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, parachurch fundraisers, and other Christian gatherings. I've heard equally positive reports from his former players. And I don't think he was faking.
Yet his very public moral failure, culminating in his resignation late last month as head football coach at Ohio State University, has caused big headlines and, for those who championed his faith, even bigger disappointment. Before this plank-eyed sinner begins to point out the speck in Coach Tressel's eye, however, I need to make a clear statement: Coach Tressel's fall is our fault. Yes, the church bears responsibility for this public debacle; or, at 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 ignored it as a non-issue. For some reason we deactivate our moral compass when confronted with it. I have an idea why.
Care Enough to Rebuke
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 NCAA rules (even debatable rules) 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 considers the greater good and says, "What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice." This is so very true. I doubt that any of those people who truly entered into relationship with God through 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 the 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 (Rom. 2:4).
However, when we fail to respond to the gut punch of conviction, 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. I know this because it has happened to me. 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 commands, "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 National Football League career, our team drafted a hot-shot rookie 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 began to change. 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 so 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.
Answer the Call
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, "so 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" (Eph. 4:14-15). He continues, "Having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another" (Eph. 4:25). 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 grinned ear to ear 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 get fired up 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 have these tough discussions.
There is a considerable competitive disadvantage inherited by coaches who actually adhere to NCAA rules. So our brothers who choose to coach in a manner consistent with their faith make a great sacrifice. They may even lose their jobs if their respective programs go from compromised excellence to honest mediocrity. Let's prepare them for this possibility and champion them regardless of the result. Let's encourage their radical obedience with Jesus' words in Mark 10:29-31:
There is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.
And finally, let's consistently address our own areas of spiritual compromise. Experiencing the beautiful pain of this process will not only make our words authentic, but enable us to approach our brothers in understanding compassion instead of aloof self-righteousness.
Jason Wright is a seven-year NFL veteran hanging up his cleats to pursue an MBA and MPP at the University of Chicago. He is passionate about Jesus, his family, and too many other things to mention. He just signed up for Twitter.