Tag Archives: Sports

A Bubba With a Passion for the Gospel and Golf

The Story: On Sunday Bubba Watson, one of the most untraditional golfers on the PGA Tour, was the winner of the 2014 Masters Tournament. But golf isn’t Watson’s top priority. What he considers most important can be gleaned from the description on his Twitter account, @bubbawatson (“Christian. Husband. Daddy. Pro Golfer.”) and his website, BubbaWatson.com (“Loves Jesus and loves sharing his faith”).

watson_610_masters14_d4_scott_jacketThe Background: In an interview with Trevor Freeze of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Watson tells how he uses his Twitter account—along with his PGA platform—to share about his faith in Christ.

“For me, it’s just showing the Light,” said Watson. “There’s people who want to put down Christians. I try to tell them Jesus loves you. It’s just a way to be strong in my faith.”

After his first Master’s win in 2012 Watson’s Tweeted: “The most important thing in my life? Answer after I golf 18 holes with @JustinRose99. #Godisgood.” Later that day he posted on his account, “Most important things in my life- 1. God 2. Wife 3. Family 4. Helping others 5. Golf”

“Lecrae said it the best,” Watson said of the Christian rapper he listens to on his iPod. “He doesn’t want to be a celebrity. He doesn’t want to be a superstar. He just wants to be the middle man for you to see God through him.”

Why It Matters: Christians have always been involved in professional sports, so why is the faith of superstars like Watson suddenly worthy of the public’s attention? Because athletes like Watson show that it’s still possible for athletes to be open and unapologetic about their willingness to share the Gospel. Also, Watson may be one of the best in his sport but he understands the importance of  keeping his priorities in order, winsomely admitting that their life’s callings are secondary to serving the Creator who has called them. To a culture that is both obsessed and disillusioned with fame and fortune, this centered perspective provides a refreshingly countercultural witness.

On Football, Warrior Culture, and Manhood

Troy Aikman was the alpha male of alpha males. He was the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys. He won Super Bowls. He dated supermodels. He was tough, fearless, and smart: an American warrior, made for football, which he played with extreme skill.

AikmanBut in one particular moment on January 23, 1994, Aikman couldn’t remember where he was or why he was there.

During the third quarter of the NFC championship game, Aikman suffered a concussion when a defensive tackle from the San Francisco 49ers brought him down. His agent, Leigh Steinberg, visited him and answered Aikman’s numerous questions about his injury and the game. The two celebrated that the Cowboys were Super Bowl-bound.

Five minutes later, Aikman asked all the same questions. Steinberg gave the same answers. Ten minutes later, Aikman asked them again. Steinberg later related to PBS that this exchange “terrified him to see how tender the bond was between sentient consciousness and potential dementia and confusion.” Sharing this anecdote, the super-agent with a reputation for iron-willed negotiation was shaken, years after the fact.

Questioning Warrior Culture

Warriors like Troy Aikman are no stranger to such moments. The classic response to an experience like Aikman’s? “Shake it off, bro!” Many of us who played contact sports are used to this kind of exhortation. You take a massive hit, you get your bell rung, and you get up like nothing happened. You may not be a superstar quarterback, but you’re no less a warrior. If a teammate fails to meet the warrior code, you let him hear it.

This culture has been passed down for decades in America. It’s helped to shape and define our understanding of manhood. We want to sack the quarterback, win the game, and stand before an adoring hometown crowd as homecoming king. Warriors persevere, warriors hit, and warriors win.

Recently, however, something strange has bubbled up in American culture. A number of voices have begun to question warrior culture and its brand of manhood. These aren’t stereotypical wimps, either; they’re football-loving journalists, men who have devoted their lives to the game and its heroes. After the news broke that Miami Dolphins lineman Richie Incognito had bullied a teammate, Brian Phillips of Grantland penned a scorching piece that denounced “faux-macho alpha-pansy nonsense.” Phillips argued that all who supported such behavior “should be ashamed of himself, and that’s it, and it’s not a complicated story.” On a website that goes to great lengths to make gridiron athletes into cultural icons, more than 100,000 people “liked” this essay on Facebook.

Rick Reilly of ESPN, dean of American sportswriters, concurred with Phillips. He confessed “shame” at his support for football and its violence: “I realize the NFL handed over $765 million in a lawsuit settlement to cover the more than 4,500 players who say playing in their league damaged their brains, but that blood money doesn’t assuage my small sense of shame—it only thickens it.” Reilly likened football players to Roman gladiators and avowed that today, “We are all still in that Coliseum. We are still being entertained by men willfully destroying each other. It’s just that now, the sword comes later.” Reilly’s piece was “liked” 9,000 times on Facebook.

In these essays, we see that something has shifted in America. The very nature of manhood has been questioned. This, I submit, is to the good.

Pre-eminently Spiritual

I don’t want to be misunderstood. I’m as American as they come. I played three sports growing up. I relished contact sports (though my high school did not have a football team). During competition, I’ve sprained my ankles more times than I can count, nearly lost my two front teeth, and snapped my Achilles tendon in half. I was not a contact-averse player in my heyday. No less than any other red-blooded American male, I grew up wanting to be a warrior.

But as I’ve expressed before for First Things and Christianity Today, I have acquired some ethical unease of late with high-contact sports and the culture they promote. For this reason, I don’t read the above essays as signs of the masculine apocalypse. It’s not that I want guys to start dancing around in My Little Pony costumes. I am the executive director of the Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, so this subject deeply concerns me. But unlike many trends today that undermine biblical manhood, I see the growing unease with warrior culture as an encouraging shift in our culture’s definition of masculinity.

To be sure, Christians can readily and gladly affirm some elements of warrior culture. These include doing hard things, self-sacrificing, persevering, cultivating toughness, demonstrating courage under fire, and taking on physical challenges. The very nature of biblical leadership requires such traits. The apostles showed tremendous bravery in their ministries. The God-man they preached about, Jesus Christ, embraced a physical challenge in dying on the cross. Yet he did not yield to his tormentors or ask that his agony be ended in order to spare his life. His agony meant our deliverance, and his example inspires our forbearance.

There’s more. Godly men who need a shot in the arm hear David’s words to Solomon ring in our ears: “Be strong, and show yourself a man!” (1 Kings 2:2). (See also 1 Corinthians 16:13.) We add to this witness texts like Hebrews 11, which is not merely a “hall of faith” but a monument to Christian endurance of persecution and hardship.

But make no mistake: warrior culture and godly manhood are not one and the same. Too often, we act as if they are. We see a football player roar after drilling a hapless wide receiver and say to our buddy, “That dude is a BEAST!” Later, we go to church and hear from a hipster-looking missionary to a closed country. He doesn’t have broad shoulders, wears thick-rimmed glasses, and tells the church in Q&A that he loves reading and walks in nature. And we’re tempted to ask to see his man card.

Why can’t we see that the missionary better exhibits godly manhood? It’s not that the football player is unmanly; many of us want to train our sons to be tough and courageous and even physically adept. But mature manhood for a Christian cannot be sacking quarterbacks, dunking basketballs, scoring soccer goals, or drawing stares from pretty women who yearn for their own athletic superhero. Mature manhood is actually spelled out for us in Scripture. Think about the qualifications for an elder:

Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil. (1 Timothy 3:2-7)

Texts like this show us that the Bible’s definition of manliness is not un-physical but pre-eminently spiritual. Sure, godly men will hold doors, protect women and children, carry in groceries, and make physical repairs in our church’s buildings. But let’s not kid ourselves—Jesus Christ, not Tony Romo, is the true man. The apostle Paul, not Dwayne Wade, embodies biblical manhood.

The mustache-wearing barista in Brooklyn who favors bespoke ties and plays no sports but faithfully leads his community group and witnesses to his coworkers is much manlier than our favorite BEAST athlete who doesn’t know Christ. The guy who doesn’t enjoy weightlifting but who spiritually shepherds his family is far closer to the pin than the dude who catches game-winning touchdowns but never cracks open the Scripture with his kids.

I’ll be happy if my son plays sports. If managed carefully and approached with wisdom, sports can be a blessing. I am not anti-football or any other sport mentioned here; in my Christianity Today piece, I made clear that I like football and don’t want it ended. I hope my son knows above all that elders are not called by Paul to have a lantern jaw and an impressive wingspan. They’re called to pursue Christ with every fiber of their being, and to sacrifice themselves to lead others to do the same.

Risky Gospel

Many great leaders of the Christian faith were not known for athletic prowess. Jonathan Edwards was more bookish than beastly. John Calvin had a sensitive stomach and was slight of build. With his girth, C. H. Spurgeon wouldn’t exactly have burned up the 40-yard dash.

As I say in my new book Risky Gospel, we need the bigger vision of faith held by these men. I want more risk for the sake of the gospel, not less, whether overseas or in our neighborhood. But as I argue, this primarily means building godly families, strengthening churches, and seeking lost sinners. It means setting your face like a flint to be a witness for Jesus though Satan opposes you and your coworkers snark about you. That, more than a buzzer-beater or open-field-tackle, requires courage.

Too many of us modern men have allowed our definition of manhood to skew cultural, not biblical. Though kings and priests in Christ’s kingdom, we’re a little bit like Troy Aikman in 1994: we know we’re a part of something great, but we can’t quite remember what it is.

To Ruin Sports, Idolize Them

MTV no longer plays music videos. The History Channel no longer discusses history. Before long ESPN may no longer show sports highlights. The so-called worldwide leader in sports will feature nothing but reports from courtrooms and press conferences. Former athletes will sit around tables and parse the latest PR spin for suspended, arrested, and otherwise disgraced players. And we’ll wonder why we ever cared so much about the games that made them rich.

Yesterday Major League Baseball cited “social responsibility” while finally cracking down on the drug scandal that has enveloped the storied sport for much of the last two decades. Commissioner Bud Selig handed down severe suspensions for 13 players, chiefly New York Yankees superstar Alex Rodriguez, who would miss the remainder of this season and all of the next. But the talking heads at SportsCenter chattered about more than the long fall of the aging ARod. They also wondered whether college football’s best player would be suspended for his sophomore season. According to reports, brash Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel may have demanded payment for his autograph, an obvious no-no in supposedly amateur athletics. So yesterday was a big day in the world of sports journalism. And a horrible day for sports.

Writer and athlete Ted Kluck understands the consequences of treating a good thing like sports as an ultimate thing. Kluck, author of the new book Robert Griffin III: Athlete, Leader, Believer, is himself an intense competitor who wants his children to learn the best lessons of sports. But he also recognizes when he cares too much and needs to apologize to his children for not setting a godly example. Kluck joined Mark Mellinger and me for a special edition of Going Deeper with TGC, the podcast of The Gospel Coalition. We asked him why baseball decided now to crack down on this kind of cheating when athletes have always tried to gain illegal advantages over their opponents. We asked him how he would explain morality to athletes and announcers fumbling to explain what’s wrong with breaking the rules. We also asked him why baseball punished one of its all-time greats when football celebrates drug-aided athletes as they deliver concussion-inducing blows on each other.

Listen to the complete 25-minute podcast to hear how Kluck would share the gospel with athletes such as Rodriguez and Manziel who have been worshiped by the same media and fans who now gloat over their disgrace. And hear how he answers his son during NFL games when he asks whether each player uses steroids.

Download the podcast or stream the audio below. And be sure to subscribe to our iTunes podcast for fresh daily content including interviews, sermons, lectures, and more.

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Do You Still Want to Be Like Mike?

If you’ve watched ESPN at any point in the last week, you know Michael Jordan just turned 50. With six NBA titles, five MVPs, ten scoring titles, 14 All-Star appearances, and many other feats posterized on my childhood bedroom wall, Jordan’s legacy on the basketball court is unmatched. But life off the court, particularly since his final retirement in 2003, hasn’t been so pristine.

In anticipation of Jordan’s 50th birthday, ESPN senior writer Wright Thompson spent some time with Number 23. The product is an Outside the Lines article titled “Michael Jordan Has Not Left the Building,” a fascinating behind-the-scenes glimpse into the mind of the man who revolutionized the world of sports.

Unquenchable Fire

Thompson’s piece pulsates with the sense that Jordan isn’t happy. “I would give up everything now to go back and play the game of basketball,” the Hall of Famer confesses. When asked how he replaces it, Jordan simply states, “You don’t. You learn to live with it.”

For almost three decades on basketball’s supreme stage, Jordan lived for the next challenge, the next challenger. Naysayers became friends, for they brought the nightly fuel that reignited his drive to perform, to conquer, to vindicate his name. This insatiable drive to prove himself propelled Jordan to the pinnacle of the sporting world—and motivated him to remain there. Even today, Thompson writes, he cares what his critics say. “He needs to know, a needle for a hungry vein.”

Jordan might have stopped playing basketball, but the rage is still there. The fire remains, which is why he searches for release, on the golf course or at a blackjack table, why he spends so much time and energy on [the Charlotte Bobcats] and why he dreams of returning to play.

The man has left the court, but the addictions won’t leave the man.

Even ‘Yahweh’ Ages

Jordan’s surroundings only reinforce a perception of otherworldly status. Thompson remarks:

Jordan is at the center of several overlapping universes, at the top of the billion-dollar Jordan Brand at Nike, of the Bobcats, of his own company, with dozens of employees and contractors on the payroll. In case anyone in the inner circle forgets who’s in charge, they only have to recall the code names given to them by the private security team assigned to overseas trips. Estee is Venom. George is Butler. Yvette is Harmony. Jordan is called Yahweh—a Hebrew word for God.

Yahweh. I am who I am. I will be what I will be. Not exactly the sort of nickname that fosters meekness.

“My ego is so big now that I expect certain things,” Jordan admits. But, as Thompson observes, this is a natural consequence of life at the very top. “Jordan is used to being the most important person in every room he enters and, going a step further, in the lives of everyone he meets. . . . People cater to his every whim.”

Imagine that life for a moment. Put yourself in his shoes (Air Jordans, of course). You can’t recall the last time you weren’t the most important person in the room. No matter where on Planet Earth you go, you’re king. Thirty years and counting. What would that recognition do to someone? To you?

The Flicker that Fades

Such an abnormal existence brings certain abnormal hopes, promises, expectations. As Thompson observes:

Most people live anonymous lives, and when they grow old and die, any record of their existence is blown away. They’re forgotten, some more slowly than others, but eventually it happens to virtually everyone. Yet for the few people in each generation who reach the very pinnacle of fame and achievement, a mirage flickers: immortality. They come to believe in it. Even after Jordan is gone, he knows people will remember him. Here lies the greatest basketball player of all time. That’s his epitaph.

There’s a fable about returning Roman generals who rode in victory parades through the streets of the capital; a slave stood behind them, whispering in their ears, “All glory is fleeting.” Nobody does that for professional athletes. Jordan couldn’t have known that the closest he’d get to immortality was during that final walk off the court. . . . All that can happen in the days and years that follow is for the shining monument he built to be chipped away, eroded. His self-esteem has always been, as he says, “tied directly to the game.” Without it, he feels adrift. Who am I? What am I doing? For the past 10 years, since retiring for the third time, he has been running, moving as fast as he could, creating distractions, distance.

In his supercilious 2009 Hall of Fame speech, Jordan called the game of basketball his “refuge,” the “place where I’ve gone when I needed to find comfort and peace.” Three years later, the restlessness remains.

It turns out the voracious drive that turned a shy North Carolina youngster into a household name comes with a price tag. And as the flicker of immortality fades, Jordan stares in the mirror, wondering where to turn. “How can I enjoy the next 20 years without so much of this consuming me?” he ponders. “How can I find peace away from the game of basketball?”

From Chicago to Calvary

As a Christian, it’s easy to read a piece like Thompson’s and feel discouraged, even disgusted, by Jordan’s egotism. Yet as psychologists clamor to diagnose Jordan’s condition, we feel no surprise. The distance between him and us is, after all, uncomfortably slim. We want to be the most important person in every room; he is. As the apostle might say, who is sufficient for these things?

In the world, status is tethered to performance. It’s the same in the gospel. The difference, however, is that our status as believers is not tethered to our performance, but Christ’s. Only the gospel can offer the resources to combat our pride, expose our emptiness, and flood our hearts with peace.

“How can I find peace away from the game of basketball?” the aging legend asks.

Michael, you never had peace. Triumph and fame, yes, but not peace. James Naismith invented a game that brought you a sense of purpose, of value, of calm. But it was only that—a sense, a counterfeit of the real thing. You will never find life outside the game for the same reason you never found life in it. It’s not there.

The peace you seek isn’t available on a basketball court or a golf course but on a little hill outside Jerusalem. There, Yahweh incarnate hung in the place of sinners—wannabe Yahwehs like you and like me.

You’ve gained the world and found it lacking, Mike. Don’t lose your soul.

The Mirage and Marriage

Now that the laughter has subsided, don’t you feel at least a little sorry for Manti Te’o? The former college football star will never live this one down, no matter how many tackles he makes in the NFL. And he seemed genuinely smitten with his girlfriend, who turned out to be nothing more than the figment of a cruelly deranged (and apparently bored) young man. Te’o seemed genuinely grieved when he learned of her unexpected demise and genuinely confused when called one last time to say she’s had actually faked her death. Turned out she (he) actually faked the whole thing. And Te’o hardly had a clue.

The clue should have come when this supposed girlfriend wouldn’t let him see her face during online calls. How could he call this “woman” his girlfriend when he’d never even met her? That’s why when we stopped scorning Te’o, then stopped laughing at him, we still couldn’t quite feel sorry for him. How could he be so stupid? How could he in turn deceive his family, reporters, and the rest of us, even after he suspected the hoax? Obviously he didn’t think we’d understand and sympathize. He’s probably right. Even though we perpetuate our own hoax nearly every time we open our laptops or pull out our smartphones.

How closely does your Facebook profile resemble your actual life? If we only knew you from a Twitter feed, would you think we really understood your hopes and dreams, your joys and fears? Facebook may ask what you’re feeling, but the rest of us don’t really care. We can’t even keep up with the drama in our families, among our closest friends. How can we handle the momentary peaks and valleys of hundreds, even thousands of friends? So we outline an online persona in black and white and only color in the parts we feel safe to expose. You only know I’m sick if I can find a witty way to tell you. You only find out I’m in despair if I can link the encouraging Bible verse God tossed me as a life raft.

You can fool anyone online for a while. Are you really surprised Te’o fell for the ruse? It’s a small jump from crafting your online profile to inventing an entirely fake persona. Imagine the myth you could perpetuate when you’re not even bound by the confines of all three dimensions.

High Bar

No wonder online meeting so often crashes on the rocks of online dating, when the self-selected profile gives way to a three-dimensional person, sins and all. The rise of social media has eliminated at least some of the healthy skepticism surrounding online meeting. Now we’re all linked together and searchable by the “likes” we wear as virtual nametags. Like Downton Abbey? You must be at least somewhat sophisticated. Post pics of your latest backpacking adventure? You must enjoy a little mystery in life. From here anyone can probably guess some of the books you love and movies you never miss on cable. They know whether or not you’d be compatible as a “friend” or more.

At least a dose of skepticism in online dating has always been warranted, because no meeting can become a marriage until the third dimension thrashes around for a while. That is, assuming you’re actually seeking a spouse through online dating. According to Dan Slater, who recently wrote “A Million First Dates: How Online Dating Is Threatening Monogamy” for The Atlantic, the very process undermines this goal. On purely financial terms, online dating sites don’t want you to find a permanent match.

“The positive aspects of online dating are clear: the Internet makes it easier for single people to meet other single people with whom they might be compatible, raising the bar for what they consider a good relationship,” Slater writes. “But what if online dating makes it too easy to meet someone new? What if it raises the bar for a good relationship too high?”

Break up online, and you’re only a couple clicks away from what could be a better match. Why stick it out? Why fight through anything? The attitude formed by this context doesn’t necessarily change even in marriage. Maybe no one loves dating sites and social media more than divorce lawyers. One-third of divorce filings in 2011 mentioned Facebook. Another recent survey revealed that one-third of Facebook users feel less satisfied with their lives after browsing their friends’ profiles. Vacation photos created the greatest sense of envy. And reading about their friends’ happy relationships only highlighted their own unhappiness. So social media fosters our envy even as it opens our opportunities to mix and mingle.

Profound Mystery

Even so, the decisive change in our understanding of marriage actually predates online dating and social media. While these technologies may exacerbate the problem, they didn’t create it. We were already steeped in a view of marriage as less of a covenant for life and more of a union of affection. But here’s what changed: with increased options in an expanded online market, we can wait to find a spouses who doesn’t need much work, who won’t expect much change from us, either. A few years ago I talked to a pastor officiating a wedding who told me he counsels couples not to worry about that “one-flesh business” (Gen. 2:24, Matt. 19:5-6, 1 Cor. 6:16, Eph. 5:31). You marry someone whose individuality you appreciate and respect, he reasoned. So don’t try to change your spouse.

No wonder marriage rates have plummeted. If you’re not expecting any change in marriage, you better not hitch your wagon to someone who needs help or, worse, thinks you need help. As Tim Keller writes in his book The Meaning of Marriage, “Never before in history has there been a society filled with people so idealistic in what they are seeking in a spouse.” High ideals—the kind cultivated by online meeting and social media—lead us to believe someone better must be out there. And no one wants to risk settling for anything less than the elusive and nebulous “soul mate.” It’s too late when many finally realize their extreme idealism of marriage has given way to deep pessimism. Keller writes:

To conduct a Me-Marriage requires two completely well-adjusted, happy individuals, with very little in the way of emotional neediness of their own or character flaws that need a lot of work. The problem is—there is almost no one like that to marry! The new conception of marriage-as-self-realization has put us in a position of wanting too much out of marriage and yet not nearly enough—at the same time.

Manti Te’o clearly felt like he found that elusive match. She was giving, always thinking of others; faithful, always eager to talk to this devout Mormon about Bible verses; and available, always up for a long chat. She didn’t have any flaws, any selfishness, any family issues. And Te’o painfully, publicly learned she was a mirage. Like our online profiles. Like our expectations for a pain-free marriage. Like anything except the profound mystery of God design (Eph. 5;32).

See Life in the Eyes of a Skilled, Faithful Journalist

Editors’ note: Yesterday we published part one of Owen Strachan’s interview with Sports Illustrated senior writer Thomas Lake, in which they discussed sports as life, head trauma in football, and moral arc of storytelling. Their conversation continues and concludes today with attention to sports as cultural cache, the value of long-form journalism, how to relate preaching to everyday life, and the legacy of a life well-lived.

* * * * *

I was deeply moved by your piece on Wes Leonard, the Michigan high school athlete who died seconds after hitting a game-winning shot. Did that story have a lasting effect on you?

I still think about it a lot. When I go to write about a person, I try to look at this person’s life from many different angles, talk to many people about them, read whatever I can find about them. I admit that there are times because of that process that I have found out more than what I wanted to know. Then the question is, What do we publish? We don’t want to hurt the family further. But you have to keep your allegiance to the truth.

The reason I bring that up with Wes Leonard is that it simply didn’t happen here. I couldn’t find anyone who said anything bad about the kid. He was a sports star, but people liked him so much because he took that power, the prototype of American power, and used it for good.

When he would see bullying happening, he would put a stop to it. He would make sure kids with disabilities sat at his table in the school cafeteria. He exemplified a good life, which is a really hard thing to ask of a 16-year-old. I’m not saying he was perfect, but in general, he understood at a young age that when you’re given a position of power, you can do incredible things if you use that power for goodness and kindness. Even though he died at 16, I think his example lives on, not only in Fenville but all around the country because of the coverage he received.

In an age when there’s pressure for every piece to be “7 Quick Tips on Time Management,” you write pieces that stretch for pages and range over thousands of words. What is the value of long-form journalism?

I’m thrilled to see that even when newspapers and magazines are struggling to survive, readers out there hunger for real stories. Longform.org—a lot of the people are grabbing stories from there and reading them on their iPhones or iPads. Just because dead-tree publications are in trouble doesn’t mean people have stopped wanting to read complex stories. That’s great news for me, because those are the stories that I get to make a living writing. It’s a tremendous reward, especially in a magazine that has such a long reach both in print and online. So for a story like “The Boy They Couldn’t Kill,” I got a chance to look at the unedited letters to the editor. That was a validation of all the time and effort that went into the piece.

There is a qualitative difference when someone is given the time to dig in and put it all together—to read the whole trial transcript, to do the extra five interviews that can give a much richer experience for the reader. To get to do that and still pay my mortgage–I hope it continues for many years.

You took some heat from Deadspin and other sites for stepping out of the writer’s chair and publicly advocating for the welfare of Pop Herring, the struggling former coach who “cut” Michael Jordan. Remarkably, through Indiegogo, you raised more than $1,200 for Pop. How are you thinking about all that these days? 

That was a tough one. Some stories have a moral and others—they’re a string of events that much later you’re still making sense of. People were mostly upset that what I wrote in the follow-up piece could be interpreted as self-righteous, which made them angry. I understand why. If I did it over again I would change the ending: “And then like most of the people who have ever known Pop Herring, I left him, got in the car, and drove away.”  That was the truth.

But many people responded in a positive way and asked, how can we help? I hadn’t set up the account before the column came out. Someone on Twitter said, “Have you thought about an Indiegogo account?” I had no idea how much money would get raised. It wasn’t ultimately much, but it was better than nothing, and my friend Brandon Sneed was gracious enough to go down there with his wife and make sure it all got spent on things Pop needed.

What is it like working at Sports Illustrated, the premier spot for excellent sportswriting?

Here’s the weird secret: a lot of the time I’m at home in a little room by myself. The HQ of the magazine is on the Avenue of the Americas in NYC up on the 31st floor. It’s a very exciting place to be, you see the SI logo and get tingly. You see the editors’ offices, and they have spectacular views of Manhattan. But it’s not as if by osmosis while looking out the window you’re going to get a great story to tell!

The senior writers on the mag are mostly allowed to live wherever they want, so they’re spread out all over the country. I said to my editors that I would like to stay here in Atlanta—basically my hometown—and they said there’s a lot going on there, so it’s a great base of operations.

What would you say to pastors about the work of preaching? In general, how can evangelical pastors grow as storytellers? 

That’s one I’ve never thought about before. Every pastor lives an actual life and sees things. The more preaching can be connected to the actual life we live–where the alarm goes off at 7:36 a.m. and we hit the snooze button three times and the baby is screaming and we’re dragging and four bills are due by noon—the better. Life is very gritty and not simple. I love a good parable as much as anyone does, but I also love to read stories that have rough edges.

Look at somebody like John Steinbeck. I have no idea about his religious beliefs, but I enjoy his stories because he seems to present life as it is. But he also shows that he loves the people whose stories he’s telling, in the way that ironic novelists don’t. Even though life is complicated and unceremonious and not often fun, there is this amazing spark when we catch glimpses of something more grand that shine through all the minutes we forget. If there’s a way to tap into that as a preacher then I’m sure people in the congregation will relate.

What do you want to come out of all this? In 40 years, what do you want others to say of your work?

I think about the situation my father’s in now. He was a pastor for about 25 years, and about 15 years ago he decided he was going to try a new career, after six kids, age 45, with a degree from Pinecrest Bible Training Center—not something that necessarily translates into the larger world of academics.

But he wanted to be a college professor. So he started taking classes, one day at a time, and incredibly about 12 years later he finished his doctorate. He recently turned 61 and is an associate professor at Georgia Southern University. His goal is to become a full professor, and he said he will have to work until he’s 75. He works harder than somebody who’s 25, trying to get published in all these journals, and this at a time when he would love to spend more time with his grandkids.

I told him I was inspired by what he was doing, because he’s refused to let coming late to the game stop him from where he wants to go. He still preaches and is very faithful. It made me think of what the apostle Paul writes. I said to my dad, “God’s going say to you, ‘Well done, my faithful servant.'” He fought the good fight, just like the apostle Paul said when it was all over (choking up).

I hope the same is true for me.

Authority in Weakness

Once you’ve lost moral authority, it’s nearly impossible to recover. And you don’t need to spend much time sifting through the rubble of American society to find evidence of our leaders’ moral failure. Last month Gallup reported that Americans’ confidence in organized religion fell in 2012 to an all-time low. The slow decline began in the 1980s with the televangelist scandals. An uptick of confidence in religious leaders followed the September 11 attacks, but cover-ups of sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church sent those numbers plummeting in 2002. Christian leaders have never recovered the public’s esteem.

But we have plenty of company among the distrusted. Television news, which never recovered from the Dan Rather scandal of the 2004 presidential election, also hit a low point of public confidence in 2012. So did banks, too big to fail in 2008, but still too big to trust according to most Americans. During the tumultuous latter half of the 2000s, banks lost more than half the confidence they once enjoyed. The same percentage of Americans who mistrust big business mistrust organized labor. Indeed, public skepticism might be the only truly bipartisan sport today. Almost no one trusts Congress.

Actually, only three segments of society—the military, small business, and the police—inspire more confidence than organized religion. Churches are no worse than hospitals, according to Gallup. The church might be in bad shape, but most of our society’s pillars have it worse. We don’t just have a crisis of moral authority in the church; we have a crisis of moral authority in America. It hasn’t always been this way. But now we’ve come to expect the worst from the best.

Higher Standard

It’s bad enough that several leaders from one of the most prestigious college football programs in the nation have been accused of covering up sexual abuse of children in university facilities. But the Penn State scandal erupted, much like it did in the Roman Catholic Church, precisely because the public expected more from men who claimed to live by higher standards.

Legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno called his program “The Grand Experiment.” He sought to win championships on the field while graduating model citizens. And by nearly all accounts he had succeeded: no coach won more college football games, and no coach could more plausibly claim to be the moral compass of the sport. Award-winning journalist Joe Posnanski moved to State College, Pennsylvania, this fall and planned to title his authorized Paterno biography The Grand Experiment. But then the experiment exploded. The stomach-churning accusations against long-term Paterno assistant Jerry Sandusky, combined with suspicions that Paterno didn’t do enough to stop the abuse, shattered the proud coach’s moral authority. He was fired in disgrace.

Posnanski was one of the few writers with access to Paterno in the dark days after his firing when the coach suffered severe coughing fits and struggled through chemotherapy and radiation. Shortly before he died in January of lung cancer, Paterno asked Posnanski what he thought of the stunning sequence of events. Did he do the right thing with what he knew or possibly suspected about Sandusky? Posnanski told the weakening coach, “You are Joe Paterno. Right or wrong, people expect more from you.” According to Posnanski, Paterno nodded and said, “I wish I had done more.”

Before the Sandusky allegations went public on November 5, 2011, Posnanski could hardly find anyone to utter a critical word against Paterno. After November 5, hardly anyone would say anything complimentary. Grief over his shattered legacy consumed Paterno in some of his final moments. The day after he was fired, Paterno could not stop crying. “My name,” Paterno told his son and fellow coach Jay, “I have spent my whole life trying to make that name mean something. And now it’s gone.”

Posnanski concludes his biography by juxtaposing Paterno’s ignominious demise with several vignettes from lives he changed for the better. One of Paterno’s former players, a businessman who hated his coach for decades before becoming a billionaire and offering him grudging thanks, suggests we judge Paterno’s legacy on a scale, weighing his good against the bad. Since he did so much good in such a storied career, we should keep his ending in perspective.

That doesn’t seem likely. We lift our moral authorities to tear them down. Paterno’s daughter Mary Kay told Posnanski she never liked it when people described her dad as a saint. She knew his flaws. But as he died, she realized the bigger problem with treating our moral authorities as saints.

“To call someone a saint or a fiend is to reduce him to cardboard,” Posnanski writes, “to turn his life’s decisions into mere computer code, to invest him with superhuman powers—in other words, to make him unlike real people.”

Credible Witnesses

You don’t have to coach a football team, run a business, report the news, or even lead a church to be a moral authority. You just have to be a sibling, neighbor, parent, friend, Christian. How do you want to be judged? On a scale? If so, you leave your legacy in the hands of others, including your enemies. You’ll probably never do as much good as Paterno. And look what happened: as soon as controversy swelled around him, decades worth of enemies emerged to kick dirt on his grave. Few of Paterno’s friends lifted a finger to defend him, maybe because they knew we love to tear apart a disgraced man once extolled for his righteousness. As Paterno’s daughter learned, we have only two categories for moral authorities: saint or fiend. And the saints are fiends who haven’t yet been found out.

There is, however, a different way to secure and maintain moral authority. Consider: when was the last time you heard moral authorities confess their sins? Did they lose your respect? Not likely unless you heard a confession from someone like Sandusky who ruined dozens of lives and deceived many others. More likely, you learned to respect these authorities in their repentance. Consider the treasure of Psalm 51, composed by David amid horrifying circumstances. Look to John the Baptist, who considered himself unfit to even carry Jesus’ sandals (Matt. 3:11) and taught, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). How much comfort have you received from the apostle Paul, chief of sinners for whom Christ Jesus died (1 Tim. 1:15)? This same Paul taught us to actually boast in our weakness, so the power of Christ may rest on us (2 Cor. 2:9).

Jesus never needed to confess any sin. He established his moral authority through perfect love and staggering miracles. And that got him killed. We sinners silently and sometimes violently resent goodness. But we read in Philippians 2 that his humbling death on the cross led to his exaltation in heaven. He did this to secure salvation for all who believe and to leave believers an example. Citing Jesus, Paul writes, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Phil 2:3).

Jesus shows us you’ll never earn or recover moral authority in the world’s eyes unless you renounce the world’s means. We know we’ll fail if judged by peers on a scale. A lifetime of good works can be wiped away after one misstep. Instead, we seek the good of others before our own, careful always to confess our sin and boast in our weakness, so that Jesus might be exalted above all. We won’t be perfect, but we’ll offer credible witness to the power of the gospel.

Time to Separate Church and Sports? A New Agenda Takes Shape

Sam Cook has had enough. A sports columnist for the Fort Myers [FL] News-Press, Cook recently referred to quarterback Tim Tebow of the University of Florida Gators and told his readers: “I don’t know how many more ‘God bless’ comments I can stand from the 2007 Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback.” Tebow, Cook argued, should play football and forget about his religious beliefs while he is wearing the Gator uniform.

“Somehow, we’ll survive without him displaying a ‘John 3:16′ Bible verse under his eyes,” Cook wrote. “We separate church and state. Why not church and sports?”

Sam Cook’s column was prompted by a far more prominent essay published in Monday’s edition of USA Today. In “And I’d Like to Thank God Almighty,” Tom Krattenmaker leveled a comprehensive critique of the evangelical Christian message that, as he laments, permeates so much of the sporting world at both the college and professional levels.

The Bible verses painted in eye-black, fingers pointed heavenward, and expressions of thankfulness to God at the conclusion of a big game amounts, Krattenmaker argues, to “a faith surge that has made big-time sports one of the most outwardly religious sectors of American culture.”

Krattenmaker’s concern is that this “faith surge” is overwhelmingly evangelical in its substance and message. He addressed this issue in a recently-released book, Onward Christian Athletes: Turning Ballparks into Pulpits and Players into Preachers. In both the column and his book, Krattenmaker seeks to describe “the infrastructure and strategy of the sports-world evangelicalism” that is the source of his concern.

In his book, Krattenmaker offers a more nuanced and developed argument than what is found in his recent column. Nevertheless, in both contexts his main concern is what he sees as a near monopoly of evangelical influence and expression in the sporting world.

He writes:

How did this come to be? Suffice it to say that Christianity is a strong presence in sports is no accident. It happened because a movement of athletic-minded evangelical Christians have been making it happen since setting out more than a half-century ago to reach and convert athletes and leverage their influence to spread the gospel to the wider sports-loving public.

Krattenmaker correctly traces evangelical influence in sports to the “muscular Christianity” movement so popular in America between the Civil War and World War II. He expresses appreciation for the moral influence of evangelical Christians and Christian conviction within the lives of athletes. Nevertheless, he is clearly alarmed by evangelical displays of the Gospel.

Looking beyond Tim Tebow, Krattenmaker points to Baseball Chapel, a Christian ministry that offers chaplains and worship services for professional baseball players on the road or at the ballpark. He is specifically offended by the fact that the ministry believes that those who do not come to faith in Jesus will face “everlasting punishment separated from God.”

He pointedly addresses the same concern to Tim Tebow. After praising his athletic ability and charitable works, he criticizes Tebow for his belief that faith in Jesus is necessary for salvation. Specifically, Krattenmaker cites the stated beliefs of the Bob Tebow Evangelistic Association. As he asserts, the ministry affirms the exclusivity of the Gospel and rejects “the modern ecumenical movement.”

In his USA Today column, Krattenmaker describes Tebow’s beliefs as “a far-right theology.” Yet, in his book Krattenmaker describes the same beliefs as “hardly fringe or half-baked.”

As he explains, “On the contrary, they are quite consistent with the long tradition of conservative evangelicalism in America and the beliefs that more or less define the religious lives of millions of churchgoing Americans.”

In his column, Krattenmaker goes even further in denouncing Tebow’s beliefs:

Certainly, Tim Tebow must be applauded for the good he does working on his father’s missions, but he should be seen, too, as one who promotes a form of belief that makes unwelcome judgments about everyone else’s religion. Let’s not forget the twinge that is felt by sports-loving Jewish kids and parents, for example, or by champions for interfaith cooperation, when adored sports figures like Tebow use their fame to push a Jesus-or-else message.

Both Sam Cook and Tom Krattenmaker identify the exclusivity of the Gospel as the key issue of their concern when it comes to Tim Tebow and any number of other prominent sports figures. Krattenmaker repeatedly stresses that he believes athletes should be free to express their faith. Nevertheless, he argues that belief in the exclusivity of the Gospel of Christ is out of bounds for such expression.

What we face here is undoubtedly a sign of things to come. The belief that Jesus is the only Savior and that salvation comes only to those who come to Christ by faith is essential to Biblical Christianity. As Krattenmaker rightly observes in his book, when it comes to historic Christianity this belief is “hardly fringe or half-baked.” Yet, it is precisely this doctrine that is so odious and inconceivable to the postmodern mind.

Krattenmaker argues that evangelical Christians are unfairly using what he describes as “the civic resource known as ‘our team.'”  He demands that the management of professional sports open the door to other religious organizations and make room for expressions of other religious beliefs. He also calls for Christians to use “discernment” in seeking to evangelize their teammates.

Cook, on the other hand, calls for an outright separation of “church and sports.” The sporting world is hardly the only arena where the same arguments are made.  You can count on seeing these same arguments appear anywhere evangelical Christians express their faith in public or within ear-shot of those who may be offended. The belief that faith in Jesus Christ is necessary for salvation is now at the very center of secular outrage.

Consider this: Tom Krattenmaker ransacked the website of the Bob Tebow Evangelistic Association in order to find the statement that caused him to criticize Tim Tebow as espousing “a far-right theology.” The outrage directed at Tim Tebow is not just about a Bible reference written in eye-black. The outrage is directed at the sincerely-held beliefs of a young man and an evangelistic association.

Tom Krattenmaker suggests that Tim Tebow should adopt a “more generous conception of salvation.” And now we all know the price of being seen as “more generous.” Just abandon the Gospel.

I am confident that Tim Tebow will withstand this pressure. He has shown enough theological maturity and strength of conviction to earn that confidence. But, we have to wonder, how many others will fold under the intimidation?

Sports and the Gospel

Writing for USA Today, Tom Krattenmaker isn’t so sure conservative evangelicalism is all-together good for college and professional sports. While he lauds the civic-mindedness of many high profile Christian athletes, Krattenmaker is concerned with the exclusive claims many outspoken Christian athletes make with respect to salvation. From the column:

But Jesus’ representatives in sports aren’t just practicing faith. They are also leveraging sports’ popularity to promote a message and doctrine that are out of sync with the diverse communities that support franchises, and with the unifying civic role that we expect of our teams. Typifying the exclusive creed taught by many sports-world Christians is the belief statement published by Baseball Chapel, which provides chaplains for all major- and minor-league baseball teams. Non-believers in Jesus, the ministry declares, can look forward to “everlasting punishment separated from God.”

Urban Meyer, Tebow’s coach at Florida, has praised his quarterback’s faith-promoting ways as “good for college football … good for young people … good for everything.” Such is the rhetoric usually heard from those who defend sports-world Christianity as wholesome and harmless.

But should we be pleased that the civic resource known as “our team” — a resource supported by the diverse whole through our ticket-buying, game-watching and tax-paying — is being leveraged by a one-truth evangelical campaign that has little appreciation for the beliefs of the rest of us?

Having researched and thought about Christianity in sports for the better part of a decade, I am impressed by the good that’s done by sports-world Christians. Jesus-professing athletes are among the best citizens in their sector, and they commit good deeds daily in communities across this country.

These sports stars, like all Americans, have a right to express their faith.

Evangelical players and ministry representatives in sports aren’t out to harm anyone, of course. On the contrary, they see themselves as fulfilling the Bible’s Great Commission (“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” Matthew 28:19). In this sense, their mission is pure altruism: They seek to share the gift of eternal life.

But there’s a shadow side to this. If their take on God and truth and life is the only right one — which their creed boldly states — everyone else is wrong.

Of course, there’s the rub. Christian athletes like Tim Tebow actually believe in the exclusivity of the Gospel for salvation. And they want others to embrace Christ as their only hope for forgiveness of sins and life everlasting. For many outspoken Christian athletes life is about far more than sports. And out of love for neighbor and their Savior they risk ridicule and offense in saying so.

Here’s how Krattenmaker closes:

Is sports-world evangelicalism really “good for everything”? Certainly a lot, but not everything. Not if you’re Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, non-evangelical Protestant, agnostic or anything else outside the conservative evangelical camp.

What do you think? Should high-profile athletes use their platform for the proclamation of the Gospel? What guidelines, if any, should be kept in mind?