Two facts that are common knowledge to most readers of this blog: 1) I am an Ohio State Buckeyes sports fan, 2) The Buckeyes are having a rough year. As a fan, I’m sad and disappointed about the recent scandal surrounding the Buckeyes and now ex-head football coach Jim Tressel. As a Christian, I’m sad and disappointed as yet another of my professed brothers in Christ has had a second life exposed (mind you, I’m not sad that it was exposed, but sad that it was there).
Many people will read these news stories and chalk it up to another “bad egg” or smugly revel in the Buckeyes’ fall from grace. In this blog, however, I try to dig deeper into some of the other levels of what is going on in a given event and how this moment gives us a window into the greater Story going on all around us. So let’s ask the question: How do Christians respond to this story and what can we learn from it?
1) We are reminded to beware the ways worldly success, fame, power, and money can affect us. It is easy to think, “If I won the lottery, I would use the money responsibly” or “If I were the Buckeyes’ football coach, I wouldn’t tolerate this stuff.” Maybe. Maybe not. The problem is, many of the spiritual forces that influence people like Jim Tressel to do the things they do are not acting upon us when we “put ourselves in his shoes.” We see the same trends in almost every area of society in almost every era of world history: people have trouble dealing with success, fame, power, and money. We must not take lightly how these speak to our fallen desires or assume that we are “above” such temptation.
2) Sin has personal and systemic dimensions. The NCAA is a multi-billion dollar organization whose primary producers do not get paid (one could argue that they are getting a free education, but that is obviously irrelevant to many of the athletes who are really there as a stepping stone to their pro careers). None of this is to absolve Jim Tressel of responsibility for his actions. Yet, let’s not put more condemnation on his shoulders than he deserves just because it is more comfortable not to look at the bigger system. Christians must not lose sight of the proverbial forest (sinful systems) for the trees (sinful individuals). Both are addressed at length throughout the biblical Story. Justice and wisdom demand that we open our eyes to sinful patterns (program-wide NCAA violations are practically an epidemic) and do the hard work of systemic restoration. Sin’s multi-layered nature is a principle to keep in mind in nearly all areas of society.
3) We can take time to confess the ways we deceive and self-justify in our own lives. I would include myself among those who have found it easier to lie, cover-up, or withhold information to protect my own reputation or interests. Has the magnitude of the consequences ever been as vast as Tressel’s? Not from a human perspective. But let’s not be any quicker to blame than we are to confess. Furthermore, how many of us have covered up someone else’s (family/friends) transgressions, putting loyalty over truth? We may not have broken any human rules—or we may have—but we are called to be “children of the light” regardless of the immediate consequences we may face. Humble confession, in turn, leads us to compassion. Not ignoring the wrong, but practicing compassion for a sinner in need of mercy and healing…just like us.
4) The Kingdom of God’s impact on the world is not led by celebrities. Christians (particularly evangelicals, of which I count myself) have been quick to laud the public faith of celebrities, as if their “platform” is a breakthrough for God’s Kingdom. How foolish do we look time and time again when our favorite “missionaries” fall? The Kingdom of God will advance when people who know us personally hear our humble and joyful testimony to God’s grace, see our Spirit-transformed character in and out of the spotlight, and personally experience the power of Jesus’ love through our unity, loving service, justice-seeking, peacemaking, and Storytelling. Putting our missional hopes in celebrities is merely a convenient way to absolve ourselves of missional responsibility and avoid the cross-carrying life of discipleship.
5) We must not overdo or underdo the spiritual ramifications of Tressel’s failure. On one hand, it will negatively affect the Church’s witness in the world and impact some people’s perspectives on Jesus and his disciples (almost all articles mention his clean Christian image/façade). Anytime a Christian is exposed like this, people have more reasons to distrust Christians and what we say (this is not to say Christians must be perfect; we could be a wonderful witness to the world even when we mess up if we would be quick to humbly take accountability, apologize, and make amends). On the other hand, God has a track-record of working through imperfect to morally disastrous people (think Jacob, Judah, and Jonah just to stick with other J’s). Even through all the hypocrisy, God could well have used Jim Tressel to impact many young men’s lives for his Kingdom—not to Tressel’s credit but to God’s transcendent glory. I hope and pray for those whose faith and character were shaped by Tressel: that they will be able to “cling to what is good” in what Tressel taught them despite the brokenness of the vessel that delivered those lessons.
6) Character formation is essential to our discipleship. Too often, we view the Christian faith as “making the right decisions at crunch time.” Those decisions are important. But so is diligent attention to having our minds and hearts transformed by the Gospel, by God’s light, by the Spirit of Truth. We need relationships with other Christians who know us intimately and can rebuke/correct us gently, biblically, and boldly. We need to be entering into the Scriptures with a Psalm 139 heart, “Search me, O God, and know my heart. Test me, and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” Our hearts will be exposed sooner or later, whether before people (as Tressel is experiencing) or before God. Far better to expose our budding, blooming, or fully flowering sin willingly and humbly seeking grace than to wait for the light of human justice or God’s Truth to blind us.
This whole eruption was not the result of one big evil scheme on the part of Jim Tressel or his players (rarely does sin start big), but a path of increasingly calculated missteps, cover-ups, and deceptions (of self and others), combined with the pressures of fanatical expectations (of Buckeye fans and Christians), and enabled by a multi-billion dollar broken system.
There is plenty of accountability to go around. But instead of blaming or justifying, let’s instead let God use this moment to drive us back into his arms of grace, his Way of truth, and his heart of compassion.
http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2011/06/03/my-take-jim-tressel-shows-whats-wrong-with-sports-evangelization/ (This is a good read. I read it after I completed my article and was encouraged to find someone else giving voice to some of what I mentioned in my point #4. Athletes in Action- mentioned in this cnn article- is a ministry near and dear to my heart, so I hope sports ministry does learn some of these lessons.)
http://www.daveburchett.com/2011/03/17/a-buckeye-believer-ponders-jim-tressel/ (Great article, love this line: “Buckeye fans (and many others) want to believe that what Coach Tressel espouses is true. They want to think that their coach is really molding young men and preparing them for life. They also want to win. That is the tough line Jim Tressel walks.”