We Share Responsibility for Coach Tressel’s Fall

I believe Jim Tressel loves God. I believe he has faith that Jesus is the Son of God and the Savior of the world. I also believe that he has a real personal relationship with the one true God. During my time playing for the Cleveland Browns, I was repeatedly told of the stellar job he did representing the faith at churches, parachurch fundraisers, and other Christian gatherings. I’ve heard equally positive reports from his former players. And I don’t think he was faking.

Yet his very public moral failure, culminating in his resignation late last month as head football coach at Ohio State University, has caused big headlines and, for those who championed his faith, even bigger disappointment. Before this plank-eyed sinner begins to point out the speck in Coach Tressel’s eye, however, I need to make a clear statement: Coach Tressel’s fall is our fault. Yes, the church bears responsibility for this public debacle; or, at least the portion of the church with more than a surface knowledge of college football’s inner workings.

Those of us who have been a chaplain, coach, or player at the collegiate level know that, in certain programs, players get paid. And I’m not talking about that rinky-dink stipend check for off-campus living expenses. Because many college athletes and high school prospects are unfairly denied free market value for their services (a peripheral debate better left for another time), the “corporate” arm of many major athletic departments finds a way to reimburse them. Those of us believers engaged in sports ministry know this for a fact. For some reason we have ignored it as a non-issue. For some reason we deactivate our moral compass when confronted with it. I have an idea why.

Care Enough to Rebuke

We have accepted the dogma that the significant platform for evangelism afforded big-time athletics is a worthy trade-off for a “minor” unethical means of obtaining it. We have decided to label a deliberate violation of NCAA rules (even debatable rules) a “lesser sin” so that more people will get to hear the gospel at our next sports-related outreach. We say, “Well, he’s not saying anything blasphemous about Jesus.” And, “Isn’t it amazing how many people came to Christ today?” We find our justification for this in Philippians 1:18. After talking about the questionable motives and moral character of his fellow preachers, Paul considers the greater good and says, “What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.” This is so very true. I doubt that any of those people who truly entered into relationship with God through Tressel’s witness have turned away because of his transgression. And I am almost certain none of the players whose lives he touched in a positive way are now going to dismiss all that he taught them about manhood, respect, and accountability. But my worry is for Coach Tressel himself.

Each individual’s relationship with God begins with repentance. This is the process by which we each become aware of our sin, acknowledge it before God, and commit to turning away from that sin. No matter how grave the transgression, we receive merciful forgiveness from a holy God who has every right to condemn us. We benefit all because Jesus died on the cross as payment for our sins; every single one of them. The Bible says that encountering this ridiculous kindness leads us to willingly engage a lifestyle of joyful repentance and its resulting transformation of character (Rom. 2:4).

However, when we fail to respond to the gut punch of conviction, the fire of our relationship with God begins to diminish. If we continually avoid genuine repentance we will find that only a faint afterglow remains of our once-raging passion for God and his kingdom. I know this because it has happened to me. By not thoroughly questioning our brother Jim Tressel on the conflict between his faith and the underground economy of Division I football, we handed him over to this faith-extinguishing cycle. Proverbs 27:5 says, “Open rebuke is better than secret love,” and Galatians 6:1 commands, “If someone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” Taken a step further, Scripture says that a good parent rebukes his child so that kid won’t be subject to the fire of hell. Did we care enough about Coach Tressel’s soul to call him out? Does it reveal we value our ministries above our brother’s relationship with God?

At one point during my National Football League career, our team drafted a hot-shot rookie who had athleticism, intellect, and a stellar college football resume. Although he wasn’t in relationship with Jesus, he could comfortably talk about God and Christianity in a way that immediately sent him on the Christian speaking circuit. In each place he was praised for being a strong Christian example and great role model for the general public. Imagine the challenge facing me and the other Christians in that locker room to help him truly see his need for Jesus! Why would our evangelistic advances have any effect when he’s been affirmed by major Christian leaders and thousands of festival-goers? By the grace of God he eventually did respond to the gospel and began authentic relationship with Jesus Christ. His life began to change. But the extent to which the church used his celebrity without caring for his soul placed obstacles in his road to surrender. I fear that there are many similar cases that have not ended so well.

I fear that many other athletes and coaches continue to be used by us to promote a faith that they do not yet truly follow—or, in Coach Tressel’s case, follow in the mire of compromise. By not addressing sin, or even the suspicion of sin, we carelessly steward these famous souls.

Answer the Call

So what do we do? How do we love coaches and other Christian celebrities rightly? Paul writes in Ephesians 4 that we preserve the sanctity of the body of Christ by speaking the truth in love, “so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Eph. 4:14-15). He continues, “Having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another” (Eph. 4:25). God has given a number of us personal relationships with these limelight Christian figures. Much like Daniel, Joseph, and Esther, we are afforded these relationships to clearly point these prominent figures towards God’s goodness and righteousness.

I was recently a presenter at the Fellowship of Christian Athletes national championship breakfast. I grinned ear to ear as Gene Chizik, head coach of the Auburn Tigers, boldly proclaimed his faith in Christ. But I wonder if we are doing our best to ensure that his testimony is above reproach. I couldn’t help but get fired up as Oregon Ducks assistant Chris Brasfield preached his head off at the same event. Is there someone willing to speak truth into his life as he climbs the college football ranks? Let’s answer the call. Let’s do it with much prayer so that the love God has for them would be evident as we have these tough discussions.

There is a considerable competitive disadvantage inherited by coaches who actually adhere to NCAA rules. So our brothers who choose to coach in a manner consistent with their faith make a great sacrifice. They may even lose their jobs if their respective programs go from compromised excellence to honest mediocrity. Let’s prepare them for this possibility and champion them regardless of the result. Let’s encourage their radical obedience with Jesus’ words in Mark 10:29-31:

There is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.

And finally, let’s consistently address our own areas of spiritual compromise. Experiencing the beautiful pain of this process will not only make our words authentic, but enable us to approach our brothers in understanding compassion instead of aloof self-righteousness.

  • Daniel Mogg

    Really good stuff Mr. Wright. Let’s hope and pray Coach Tressel experiences true repentance and redemption that only a Holy God can bring. Tony Dungy recently weighed in on this situation.

  • http://chrisblackstone.com Chris Blackstone

    How do we know that people of faith did not confront Tressel about the misdeeds at OSU and were ignored? To say “Coach Tressel’s fall is our fault” seems to argue that sin is systemic and institutional and not personal. Fact is, Tressel’s fall is his fault because he turned a blind eye. My sins are my own, but your sins are not my sins.

    Additionally, this article fails to mention that Tressel has not publicly made any statements expressing true repentance for his actions and acknowledging that they fall significantly short of the standard of a college coach and, more importantly, a Christian. If he was willing to make clear that he had sinned and expressed repentance, it would probably be easier for people to see how faith is actually support to impact your life.

    • Steven Tyra

      ummm, you’ll have a mighty hard time explaining large portions of the Old Testament in that case. God holds the entire community accountable all the time. Especially Reformed Theology, with its emphasis on covenant and continuity between the Testaments, should be open to the concept of corporate sin. Of course, sin is also personal. I don’t think the Bible presents an either/or, but a both/and.

      • Kriseax

        When does GOD, in the old or new testament, punish the community for one persons sins? Remember in Genesis 18: 25-33, Abraham asks GOD why he was going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah because there, surely, had to be some innocent people there. Abraham asks GOD if he would save Sodom and Gomorrah if there were 50 righteous people, GOD responds yes and Abraham “bargains” GOD down to 10 people and GOD says yes. God would redeem a people for one righteous person, not condemn them.
        We see this throughout the Bible, for example, in Chronicles 1 and 2 and the books of the Kings, where God redeems and forgives his people because of one person. And ultimately, in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, all can be redeemed because of one.
        I don’t think we know either way that someone did or didn’t speak with coach Tressel about this situation. I don’t think it’s appropriate to blame the entire Christian community for the coach’s transgressions. Christians do have a duty to correct their brethren when necessary. So, I think there is something to be learned from both sides.

        • Steven Tyra

          “The LORD said to Joshua, “Stand up! What are you doing down on your face? ISRAEL HAS SINNED; they have violated my covenant, which I commanded them to keep. They have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen, they have lied, they have put them with their own possessions. That is why the Israelites cannot stand against their enemies; they turn their backs and run because they have been made liable to destruction. I will not be with you anymore unless you destroy whatever among you is devoted to destruction.” (Joshua 7:10-12).

          The Lord says “Israel” has sinned, and Israel is defeated in battle, when in fact only one man, Achan, had sinned. Men of Israel die because of his sin. His family is punished–stoned to death–with him because of his sin. “Then all Israel stoned him, and after they had stoned the rest, they burned THEM” (7:25).

          It’s a hard thing for Westerners to grasp, as we are very individualistic. But the OT mindset often does not distinguish between community and individual. God’s people are in this together, or not at all. That’s what I love about the Reformed Doctrine of Limited Atonement — Jesus foresaw a PEOPLE for whom he would die. That means that in no possible universe was it ever just about “me and Jesus,” but rather “us and Jesus.” As beautiful as my personal relationship is with the Lord, even more beautiful still is that I was always meant for a community in the Lord. So we help to bear our brother’s burdens (Galatians 5) by accepting responsibility, by standing by him and admitting that we have done wrong.

        • Steven Tyra

          Another way to think about it is this: All of us are all too willing to identify with God’s covenant people when things are going well. When a Tim Keller organizes massive poor relief in inner cities, or a World Vision digs clean wells in Africa, we are all happy to say to our unbelieving friends, “You see! That’s what I’m a part of! That’s the Church I keep telling you about.”

          But when things get rough, when a member of the community falls, then all of the sudden it’s “all on him.” “That’s his sin, not mine.” We can bask in the glow of others, but we don’t want to take their heat.

          That doesn’t mean that just anybody who claims to be a Christian represents the community. There are in fact false disciples and false churches. That’s why the Reformers like Calvin expended so much energy on formulating “the marks of the true church.” Sinlessness was not one of the marks — in fact, against Anabaptists and other radicals, the mainline Reformers concluded that demanding a “pure” church would lead to the ancient heresy of Donatism. Therefore, Calvin thought that leaving a local church in which the “marks” were present because of “scandals” was itself a Sin. You’re in it for the long haul, or not at all. Calvin practiced what he preached when he returned to Geneva that had banished and mistreated him, leaving behind a very comfortable life and ministry in Strausbourg.

          In other words, you’re a member of the covenant people, identified with them — including their warts. We can’t suddenly become rugged individualists the minute something goes bad.

    • Jack

      But we must also realize, and the scriptures Jason used certainly attest to this idea, that as brothers and sisters in Christ we need to speak truth into each others lives. I don’t think that Jason is assigning Tressel’s sins on you and I, I think he’s stressing the idea that Tressel slipped further into personal transgression in part because brothers and sisters around him didn’t speak truth into his life. People weren’t taking him aside and calling him out on anything potentially damaging that he was engaged in. I didn’t get the idea from this article that I’m responsible for his sin, I think it’s more the fact that he continued on in sin and we as members of the body could have helped him by calling him out on it and reminding him of the gospel. Scripture tells us not to be a stumbling block to our brothers, and if I’m a Christ follower who has a relationship with Tressel, and I hear about some foolish things going on at OSU, then in love I need to talk to him about it.

  • Adam

    Great article, when I was in college I was friends with members of our University’s basketball team. I heard of a lot of things that went on but never really challenged any team member about them. It was always kind of a wink and a nudge type of situation about major college sports.

  • http://theprostratecalvinist.blogspot.com/ Steve

    Thanks for the article, Jason. Though I am not sure I would equate things like “significant platform for evangelism afforded big-time athletics” and “Christian speaking circuit” with “the church.” In fact, I would probably revisit your article with the reality that most “Christians sports groups” have nothing to do with the church whatsoever. That is really the issue you describe, is it not?

    For the kind of accountability you desire is only available in and through the local church, by God’s design. It will never happen in FCA – or any other type of parachurch group – for they have already divorced the imperative of evangelism from its very center and credibility, the local church.

  • WHAT!!??

    “And I’m not talking about that rinky-dink stipend check for off-campus living expenses. Because many college athletes and high school prospects are unfairly denied free market value for their services”
    You go to college for an education. Sports is an extra-curriculur activity. They get 100,000 scholarships. Do those above the players make money off of them? Yes. Do they abuse it at times? Yes. But that’s another issue. You wanna get paid, get a job. This is not a job. You don’t like, don’t play.

    • Michael Kuhn

      That is where you are wrong. College football IS a job! Between school, workouts, and practice, they put in way more work than just about any other college student who holds a job. And get this, they are doing something that they are really good at, and using their God-given talents and abilities. For many high-level collegiate football players, football will provide their income for the foreseeable future (playing or coaching). Why should they do anything else? I would argue that they would not be good stewards if they do something else, and it wouldn’t bother me at all if they are paid.

  • http://www.ambassador4me.com Anthony

    Interesting article. I’m thankful that I have a good home church where people can encourage me and help me with any situation. I hope coach Tressel has a good home church where people won’t judge him but will help and encourage him.

  • Adam Murphy

    Jason – What I appreciate about your article is your willingness to bring this issue to the light of day: the booster-ism of Christian sports celebrity. This is not a time to chastise FCA or other similar groups for not being more closely affiliated with churches. There are plenty of churches that do not fulfill the call of Galatians 6. In terms of accountability and speaking the truth, all Christians are to respond to Galatians 6 for the sake of the Gospel and each other. After all of the sports commentary regarding Mr. Tressel’s faith that I’ve heard since his resignation, mostly from folks that unfortunately do not outwardly profess Christ, I’m thankful for your much-needed perspective. Christian sports speakers are brothers and sisters in Christ. They need the benefit of our rebuke and love, and that means that we must come alongside them like any other Christian in our lives. For me, I now recognize that I need to be praying for coaches, athletes, and sports-related folks that serve Christ. It must be very difficult, considering the stage, the stakes, and for the players, to be so young and yet expected to be fully ripened in their public faith. I pray that Mr. Tressel has Christians around him that are willing to love him in that way, even when a rebuke is required.

  • Paul Moore

    School athletics is business. And in business faith is often factored out of the equation…”it’s just business.”

  • looselycult

    Athletes and Sports celebrities who are professing Christians have always gotten a free pass from evangelicalism. But it is rarely the case with Christians involved in the arts. They don’t get a free pass even when they don’t fall from grace. They are always suspect and under scruitney by evangelicals. But if your athlete you mind as well you get shuffled to the front of the line in a real hurry.

  • Josh

    Jason, you just eased some of my pain from losing that cif game to you guys back in my senior year at chs. Same guy, right? Glad to hear you’re my brother. Haha.

  • http://winrun.org Elliot Johnson

    Good article. Well thought out. Pray for all coaches who are believers and have the courage to share the gospel. The enemy hates us!

  • David Fountain

    “For those who do bad things in secret and good things publicly are to be admonished to consider with what swiftness human judgments flee away, but with what immobility divine judgments endure.” – The Book of Pastoral Rule, and Selected Epistles, of Gregory the Great Bishop of Rome

  • Roger McKinney

    Jason: “Because many college athletes and high school prospects are unfairly denied free market value for their services (a peripheral debate better left for another time)….”

    I appreciate what Jason writes, but I wonder how far Christians should go to follow and enforce unjust laws. Quite a few pastors take pride in flaunting the unjust immigration laws and protest abortion.

    I don’t agree that the “free market value of their services” is a peripheral idea. It cuts to the heart of “thou shalt not steal.” In the middle ages Church scholars debated the “just” price. A just price in transactions was very important back then and should be more important today. They determined that a just price can only be found in a free market.

    NCAA rules guarantee that no just price for the student athlete’s skills can be found anywhere in NCAA football. The NCAA is guilty of coerced pricing, which the Church traditionally understood as a grave sin. It’s such a shame that we have been beaten into submission that we will accept such crimes without complaint.

    From the early days of the church Christians have understood that they don’t have to obey man-made laws that violate God’s most basic principles.

  • http://wmcurtisszabo.wordpress.com/ Wm Curtis Szabo

    Thank you for this article. I don’t have the words to explain my gratitude. These words are extremely galvanizing for me as a Christian (and a Buckeye fan).

    I absolutely agree with your overall sentiment. That is the sins of a brother are shared by another. That may be an oversimplification, and ultimately each of us will give a personal account of our sins before God; but within that list of sins, will also be a list of sins of how we have failed to love our brothers and sisters in Christ to pursue God and joyfully repent.

    One of the more significant ideas I remember from my college mentor is “When big name preachers/pastors/leaders in the church fall, who was there in there life keeping them accountable? Who was loving that person well enough by digging into their life?”

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  • Danny

    You are correct. Coaches who adhere to the rules probably exit the college game early. Dabo Swinney at Clemson is a good example.

  • Chris Bowers

    Jason – you’re gifts never cease to amaze me…no surprise that you are also an excellent writer! A friend of mine posted this on my facebook page. I was like “Jason Wright? No way!” Really proud of you. I’ll have to take up the “paying players” debate with you at another time. Press on to know Him.

  • Josh Purser

    I believe that the standards that Jason talks about in the sports world are lacking as well as in Church and parachurch organizations. We are humans that required the Son of God to come down to this Earth to save us from ourselves. We are constantly reminded everyday that it is Christ through us that gives us the strength. The unfortunate things is we become complacent in our mediocraty to the point that when we have a small victory in our lives we tend develop a sense of spiritual pride, which cripples us as believers. I agree with Jason that it is our responsibility to hold each other up, Christ specifically refers to us as His “body” and that we are all individual stones in His temple that He is building through us that others may see Him for who He really is and that is LOVE. I don’t know the behind the curtain veil of Jim Tressel nor did I when other famous Christian celebraty’s or pastors for that matter fell. I am also sad to say that there are many times when fellow believers whom I was very close fell and I didn’t know the behind scenes activity of their fall either, why? because I was to scared, busy, or any of a hundred reasons to steer away from adversity. I believe what Jason is trying to say is that we are not perfect, only through Christ is that possible and Christ refers to as a community therefore if our responsibilty is to serve Christ then we are also responsible to serve each other. Therefore we must celebrate together as well as get dirty to help each other out of the ditch when we fall. I love you all and pray that we as a Church/Body of Christ can grow together and stop pulling each other apart.