For some reason we deactivate our moral compass when confronted with it. I have an idea why.
We, and I do mean we, have accepted the dogma that the significant platform for evangelism afforded big time athletics is a worthy trade-off for a “minor” unethical means of obtaining it. We have decided to label a deliberate violation of a NCAA rule (even a debatable rule) a “lesser sin” so that more people will get to hear the gospel at our next sports-related outreach. We say, “Well, he’s not saying anything blasphemous about Jesus.” And, “Isn’t it amazing how many people came to Christ today?” We find our justification for this in Philippians 1:18. After talking about the questionable motives and moral character of his fellow preachers, Paul resigns himself to thought of the greater good by saying: “What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.” And it is so very true. I doubt that any of those people who truly entered into relationship with God through Jim Tressel’s witness have turned away because of his transgression. And I am almost certain none of the players whose lives he touched in a positive way are now going to dismiss all that he taught them about manhood, respect, and accountability. But my worry is for Coach Tressel himself.
Each individual’s relationship with God begins with repentance. This is process by which we each become aware of our sin, acknowledge it before God, and commit to turning away from that sin. No matter how grave the transgression, we receive merciful forgiveness from a Holy God who has every right to condemn us. We benefit all because Jesus died on the cross as payment for our sins; every single one of them. The bible says that encountering this ridiculous kindness leads us to willingly engage a lifestyle of joyful repentance and its resulting transformation of character (Romans 2:4). However, when we fail to respond to the gut punch of conviction (the feeling of “I just messed up and I need to do something about it”), the fire of our relationship with God begins to diminish. If we continually avoid genuine repentance we will find that only a faint afterglow remains of our once raging passion for God and His kingdom. By not thoroughly questioning our brother Jim Tressel on the conflict between his faith and the underground economy of Division I football, we handed him over to this faith-extinguishing cycle. Proverbs 27:5 says “open rebuke is better than secret love” and Galatians 6:1 reads “if someone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” Taken a step further, scripture says that a good parent rebukes his child so that kid won’t be subject to the fire of hell. Did we care enough about Coach Tressel’s soul to call him out? Does it reveal we value our ministries above our brother’s relationship with God?
At one point during my NFL career, our team drafted a hot shot who had athleticism, intellect, and a stellar college football resume. Although he wasn’t in relationship with Jesus, he could comfortably talk about God and Christianity in a way that immediately sent him on the Christian speaking circuit. In each place he was praised for being a strong Christian example and great role model for the general public. Imagine the challenge facing me and the other Christians in that locker room to help him truly see his need for Jesus! Why would our evangelistic advances have any effect when he’s been affirmed by major Christian leaders and thousands of festival goers? By the grace of God he eventually did respond to the gospel and began authentic relationship with Jesus Christ. His life radically changed. But the extent to which the church used his celebrity without caring for his soul placed obstacles in his road to surrender. I fear that there are many similar cases that have not ended as well. I fear that many other athletes and coaches continue to be used by us to promote a faith that they do not yet truly follow. Or, in Coach Tressel’s case, follow in the mire of compromise. By not addressing sin, or even the suspicion of sin, we carelessly steward these famous souls.
So what do we do? How do we love coaches and other Christian celebrities rightly? Paul writes in Ephesians 4 that we preserve the sanctity of the Body of Christ by speaking the truth in love. Verses 14-15 read:
“[S]o that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.”
And again in verse 25:
“[H]aving put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.”
God has given a number of us personal relationships with these limelight Christian figures. Much like Daniel, Joseph, and Esther we are afforded these relationships to clearly point these prominent figures towards God’s goodness and righteousness.
I was recently a presenter at the Fellowship of Christian Athletes National Championship Breakfast. I got fired up as Gene Chizik, head coach of the Auburn Tigers, boldly proclaimed his faith in Christ. But I wonder if we are doing our best to ensure that his testimony is above reproach? I couldn’t help but smile as Oregon Ducks assistant Chris Brasfield preached his head off at the same event. Is there someone willing to speak truth into his life as he climbs the college football ranks? Let’s answer the call. Let’s do it with much prayer so that the love God has for them would be evident as we ask the tough questions. Let this deep love move us past the awkwardness and fear that often has us avoid the big conversations. And let this weighty responsibility drive us to deal with our own areas of sin and compromise as we endeavor to lead our brothers into truth.