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. Cal

    (1) Coach Joe Paterno is exemplar of how a coach should be.
    (2) Christianity, particularly evangelical christianity is for the immature of faith.

    June 6, 2011 at 11:48 am |
  2. Mike Gantt

    Celebrity testimonies often indicate that listeners are more interested in the celebrity than they are the subject of the testimony: Jesus.

    June 6, 2011 at 8:42 am |
  3. John10:10

    Bollocks. Jesus is Lord. Shout it from the rooftops.

    June 6, 2011 at 8:22 am |
  4. John10:10

    If we don't proclaim Him the rocks will cry out.

    June 6, 2011 at 8:18 am |
  5. eliteamericans

    Fishing is a wonderful sport!

    June 5, 2011 at 11:41 am |
  6. Andy R

    Christians need not shoot our wounded,...there are plenty of other available for that. Why are we surprised and upset that these things happen, when we know that NO ONE is perfect... and being in the spotlight, these athletes and or coaches are only getting caught and exploited for being just that....'not perfect.' The message that the world really needs to hear in regards to this topic is that 'Christians are not perfect, but they are forgiven.' I believe that our lives are to be a reflection of Christ and our creator in every aspect of our lives. Whatever our profession, 'Preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ !" Be all means, make an impact on every person you can....'If he/she is breathing...they need Jesus !' If you get caught acting like everyone else....Make apologies...make amends...let them know that is not Christian Behavior...hold your head high, and 'Fight the Good Fight !'

    June 5, 2011 at 8:44 am |
  7. Judy D

    I don't think this is about Jim Tressel not reporting football players selling their possessions for profit. I think it's about something else, and someone else, although I don't know what or who. Tressel is the fall guy for something/someone. None of this makes any sense at all. What could Jim Tressel possibly stand to gain, that he doesn't have already, by failing to report the misconduct of his players? I just don't get it . And, because of that, I still believe in him and wish he wasn't leaving. OSU is losing the best thing that ever happened to their football program. If someone out there can put this together so it makes even some sense, please reply. Maybe I'm missing something, however, I live 30 miles from Columbus, OH and I'm getting all sorts of "information" regarding Jim Tressel but I'm just not connecting any of the dots. The "punishment" doesn't fit the "crime". Resigning his position seems a little drastic to me for what he (allegedly) did. Doesn't all of this seem odd? Boy, it does to me.

    June 5, 2011 at 3:20 am |
  8. nathan Harding


    Sounds like you're personal experience of religion has been pretty negative?!

    June 4, 2011 at 11:16 pm |
    • FairGarden

      No, it's just that Reality does not think.

      June 5, 2011 at 3:11 am |
    • Reality

      Saving Christians from the Infamous Resurrection Con

      From that famous passage: In 1 Corinthians 15 St. Paul reasoned, "If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith."

      Even now Catholic/Christian professors of theology are questioning the bodily resurrection of the simple, preacher man aka Jesus.

      To wit;

      From a major Catholic university's theology professor’s grad school white-board notes:

      "Heaven is a Spirit state or spiritual reality of union with God in love, without earthly – earth bound distractions.
      Jesus and Mary's bodies are therefore not in Heaven.

      Most believe that it to mean that the personal spiritual self that survives death is in continuity with the self we were while living on earth as an embodied person.

      Again, the physical Resurrection (meaning a resuscitated corpse returning to life), Ascension (of Jesus' crucified corpse), and Assumption (Mary's corpse) into heaven did not take place.

      The Ascension symbolizes the end of Jesus' earthly ministry and the beginning of the Church.

      Only Luke's Gospel records it. The Assumption ties Jesus' mission to Pentecost and missionary activity of Jesus' followers The Assumption has multiple layers of symbolism, some are related to Mary's special role as "Christ bearer" (theotokos). It does not seem fitting that Mary, the body of Jesus' Virgin-Mother (another biblically based symbol found in Luke 1) would be derived by worms upon her death. Mary's assumption also shows God's positive regard, not only for Christ's male body, but also for female bodies." "

      "In three controversial Wednesday Audiences, Pope John Paul II pointed out that the essential characteristic of heaven, hell or purgatory is that they are states of being of a spirit (angel/demon) or human soul, rather than places, as commonly perceived and represented in human language. This language of place is, according to the Pope, inadequate to describe the realities involved, since it is tied to the temporal order in which this world and we exist. In this he is applying the philosophical categories used by the Church in her theology and saying what St. Thomas Aquinas said long before him."

      The Vatican quickly embellished this story with a lot CYAP.

      Of course, we all know that angels are really mythical "pretty wingie talking thingies".

      With respect to rising from the dead, we also have this account:

      o An added note: As per R.B. Stewart in his introduction to the recent book, The Resurrection of Jesus, Crossan and Wright in Dialogue,
      o "Reimarus (1774-1778) posits that Jesus became sidetracked by embracing a political position, sought to force God's hand and that he died alone deserted by his disciples. What began as a call for repentance ended up as a misguided attempt to usher in the earthly political kingdom of God. After Jesus' failure and death, his disciples stole his body and declared his resurrection in order to maintain their financial security and ensure themselves some standing."

      o p.168. by Ted Peters:
      Even so, asking historical questions is our responsibility. Did Jesus really rise from the tomb? Is it necessary to have been raised from the tomb and to appear to his disciples in order to explain the rise of early church and the transcription of the bible? Crossan answers no, Wright answers, yes. "

      o So where are the bones"? As per Professor Crossan's analyses in his many books, the body of Jesus would have ended up in the mass graves of the crucified, eaten by wild dogs, with lime in a shallow grave, or under a pile of stones.

      June 5, 2011 at 8:41 am |
    • nathan Harding


      I am unsure of your piont. You've quoted alot of 'catholic' ideas on an issue.. obviously you have read and are familiar with 'Catholic' ideas on the issue, and have given some time to think through issues that are important to you.

      What was your point?

      June 7, 2011 at 10:36 pm |
  9. Reality

    Just more credence for the following:

    Recognizing the flaws, follies and frauds in the foundations of Islam, Judaism and Christianity by the "bowers", kneelers" and "pew peasants" should converge these religions into some simple rules of life. No koran, bible, clerics, nuns, monks, imams, evangelicals, ayatollahs, rabbis, cheating Christian football coaches, professors of religion or priests needed or desired.

    Ditto for houses of "worthless worship" aka mosques, churches, basilicas, cathedrals, temples and synagogues.

    June 4, 2011 at 11:09 pm |
  10. nathan Harding

    I don't think this is necessarily an issue of 'platform' regarding high profile christians. I think it is more an issue of message. I think their message misses the mark! It is not about hey I'm a christian and I am a good model for life (Any good citizen, whatever their faith or non-faith is, can do that).

    The message of Jesus gospel is not moralisation. It is does not preach 'You need to be more moral' – its quite the opposite, 'You can't be more moral'.

    The message of Jesus gospel is: Grace. It says no matter what you've done who you are (you can never live moral 'perfection'), but for all those who place faith in Jesus – Jesus has forgiven you.

    If that was the message then when high profile christians failed (And they will continue to fail morally). It would not matter because the message is not moralisation... The message is grace and forgiveness despite our moral failures!

    That message is by far a better one then moralisation. That is a message that should be at the centre of any 'platform'!

    If that was the message it would put defuse the tension and pressure on high profile christians!


    June 4, 2011 at 11:01 pm |
  11. Rhaas

    The demise of Jim Tressel is an interesting incident but it does not come close to addressing the much broader issue of the deification of almost every major sport and the players and coaches that "play" these sports. When I was kid in New York in the 50's, we loved Mickey Mantle because of his skills, performance and personality as it regarded the "game" of baseball. Now kids get excited because this player or that player signed a $300 million dollar contract – the sport somehow is very secondary. And who is to blame for the state of high powered sports, both collegiate and Pro? You are – the Fans. Its the Sports Fan (fanatic?) that shells out huge sums for tickets and buys all the sponsors goods and services. Its the fans that watch endless sports on tv that drive up ratings and make these sports obscenely wealthy business. Unfortunately, it is a juggernaut that probably will never be stopped. Unless we start handing out "Stanley Cups" to the science students or other brilliant (and necessary – see the state of our economy for perspective on our educational system's decline) students or citizens for contributions to humanity and not for points on a stadium scoreboard.

    June 4, 2011 at 9:13 pm |
  12. wrigh395

    People's perception of what Christianity is is very important. If Christians are portrayed as near-perfect individuals, who aren't supposed to be able to do any wrong, then of course people are going to be surprised when a sports player is caught red-handed.

    However, if Christians are shown for what they truly are (men and women who are not perfect, but who are getting there), then it shouldn't come as a shock when prominent Christians are caught doing something wrong. It is probably partially Christians' fault for portraying a false image of themselves, but non-Christians must also come to understand this too: that Christians are not perfect, but they've been reborn.

    June 4, 2011 at 7:36 pm |
  13. Mike

    Play ball and keep your god to yourself.

    June 4, 2011 at 6:57 pm |
    • Russ

      Are you that easily offended? Oh my, your tender sensitivities. How about 'watch the game and don't worry about the interviews'?

      June 5, 2011 at 9:10 am |
  14. Richard Finkelstein

    Riddle me this......How come an athlete"s big win is always because they earned the favor of God, but we hear nary a peep when those same players lose the next, even bigger game?

    June 4, 2011 at 6:51 pm |
  15. BroNate

    Perhaps we just need to acknowledge that Christianity isn't something that people embrace because they're perfect. It's something they get into because they know they have room to grow. But having said that I'd still have to agree that using sports as cheap publicity is a shortcut that can easily blow up.

    June 4, 2011 at 6:42 pm |
    • Russ

      If only we could convince singers and actors that they are not political geniuses and to quit proselytizing just because they get a microphone and a camera shoved in their faces. I don't really care what Barbara Streisand or Sharon Stone think about politics – but it is their right I suppose, and all I can do is ignore them.

      June 5, 2011 at 9:14 am |
    • JayR

      But Russ, if they don't profess their faith when given the opportunity on a large stage, they would be seen as bad Christians in many denominations. Either they go to Seminary for a few years before they get on stage, or they give their interpretation of what they think the message means. No matter what, every single person is a hypocrite in some way when it comes to religion. Let people squawk all they want about what Jim Tressel tells us about Christianity as a whole. That's as absurd as equating what Hitler means about atheism.

      June 5, 2011 at 9:59 am |
  16. Athiest

    Grr, I'm an atheist and I spew bitter vitriol because I can hide behind my alias.

    You're never going to convince people to abandon their faith by smearing what they believe in, just as you're not going to abandon your faith, er, atheism, by them preaching hell fire. What happened to sincere, honest, but polite conversation? Respect, that stuff Aretha Franklin talked about, should mean something to everybody, I think.

    June 4, 2011 at 6:35 pm |
    • jeff

      Thomas Jefferson to legitimise his right to ridicule those of faith – ‘Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions.’

      June 5, 2011 at 11:52 pm |
  17. Johnny L

    Christians are tempted just non-Christians, and they sometimes fall. All have sinned and fallen short of the grace of God. That is why we all need a Savior. Just because you are "temptable" does not mean that you should never speak out for God or for right living. If that was the case, no one would have a "right" to speak out for good. Tressel did break some NCAA rules, and as in John Edward's case, the rules he broke were not near as bad as trying to cover it up. We also need to keep this in perspective. While Tressel did break NCAA rules, he did not break any law. There are also many voices who agree that college athletes should be compensated monetarily for all the money they bring in to their school and conference. So Tressel went along with "helping" them out. Does that make right what Tressel did? No, but it does help understand why he may have not felt too bad to overlook their compensation. If the worse thing Tressel did was break some NCAA rules, then I think it is overboard to treat him like he is some kind of serious lawbreaker/felon. Lying about it is serious. No doubt about it. But then again, if we all were to be treated like Tressel has for lying about something, then we all would be in big trouble.

    June 4, 2011 at 6:32 pm |
  18. John S

    Just because there are failures doesn't mean we should silence the real deals. There will always be counterfeits in every realm of life; including faith and spirituality. If I showed you a counterfeit $10 bill, you wouldn't throw away the bills in your wallet. Let's listen to the authentic Christians in every walk of life. They are much better role models than the ones wrapped up in materialism, self-worship and immorality.

    June 4, 2011 at 6:31 pm |
  19. James

    Through my life, I have found that those who blither on about god, faith, and morality are almost always the ones that have the most to hide.

    June 4, 2011 at 6:30 pm |
    • Russ

      If you even knew that "god" is not "God", I might lend at least slight credence to what you are saying. However, those who honestly and truly try to lead their lives according to their belief in God do not 'blither on' about him anyhow.

      June 5, 2011 at 9:16 am |
  20. Jim P>

    "But if a highly recognizable baseball star did the same, “People will listen"

    Only the gullible ones. The ones who think that this person has anything useful to say merely because he is good at hitting things.

    Professional sports is bread and circuses for the masses so it is no wonder they find a ready field for pushing religious faith onto people who are not too bright to begin with or their lives wouldn't be so focused on watching sports all day every day.

    June 4, 2011 at 5:50 pm |
    • Russ

      I don't have a whole lot of use for pro sports – which have become more about money than sport – but when you suggest that the same people who like sports are gullible and easily influenced to faith in God, you make an assumption that is utterly groundless.

      June 5, 2011 at 9:20 am |
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