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. Art

    Sports, in and of itself, is, to quote Ecclesiastes, vanity. Ultimately, it passes away.

    While there are certainly benefits to be found in it, the problem with the modern Christian is that sports are elevated beyond its value. Sports are often given a Christian stamp in an attempt to somehow make it godly.

    "...for bodily exercise is profitable for a little; but godliness is profitable for all things." (1 Timothy 4:8)

    But sports in and of themselves are not godly; they are not ungodly either but no matter how much we may try and "Christianize" them sports are not any more spiritual any more than driving your car, going to work or taking a dump.

    June 4, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
  2. barbequebob

    I'm torn between "God doesn't care who wins the super bowl, world series, NCAA champioship, etc." or

    "No wonder the world is such a mess, God is spending all of his/her time fixing the outcoome of sporting events".

    But the bottom line is that sports and religion really have nothing to do with each other, and a person's religous beliefs has nothing to do with their athletic ability.

    Personally, I am sick of all these self serving, self-professed "Christians" whose behavior would test even Christ's ability to forgive.

    June 4, 2011 at 3:16 pm |
  3. SonyPony

    Why can't CNN just use one comment format for all articles??

    June 4, 2011 at 3:16 pm |
  4. Billsen

    I don't think it is appropriate to play baseball in church, and I don't think it is proper to preach the Gospel at a baseball game.

    June 4, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
  5. Sal

    We should be keeping religion out of sports and politics! Some people do actually pray for their particular team to win a game! How dumb is that? If there is a god does he really give a .... what team wins? It's just plain dumb. 

    June 4, 2011 at 3:03 pm |
  6. Jon

    How narrow-minded to assume that, based on only a few examples, sports figures aren't cut out to carry the message of Christianity. I can come up with a few examples of ministers, priests, and evangelists who have disgraced themselves and, due to their career, Christianity worse than these several examples of sports figures here.

    June 4, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
    • Pat in IL

      His example of Kurt Warner as one of the athletes who got it right is way off. He committed a terrible offense when he thanked God for the win. If he were truly on the Jesus path, he would know very well that God does not choose sides in football games.

      June 4, 2011 at 3:17 pm |
    • Art

      Just goes to show that sports figures are human after all and are no different than the rest of us.

      June 4, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
    • Fred Evil

      Then you aren't looking very hard. Xtians embarrass themselves regularly, and spectacularly.

      June 4, 2011 at 6:49 pm |
  7. Matthew

    We're just humans after all. Temptation is nothing new. It existed since Adam's first sin. The Bible warns all believers to keep their faith on guard, because temptation – especially concupiscence – creeps up within us 24/7 (See Galatians 5:17).

    I think there is nothing wrong for a person to promote Christian values. Why discourage a person to hope for a better life? After all, that person is trying to help his or her neighbors.

    June 4, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
    • Andrew

      Adam is just a story, you realize this, yes? And you don't need to be christian to live a better life. Being a christian doesn't make someone a better person. And often promoting 'christian values' can lead to bad things, like the imposition of an arbitrary moral standard which curtails the rights of others. *cough* gay marriage *cough*.

      June 4, 2011 at 3:01 pm |
    • Get a Grip

      its not that its wrong to promote your faith.... its just always seems that the real truth is.... "do as we say, not as we do". That is one of the greatest and most unforgivable sins of all. People like this use their professed "moral superiority" to their entire benefit... so when they get caught in their moral lie.. its particularly pathetic..

      June 4, 2011 at 3:07 pm |
    • Matthew

      @Get a grip: I agree with you, and I would add that Christians and non-Christians should be held accountable for dishonest behavior. I am simply concerned about the excessive bashing of Christianity when these critics are likely as anyone else in falling for the same temptation. I hope people would suspend judgment against religion for the fault of an individual person.

      June 4, 2011 at 3:30 pm |
    • Andrew

      I fault religion because belief is unjustifiable, simple as that... but I criticise for a whole lot more. There is this pervading idea that 'christian values' are a good thing, or that being a Christian is something to be respected, because they have stricter morals. But Christians, evidently, are just as likely to be immoral as anyone else, so evidently the idea that 'Christian values' are to be respected, or that being a Christian is indicative of a strong moral compass, is clearly faulty. The only way I can conceive of, and I may be wrong, to challenge this idea of 'being a christian implies a strong moral compass', is to constantly point out that christians are no more likely to be good people than non-christians.

      If we just ignored these events, then the idea 'it's good to be christian' would never be challenged. They could keep spouting the same old 'if you're not christian we should question your morals' insanity. How often do you read articles about killers only to see the lines 'I could never have expected it, he was a good person, went to church, was nice, blah blah', as though somehow being christian is indicative of being a good person. It isn't, and we need to point to stories like this to remind the world.

      June 4, 2011 at 3:36 pm |
    • Matthew

      @Andrew: I almost agree with you that Christians risk committing immoral actions like anyone else. I should add that a true Christian needs to constantly practice "higher sense" of morality in order to overcome many temptations. I think Christians aren't alone in experiencing temptation. However, I believe that society needs to address the action of the wrongdoer and not his religion. Otherwise, we risk taxing the individual more than necessary.

      June 4, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
    • Andrew

      I think society should however use the rather large number of christians who commit wrongdoings to finally wake up and realize that christanity doesn't imply anything good. It is a religion, and no more wholesome, worthy of respect, or admiration than any other religion or lack thereof. We should wake up and realise that being a 'christian' does not make someone a good person, just like being a non-christian does not make someone a bad person.

      June 4, 2011 at 4:01 pm |
    • Matthew

      @Andrew: I would prefer to live in a Christian society where if I wronged someone, I can compensate for my wrongdoing. In non-Christian societies, you would lose part of your body for your wrongdoing. I think you're taking for granted many Western society's laws that were historically influenced from Christian values. I strongly encourage you to visit an Islamic country or an Atheist (i.e. Communist) country where freedom of speech would lead to a loss of life. Only an idiot would prefer the latter. How are you going to make it up to yourself that Christian values positively influence society and people in general?

      June 4, 2011 at 4:14 pm |
    • Andrew

      Wait... what? Laws like "don't steal", and "don't kill" aren't historically Christian values, those have been values in culture after culture, religion after religion, society after society. You had "Christian" cultures like the Holy Roman Empire where you would lose a part of your body for doing something wrong.

      And an atheist society isn't a communist society. The argument could be made that communist societies must be atheistic societies, as Marx did kinda want that, but a secular country does not need to abide by communism. Atheism was around long before Marx wrote his manifesto.

      It's pretty easy to conceive of a secular society where you only have laws which prohibit crimes with direct victims. R-pe, murder, theft, all of those are pretty easy to justify as illegal without religion, as a society which prohibits them would be more objectively more functional than a society which allows them. Freedom of speech in a secular society would still be protected. The ONLY inherent difference between a secular and religious society is a secular society has no religion. That's it. You can still have a secular democracy, Europe does that quite nicely.

      Only an idiot postulates such a blatantly false dichotomy as you did. "Christian values" don't indicate anything very good... of the 10 commandments, the only ones which really deserve to be respected are found in non-Christian societies as well. You are painting quite a strawman of what I would advocate, and one hell of a false dichotomy.

      June 4, 2011 at 4:22 pm |
    • Andrew

      Oh, and just thought I should add, as far as peaceful values go, a christian society has NOTHING on a Jains society. I'd rather live in a fundamentalist Jains society than a fundamentalist christian society... (well, not really, I don't want to carry a broom or restrict my diet that much. I'm not that kind hearted a human being.)

      June 4, 2011 at 4:55 pm |
    • Margot707

      "that person is trying to help his or her neighbors."

      From where I sit, only those neighbors who believe the same mythology..

      June 4, 2011 at 5:40 pm |
  8. DJ

    thank god the biased hack who wrote this article is perfect in every way. would hate for him to be a hypocrite like those he bashes....oh...wait...

    June 4, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
    • Andrew

      Does he need to be perfect? Why does saying sports isn't a venue to go promoting Christianity mandate you need to be perfect? Would you be so willing to forgive if people were trying to champion sports to promote any other religion? And do we really want people saying "god wanted me to hit the ball faster than the other team!" Is that even good from a religious perspective? Does god really play sides in sporting events?

      June 4, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
    • DJ

      he comes from a very condescending point as if the fact that people made mistakes invalidates their cause. and if you have ever experienced the evangelization through sports that he speaks of, which i have more times than i can count, its not about "God wants me to hit the ball further than the other team" i have heard countless times that line of thought in younger kids rebuked, rather its about an appreciation of the talent bestowed upon us by God, and its a way to manifest our faith in him through our perserverance on the field of play.

      as far as other religions doing it, if they did, i would have no problem but they dont so it's a non-issue.

      June 4, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
    • Andrew

      It's not the fact that christians make mistakes, it's the fact that when christians make mistakes it shows they really aren't proving themselves to be any more moral than non-christians. It's the fact that christians seem to want to say 'you should have strong christian values' as though it's a good thing, when christians are just as likely to make mistakes as non-christians. If christians want their values and their morality to be considered a higher standard, then they shouldn't be held to the same standard as everyone else. It's like the catholic church saying "some of our priests were fallible, no one is perfect" all the while claiming to speak for god. 'We claim to hold truths about god but suddenly when we mess up we're held to a higher standard?'

      Christians making mistakes wouldn't be such a big deal if being christian wasn't seen as being something to be respected from a moral standpoint.

      And also... I still have just as much a problem with people saying 'god wants me to win this game' as 'I should thank god for making me more athletic than the others'. Thanking god for sports athleticism is still god picking favourites. At least, it would be if god existed and cared who was athletically talented.

      June 4, 2011 at 3:46 pm |
    • Fred Evil

      Way to excuse rampant public hypocrisy....how..xtian of you.

      June 4, 2011 at 6:51 pm |
  9. Shelnutt

    Perhaps when it is all said and done, no one will care. It's a sport, actually it's a game in which fun is meant to be had. Fun for those playing and for those watching. Just because a crook or a cheat says he is Christian, it does not make him/her any less a crook or a cheat, just like a good person is not better because he/she reads the bible. You are accountable for your own actions, Jesus doesn't pull the trigger, you do, Jesus doesn't throw the fast ball up and in, you do, Jesus doesn't beat your kids, you do, Jesus doesn't force the Hedge Fund Manager to lie and cheat others, the HFM does it on his own...Jesus didn't write this post, I did. Grow up people you are your own God, hold yourself accountable for your actions.

    June 4, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
  10. Emilio Dumphuque

    It's appalling to me how often we see Christians lying to promote Christianity.
    Sports is really the modern extension of the gladiatorial games in ancient Rome, and to have athletes trying to put Jesus's approval on their activities is laughable.
    Here's a little quote for these grand-standers to ponder: Mathew 6:5
    Yes, Jesus is calling them hypocrites.

    June 4, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
  11. gator

    Sports Illustrated will being getting sued very, very soon. I never seen so much unfounded garbage printed in your magazine. How about printing the truth instead of lies.

    June 4, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
    • Get a Grip

      the truth always hurts, doesn't it?

      June 4, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
    • Mg

      Sports Illustrated?

      June 4, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
    • DaMoose

      The "story" is coming apart from all angles. The Pulitzer Prize winner has no clothes.

      June 4, 2011 at 3:42 pm |
  12. Drew

    The author of this book obviously has a strong agenda.

    June 4, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
    • Fred Evil

      Yep, it's called the TRUTH.

      June 4, 2011 at 6:52 pm |
  13. John Smith

    I always get worry when we try to compare modern day living to a book written 2000 years ago.

    June 4, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
  14. CJ

    People like Tressel like religion because it enforces his belief in an oligarchy where he is one of the chosen ones by his God in charge. It is an ego stroke for him, nothing more.

    If he were truly a follower of that Rabbi from 2000 years ago he would be humble and we would never know who he is.

    June 4, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
    • Peace2All


      Hey -CJ...

      You Said: "If he were truly a follower of that Rabbi from 2000 years ago he would be humble and we would never know who he is."

      Isn't that counter to Jesus/Christian's/Biblical mandate to go out and spread the gospels far and wide... i.e... proselytize...? Or something like that for the Christians...?



      June 4, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
    • Gene

      "Jim Tressel, meet Harold Camping"

      "My pleasure, I've been an admirer of your celebrity for years."

      June 4, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
    • Peace2All


      LOL...! 😀


      June 4, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
    • Gene


      "Isn't that counter to Jesus/Christian's/Biblical mandate to go out and spread the gospels far and wide... i.e... proselytize...? Or something like that for the Christians...?"

      You make a good point. However, this media "platform" thrall that so characterizes kitch Christianity today is perhaps the least efficacious way to spread the message, inasmuch as it becomes just another seemingly cynical marketing manip.

      The most effective Christian witnesses, for me, are the Amish, or the Quakers, who live humbly and anonymously in service.

      All this ceasless, narcissistic "worship Him as I do or roast eternally in torment" yammering makes me want to, well, throw up.

      Thanks, and peace be unto you also.

      June 4, 2011 at 3:10 pm |
  15. Gene

    Lenny Bruce' take on all this, forty five years ago, is still one of the most trenchant:

    "If Jesus Christ came back today and saw what was being
    done in his name, he'd never stop throwing up."

    June 4, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
    • Gene

      Oops, that was a Woody Allen quote. Glad to rectify.

      June 4, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
    • Joe

      Same goes for Moses, Muhammad, .....

      June 4, 2011 at 3:01 pm |
  16. christthinks

    Christians should be Christians everywhere. In both public and private. A city set upon a hill cannot be hidden.

    June 4, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
    • Get a Grip

      but they should also not be blatant hypocrites for their personal benefit... the christians I admire don't yak about it.. they just live it..... understand now?

      June 4, 2011 at 3:11 pm |
    • christthinks

      Notice, I said they should be Christians in "both" public "and" private. When such happens, there is no room for hypocrisy.

      June 4, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
  17. Hortense and Her Enormous Cat

    Religion belongs in the history books, not in the present.

    June 4, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
    • itsme

      right on

      June 4, 2011 at 2:26 pm |
    • Mg

      Nah. Let's seek truth.

      See: Jesus Christ.

      June 4, 2011 at 3:19 pm |
    • Matthew

      If you do what you have done, then you will get what you have got.

      June 4, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
  18. Husker Fan

    I am a Christian and I do beleive Christian values are important in todays world. However, Jim Tressel did wrong and he deserves what he got. It is just too bad people like him act in such a manner in a public way, but in private they are different people. We need more people in public life that show good values both privately and publicly. I think one of the best people out there that is a solid Christian coach and public leader is Tom Osborne from Nebraska. He truly represents how to show strong Christian values. It is disappointing when guys like Tressel act like this.

    June 4, 2011 at 2:18 pm |
    • Peace2All

      @Husker Fan

      Hey there -HF...

      You Said: "I think one of the best people out there that is a solid Christian coach and public leader is Tom Osborne from Nebraska. He truly represents how to show strong Christian values."

      And, what specifically are these 'Christian Values' you speak of...?



      June 4, 2011 at 2:26 pm |
    • itsme

      yeah, I'd like to know what "christian values" are as well, and how they differ from other universally recognized values shared by most humans regardless of religious affiliations.

      June 4, 2011 at 2:31 pm |
    • Mg

      "yeah, I'd like to know what "christian values" are as well, and how they differ from other universally recognized values shared by most humans regardless of religious affiliations."

      Are you referring to the hijacked Judeo-Christian values? Let's give credit where credit is due.

      June 4, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
    • DaMoose

      Tom Osborne...Really? Does Lawrence Phillips ring a bell? Better watch where you cast those stones!

      Phillips was arrested for assaulting his ex-girlfriend, Kate McEwen, a basketball player for the Nebraska women's team. Phillips was subsequently suspended from the Husker football team by Head Coach Tom Osborne. The case became a source of great controversy and media attention, with perceptions arising that Osborne was coddling a star player by not kicking Phillips off the team permanently. Osborne defended the decision and stated that to abandon Phillips might do more harm than good. Osborne reinstated Phillips for the Iowa State game, although touted freshman Ahman Green continued to start. Phillips also contributed against Kansas and Oklahoma.

      June 4, 2011 at 3:40 pm |
  19. Hal Summers

    I wonder if Mr. Krattenmaker has ever read the Bible. It contains a number of stories about extremely flawed individuals who still managed to find redemption and make meaning of their lives. People like Mose committed murder, David, adultery and murder. There are any number of cases where people lost or betrayed their faith with varying consequences and outcomes.

    Tressel's downfall is not a denial of the faith message but an affirmation that all have sinned and that redemption does not come through money, success, honor or athletics. It comes through faith.

    Jim Tressel's story wasn't that interesting before; it is now.

    June 4, 2011 at 2:18 pm |
    • Peace2All

      Everyone makes mistakes in life. Hopefully, one will learn from them, adjust, and move forward and be better for it.



      June 4, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
  20. willie

    I'm glad this preacher is done. Remember Jim McMahon? He went to BYU just to antagonize those mormons (and to meet all those hot blondes)! Religion belongs in church, not on the field.

    June 4, 2011 at 2:15 pm |
    • MSL58


      June 4, 2011 at 2:27 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.