The Tressel Fiasco: Christians and Their Sports Heroes

Do the moral failures of former Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel, an outspoken Christian, have anything to teach Christians?  I think they do.

I do not know Jim Tressel.  His faith has certainly seemed in the past to be genuine.  (Update: here’s a resource showing a profession of faith from Tressel, albeit one that would concern some.)  My point here is not to suggest that we can now know that his profession of faith is not genuine.  I do think, however, that his example may be instructive for evangelicals who love sports, Christians who play sports, and supporting Christians who play sports.

Decades ago, Sports Illustrated writer Frank Deford identified an odd phenomenon in sports culture he called “Sportianity” which referred to the tendency of evangelicals to approach sports with the same zeal they had for Christianity, to identify with athletes and teams and then read into those causes a sense of purpose and righteousness they typically reserved for their faith.  Deford decried the odd mix of religion and sports, clearly seeing it as bankrupt and corrupting.

In his original article, Deford cited a prayer offered by a Christian chaplain before a game, then offered this commentary:

Until recently, the distasteful practice of having loquacious men of the cloth deliver pregame invocations larded with sporting lingo was restricted pretty much to the South and to football. But athletic religion is not so bashful anymore. Increasingly, public team prayer and public-address entreaties to the Divine Goalie or the Head Coach in the Sky are in evidence. Sportianity, as this brand of religion might best be called, is thoroughly evangelistic, using sport as an advertising medium. The idea is simple enough: first, convert the athletes, who are among the most visible individuals in our society; then, use these stars for what is generally known in the business as “outreach,” an up-to-date rendering of the old-fashioned phrase “missionary work.” To put it bluntly, athletes are being used to sell religion. They endorse Jesus, much as they would a new sneaker or a graphite-shafted driver.

Deford had his qualms with evangelicalism more broadly, as the article makes clear.  Nevertheless, this is trenchant criticism.  Little has changed since 1976, the publication year of Deford’s piece, which made quite a splash.  Christians still imbue sports with religious purpose; we still reverence Christian athletic figures, including Jim Tressel; and even after another athlete professing faith fails morally, we find a new one, seemingly impervious to our role in this cycle.

I can feel criticism mounting as I write these words.  Am I suggesting that Christians shouldn’t play or watch sports?  Don’t sports provide a public platform by which the gospel may be proclaimed–and isn’t that what Christians want?  Do the failings of one man signify that all Christian athletes are compromised?  Worst of all, am I positing that Christians should ignore sports, the thought worse than which one cannot think?  Could evangelicals, in many cases the most rabid sports fans of all, really have to give up sports (gasp!)?

No.  That’s my answer to these questions.  As some readers of this humble little blog know, I very much enjoy sports.  I love my Celtics.  Basketball has always been a big part of my life, sometimes too big, in fact.  I have spoken at many Fellowship of Christian Athletes events and would do so again in a heartbeat.  My personal belief is that sports can indeed be a means of gospel promotion, and I would actively support those who undertake such ministry as their vocation.  Christians can enjoy many gifts of God’s common grace in this world, which certainly includes sports.  Playing, watching and discussing sports is normal, healthy and fun.

Like so many pursuits and passions in this world, though, we can easily become imbalanced in our love for sports.  Just as we can allow our love of music or literature or academics or work or sex or food to entice us to sin, so we can allow sports too big of a role in our lives, and too great a purpose.  As Deford alleged, we can mix sports and faith, creating a weird and ethically murky cause that is equal parts religious and athletic zeal.  We can pray for sports teams to win.  We can make the very common mistake of thinking that the athletic figures we like are morally upstanding based solely on their performance.  “Yes, Dwayne Wade did cheat on his wife, thereby ruining his family, but he shows such fortitude in the clutch.”  “Yes, LeBron James has fathered children out of wedlock, but he brings people such joy by the way he plays the game.”  “Yes, Player X gets into fights on the court and whines about calls, but he attends this church and says he’s a Christian–I support him fully.”

We can do the same for athletic programs, mistakenly thinking that because we like them they are somehow bereft of the sins and compromises endemic to institutions in this fallen world.  We evangelicals can be all too guilty of confusing athletic causes with Christian ones.  We also can avoid many of the hard questions we should ask about every part of our world–philosophical questions that analyze every aspect of our institutions and practices–and confine our analysis of sports only to investigations of on-field character.  We should ask, “How did he respond to being whistled for a foul?” and try to teach based on that event, but we should also permit ourselves to ask much harder, possibly disruptive questions like, “What are the ungodly elements of sports culture?”

In general, I think many of us need to take a step back from sports and grow a bit more reflective about them.  We don’t need to leave them, not play them, not watch them.  But I do think that many of us could do well to examine the ways in which we may be confusing sports with Christianity.  Our cause is Christ and his kingdom, not any team or athlete.  We ascribe ultimate importance to the things of God, not the details of games.  We fervently support our local churches, not the team we love most.  We see Christ as sinless and righteous, not any athlete, however much we may admire and like them.  We regularly inconvenience ourselves to serve our families, not to make it to a regular round of games.

If these ideas sound tough to pull off, that may serve to show us how much we really do love sports, and accordingly how a little perspective might serve us well.  I’ve definitely been an athletic idolator, so to speak, and I am aware that I can easily slip back into such sin if I’m not careful through the Spirit’s power.

To close, I’m not suggesting that Christians should freak out anytime the opportunity to watch a game presents itself.  I am saying, though, that we must avoid the pitfalls of Sportianity.  Only Jesus deserves our worship.  Everything else in this world we engage with caution, care, and theological awareness, holding gifts of common grace lightly.

Select resources on this topic:

Shirl Hoffman, Good Game: Christianity and the Culture of Sports (Baylor, 2010)

Warren St. John, Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer: A Road Trip into the Heart of Fan Mania (Broadway, 2005)

Kevin DeYoung, Don’t Call it a Comeback: The Old Faith for a New Day (Crossway, 2011; my chapter on sanctification touches on this matter)

(Image: Gregory Sheamus, Getty Images/Washington Post)

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