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My Take: Jim Tressel should make us rethink sports evangelization
Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel resigned this week.
June 3rd, 2011
03:22 PM ET

My Take: Jim Tressel should make us rethink sports evangelization

Editor's Note: Tom Krattenmaker is a writer specializing in religion in public life and a member of USA Today's board of contributors. He is the author of Onward Christian Athletes.

By Tom Krattenmaker, Special to CNN

Now that Jim Tressel is out as the coach of the mighty Ohio State University football team, resigning under the weight of rampant NCAA violations by his players and program, it’s tempting to bring the customary snark and cynicism.

Here, after all, is a coach who came on strong with the Christian faith-and-character message, a man honored by the prominent Christian ministry group Athletes in Action just one year ago with induction into AIA’s “Hall of Faith”—an honor meant to recognize recipients’ faith, leadership, character, and integrity.

Tressel kept a prayer-request box on his desk, preached the importance of a moral and spiritual foundation to his players and staff, and presented an image of himself that prompted admirers to call him “senatorial” or, to quote the title of the 2009 book about him, “More Than a Coach.”

Now a close-up photo of Tressel’s face is plastered on the cover of the magazine whose investigation led to his downfall. “Like a disgraced politician who preaches probity but is caught in lies,” Sports Illustrated’s George Dohrmann writes in his article, “the Senator was not the person he purported to be.”

Yes, the hypocrisy card is an easy play now for those who are skeptical about lavishly paid athletic champions being held up as poster men for faith and values, and about the Christian religiosity that has become such a conspicuous part of big-time spectator sports.

But while the media and internet churn out the predictable responses, it’s important to consider the larger problems that Tressel’s fall illuminates. That includes the use of celebrity sports figures and the sports platform to model and promote the Christian faith.

“The platform” — that’s the phrase you’ll hear over and over from Christian players and ministry representatives when they talk about the use of mass-audience spectator sports to evangelize the sports-obsessed public. Its starkest articulation might have come from former Houston Astros third baseman Morgan Ensberg, who said in 2005 that “The entire reason I play baseball is so that I get a chance to speak about Christ.”

Ballplayers don’t necessarily reach this conclusion on their own. There’s often a faith coach of sorts behind ballplayers’ testimonials — a team chaplain or ministry representative encouraging athletes to become Christians and leverage their visibility to invite everyone to join them on the road to Jesus.

A communications staffer for one ministry described the concept for me this way: If a regular Joe walked into a restaurant, cleared his throat, and launched into a faith testimonial, few would listen, and most would be annoyed. But if a highly recognizable baseball star did the same, “People will listen, just because he’s able to hit a fastball 400 feet. That’s the concept of influence.”

Implicit in this—and often stated outright—is the highly questionable proposition that Christianity and sports are well matched, that they go together like “peanut butter and jelly,” as ex-NFL star Deion Sanders once put it. But is the stage of big-time spectator sports really a good venue for the expression and promotion of Christianity?

Tressel is just the latest case study in why I believe the answer is often “no.”

Not that all celebrated Christian coaches and players end up in disgrace. Many are able to “walk the talk” and steer clear of significant trouble for an entire career. (Think Super Bowl-winning coach Tony Dungy, or former Cardinals and Rams quarterback Kurt Warner, or St. Louis Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols.)

But the disgraced Buckeye coach Tressel is just the latest in a long line of widely praised athletic heroes of faith whose well-publicized lapses embarrassed themselves, their teams or universities, and the ministry organizations that hitched their wagons to them.

There's Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, known to write "Playing for Jesus" on his equipment, who last year incurred a suspension and massive bad publicity after a pair of sexual assault accusations.

There are the cases of professed Christian baseball stars Barry Bonds and Andy Pettitte caught using banned performance enhancing drugs (and, in Bonds' case, a whole lot more.)

And who could forget Eugene Robinson, defensive back for the Falcons, getting arrested for soliciting an undercover police officer for oral sex in 1999, just hours after receiving an award from Athletes in Action and a day before he was supposed to play in the Super Bowl?

Thankfully, signs of change are emerging at faith-in-sports organizations like Athletes in Action, an Ohio-based international sports ministry that, among other efforts, provides chaplains for many pro football teams and university athletics programs.

The new currents are tugging sports ministry toward a model where it’s not about exploiting sports as part of a marketing strategy, but about serving them as a prophetic force for their moral betterment.

The ability to draw a huge audience does not make a given cultural venue an appropriate platform for promoting Christian faith — not if that venue promotes win-at-all-costs behavior and values that are in such deep tension with the central message of the religious “product” being sold.

Corroded and decayed by revelations of cheating and lying, college and professional sports are platforms that faith promoters should not be looking to exploit, but one they should be trying to repair, redeem. Otherwise, the next Jim Tressel-style embarrassment, and the next, and the next, are always just a headline away.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Tom Krattenmaker.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Christianity • Opinion • Sports • Uncategorized

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soundoff (197 Responses)
  1. ban wagon...

    Would you like to be judged for your worst qualities.. or your best? No one is perfect.. He free from sin.. cast the first stone.
    Did he do more good then bad..? DID he influence people to strive to a greater purpose.. did he have a butterfly effect on thousands that might have helped others in any capacity? WE are too quick to rake over the cole are fallen flawed "leaders".. but they never were running for "Messiah"... they are just "men" or people who took a chance to "lead".. few take that chance...Because the scrutiny is too high. He is a man, he some mistakes. We all have. Has this man done more "good" on our Earth then he has done "Bad".. I think so... a man judged by the sum of his life seems more rational.. too many "very important" decisions are made by "mob mentality"... another flaw of the "human" condition....

    June 4, 2011 at 1:57 pm |
    • D. sylvester

      People are so quick to judge. Tressel did not judge others. He never declared himself perfect. He said he needed a savior. Not that he was one. You say "disgraced coach". Let all the facts come out. People are so quick to judge and jump on someone when they are down to make themselves feel better or to try to sway anothers opionion like this article does. Just wait. I think this whole affair turns out much different than most think but when it does it wont get the headlines and no one will be there to apoligize to Tressel.

      June 4, 2011 at 2:22 pm |
    • Jason

      Sylvester, the relevant facts are known. These kids got tattoos by trading merchandise they received from being football players at Ohio State. That's an established fact. Tressel was sent an email by a boodtrt long before these facts became a media matter, informing him of these possible violations. That is an established fact. Tressel did NOT forward that email to his AD or his school's compliance officer, which is his responsibility as a coach. That is an established fact.

      When these matters did become a media matter, Tressel claimed that he had no knowledge and had never heard of the situation. That is a lie, and it's on tape. Tressel lied to his bosses (they claim) and he lied to the NCAA. Even when he was caught in his lie, he lied AGAIN. He claimed that the only reason he didn't pass the information up the chain of command is that he was concerned about confidentiality. Unfortunately, the university has copies of the logs that show that he forwarded the email to a number of people outside of the program, meaning he was perfectly willing to violate confidentiality. He lied to cover up actions by athletes because he wanted them to stay eligible, to help him win football games, and then he lied about his cover up in order to protect his own job.

      At every opportunity, Tressel did the wrong thing, for the purpose of protecting his own job and reputation. These are established facts which no one (the OSU, Tressel's lawyers, the NCAA) now dispute. They can't be disputed, because the evidence is obvious.

      No matter what other information comes out, or doesn't come out, Jim Tressel is, and always will be, the man who cheated, and then lied about it. Not only that, but there are further allegations about wrongdoing within the program, and that Tressel knew. The people making these allegations have been right about all of their past allegations, but even if they are 100% wrong, it's already a matter of public record that Tressel is a liar and a cheater.

      The only thing we can learn from this point forward about Jim Tressel is that he cheated and lied even more than we already knew.

      June 4, 2011 at 5:35 pm |
  2. marv

    Tom Krattenmaker is right on target! Keep up the good reporting.

    June 4, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
    • M

      Mark 2:17 "When Jesus heard this, he told them, "Healthy people don't need a doctor–sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners."" Being a Christian does notmean that you'll never SIN again, but I'm glad that Christ does offer forgiveness to the people who recognize that sin ultimately has a price that they cannot pay, but HE has paid for them. So no, SIN should not be condoned, but I thank Christ for forgiveness when we do.

      June 4, 2011 at 2:12 pm |
  3. realist

    What do you expect from a person whose job it is to manipulate young men into attending their school, then manipulate them into superior football players. His expertise is manipulation. He manipulated us all.

    June 4, 2011 at 9:26 am |
  4. william

    I see Christian evangelism occuring in more and more areas.... government, politics, the armed forces, sports, and have about had it. We would all be much better off if folks would keep their belief and faith private affairs. None of us who don't believe like you are fed up with your idiotic blathering, and would appreciate it if you would just learn to shut up about it.

    June 4, 2011 at 9:23 am |
    • realist

      Amen...haha youall live your life and I will live mine

      June 4, 2011 at 9:27 am |
  5. Texan86

    @FairGarden. Your right on. I use to be a christian and the 'judge not' thing was one of the most annoying and miss understood teachings of Christ. Judging is telling someone that they are good or bad. That is NOT the same as calling what someone has done or is doing good or bad.

    June 4, 2011 at 9:14 am |
  6. Jo Ann Scott, Bland, VA 24315

    99 Trillion according to aricle by Scott Riggell is the amount the US is in debt. Where are your news people, why aren't they
    reporting on all the crap Obama is into, are you all kissing??? Guess dark chocolate is better than white???

    This is beyond anything anyone has ever heard. Our fed gov has been out of hand for decades, but the last 2 Pres have destroyed our nation, old Bush spent like it was water, started wars because he and Cheney wanted the oil revenues for themselves, and old man Bush, wonder just how much money they’re all still getting under the table from the Oil Cos. and from the Saudi’s.
    Now we have another one that’s spending like there is no tomorrow, a stupid fool who’s made our nation to a 3rd world country, trying to take God out of everything, bringing in every damned muslim he can find to put in our gov even a jerk for the supreme court and everyone is just patting him on the back.

    Pray God will look down on us, and take this fool out of office next election, hopefully there’ll be something left after the next year and half. We the voters have got to wake up and vote everything in DC out, start over and if they don’t do their jobs right, vote them out too, then make it so hot for them that they can’t keep their salaries, ins or other perks after they’re out of office, this is a travesty and disgusting that they’ve been allowed to get by with this all these years. They don’t care for the voter until time for re-election and as soon as they get back in office, they immediately forget about them and are only concerned where their next $ is coming from, and they don’t care how or where they get it so long as their pockets are full. They are not concerned about voter’s pockets. Time for a house cleaning in DC, clean everyone out, get rid of all the garbage from top to every one employed or appointed by the pres or congress.

    Also have question, why is it so hard to find a place to express ones concerns. It's like you people don't want to hear them.
    Why isn't there room/place on Cafferty/Situation Room/somewhere else on CNN to post our concerns and thoughts, which maybe would be mentioned once in awhile, the people of the US need to have a forum where they can be heard by the idiots
    we fools have elected. You people may contact me any time, am not ashamed of anythig I have to say.

    June 4, 2011 at 8:35 am |
    • Hortense and Her Enormous Cat

      You, sir, appear to be a nut. Please keep your crazy to yourself.

      June 4, 2011 at 2:22 pm |
    • Fred Evil

      Stop embarrassing Virginia.....

      June 4, 2011 at 6:31 pm |
  7. T-party

    Ohio bigger problems than college football. I do mortgage loan servicing .....Cleveland Toledo Cincinnati are full of vacant f/c properties......Columbus is the only town with job growth in that rusty state.........God is Blessing China with Ohio jobs

    June 4, 2011 at 12:23 am |
  8. TressFan

    Tressel lied. He made a mistake. He is now held accountable for that mistake and praIse the Lord for all faithful Christians who have posted and judged him. As a faithful Cristrian I was not taught not to judge another. That is God's job. The judgmental posters can now return to their televisions and watch 2 1/2 Men.

    June 3, 2011 at 11:55 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Yet here you are judging those who have judged.

      June 4, 2011 at 12:23 am |
    • FairGarden

      @TressFan, Jesus meant that we should not consider ourselves better than more innocent people. He commanded us to make judgment on moral issues. Read Matthew ch. 5-7 again. The ranting of "Judge not" is making every American idiotic. Christians in other nations don't do that; one of the reasons we have less number of pervers.

      June 4, 2011 at 7:37 am |
    • Jason

      Lying is not a mistake, it's a decision to do wrong. Choosing to do wrong is not the same as accidentally leaving the roast in the oven too long. One is a mistake, and the other is a sign of poor character.

      June 4, 2011 at 5:48 pm |
    • Fred Evil

      "The judgmental posters can now return to their televisions and watch 2 1/2 Men."
      Do you recognize how judgmental that statement was, oh hypocritical one?
      LOL @ xtian fools....gullibility is their primary mental asset.

      June 4, 2011 at 6:33 pm |
  9. FairGarden

    "The LORD loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of His unfailing love." (Psalm 33:5)

    June 3, 2011 at 9:40 pm |
  10. grace

    God is so great that sometimes you can't keep quiet about it. I used to not be able to find him, and felt angry and rejected.. As it says in the bible we are told we must seek him with all our heart soul and mind. I believe in a supernatural and interactive God, and it has taken years for me to accept his ways but finding him required me to follow him. I wish I had got with the program and found him years ago, cause life is so much better. I wonder if this guy had the same experience.

    June 3, 2011 at 8:00 pm |
  11. James Black

    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aGSvqMBj-ig&w=640&h=360]

    June 3, 2011 at 7:55 pm |
  12. John Richardson

    Glad to see the jerk go. I didn't even know he was a preening, posturing Christian.

    But on the underlying topic, this issue won't go away until colleges stop making big $$$ off of athletes.

    June 3, 2011 at 6:45 pm |
  13. Michael Teston

    Lets be real clear here. The person hung, errr executed outside the gates of a city 2000 some years ago did not build his movement on platforms and celebrities. This is the essential fallacy of the so called "Christian" movement in Americana circles. The kid from Nazareth built his movement on the backs of people that didn't matter to anyone, lets keep that straight and don't confuse what goes on in circles where celebrities, jocks, and those having clout or might have clout in the circles of the so called influential. Jesus flew below the radar as long as he could. To imagine that the movement of Jesus needs platforms and celebrity coaches or players or anything else with so called clout is an absolute misunderstanding of the Jesus movement. The Gospel of Jesus does not need big time college sports to advance itself and to imagine such a thing is a joke to anyone who seriously follows the Nazarene to places like Haiti, Africa, Cuba, the Dominican not recruiting jocks but caring for orphans, widows, and the broken.

    June 3, 2011 at 6:24 pm |
    • willgrant11

      I have been thinking this for a while. It does seem to me there are people (as mentioned in the article) pushing this "platform" viewpoint or strategy. It makes no sense from a biblical point of view. We are supposed to win people with love and truth ("they will know we are Christians by our love one to another"), not our homeruns or touchdowns.

      June 4, 2011 at 7:24 am |
  14. Rico

    Cynics like Tressel (and the great Dave Bliss @ Baylor) know that they can dupe the masses if they position themselves as super-Christians. Why? Because they know that REAL Christians are dimwitted sheep who can be easily led to follow anyone who waves a bible around (Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, Ted Haggard, etc.) Read Elmer Gantry and learn all you need to know about the Charlatans who preach the word of Jesus! Mel Gibson is no different than the rest of the Christians – except he got caught!

    June 3, 2011 at 6:24 pm |
  15. frank

    People that try to get other people to worship Baby Jesus give me the frickin creeps.

    June 3, 2011 at 5:35 pm |
  16. Matt

    While I agree that many outspoken Christian athletes have been exposed as frauds, I don't think there's a greater percentage of them in the athletic world than there is in the general public. It's merely that with celebrity comes exposure, and thus a far greater chance of their misdeeds becoming news.

    Furthermore, the author should have taken this a step further by saying that there's no link between being a Christian and being a good person. Social deviants as well as tremendous humanitarians come from all walks of life - Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists. To condemn or praise any religious demographic as being better or worse than society as a whole is simply wrong.

    June 3, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
  17. The Amazing Insights of Alvin Sklunkman, Christian

    Christians lying? No. This is the media lying.

    Corrupt Christians? Obviously this is the work of atheists who are pretending to be Christians so that they can discredit us.

    Christians infiltrating professional sports and the military and the government to force their ways down the throats of others? No, it's the atheist anti-Christs who are doing that, people like, like, uh, well, I'm sure there are lots of them.

    June 3, 2011 at 4:36 pm |
  18. Scr-w This

    Let's hear some Tony Weiner jokes.

    June 3, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
    • Chicken Little

      It was a photo of the congressman, and his "junior senator".... ba dum bum

      June 3, 2011 at 4:10 pm |
  19. tallulah13

    Frankly, I think that overt religion has no place in any workplace. I have no problem with people going to church or doing bible study or meeting to talk about their faith. But it doesn't belong in a situation where people of different beliefs are gathered for a secular purpose, be it a factory or a locker room.

    A coach who proselytizes belongs at a religious school, not a public one, and a coach who is willing to cheat to win has no place in organized sports.

    June 3, 2011 at 3:46 pm |
    • PraiseTheLard

      The practice of religion should be restricted to consenting adults in the privacy of their dwelling.

      June 3, 2011 at 3:59 pm |
    • Peace2All

      @tallulah13

      Again, big 'fan' of your postings. Well said !

      Peace...

      June 3, 2011 at 4:10 pm |
    • Matt

      Praisethelord, that is funny 🙂

      However, I agree wholeheartedly with the original poster. Quite frankly, depending on how overt Tressel's Christianity was as head coach at a state school, his conduct pertaining to religion could even be interpreted as illegal, let alone unethical.

      June 3, 2011 at 4:48 pm |
    • Cody Moore

      How can 1 call themselves a christian and say that it doesn't belong in a public or a workplace? How does one obey Christ and spread the gospel then? Unbelievers aren't looking for Christ and if I can only talk about Him in my own house or with other believers the who is evangelizing the Gospel. Romans 1:16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “The just shall live by faith.”

      June 4, 2011 at 3:01 pm |
    • Fred Evil

      I don't know Cody, how do I stop myself from pointing and laughing at 'xtians'? Why should I keep myself from asking pointed questions they cannot answer?

      It's called respect. Respect others privacy, and SHUT UP about it. Go annoy someone else with your religious blather. Maybe they'll appreciate you wasting their time, nobody I know will.

      June 4, 2011 at 6:44 pm |
  20. WVU Loud and Proud

    Pfft...what did you expect from Buckeyes but lies and back door dealings. We have been saying the bought all their wins and the Buckeyes just dismissed it. The other day, one OSU fan had the audacity to say that everyone does it...as if that makes OSU's sins ok.

    June 3, 2011 at 3:46 pm |
    • Trojan

      Everybody does do it. We did it. You do it too. OSU just got caught. There's too much money involved in major college sports. Money corrupts everything and everyone it touches. And it touches a LOT of people.

      June 3, 2011 at 7:01 pm |
    • FairGarden

      I love Christianity because it alone really makes one looks at oneself before God when others do wrong. A Christian leader said, cheating $1 is the same as cheating $1 million(or whatever amount). Amen to that.

      June 3, 2011 at 9:45 pm |
    • Adam

      Oh GOD shut up already. OSU has talented athletes just like the rest of the country, they're not perfect. Blah blah blah "i was right all along"

      June 3, 2011 at 11:42 pm |
    • DaMoose

      URFROMWVU...nuf said.

      June 4, 2011 at 3:45 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.