Have you ever been swimming in a lake or river and had the time of your life, only to have that joy snatched from you when you see, only a short distance from where you were swimming, something that was more akin to the lodging of Swamp Thing or the origin of Cabin Fever than a family retreat area? That’s what I am beginning to feel for the sport I love above all others.
I am a passionate fan of college football. I grew up rarely ever missing College Gameday on Saturday mornings, planned my weekends around my favorite team’s schedule, Auburn (War Eagle!), every year I bought the newest NCAA football game by EA Sports, I played (I use that term loosely) college football for two years while attending Samford University, and I even keep a watchful eye on recruiting buzz around the South East and to see where Auburn is stacking up. Over the years, however, the layers of the sport I love have been pulled back more and more, and I do not like what it has revealed.
Yesterday one of the highest touted and most successful coaches in college football resigned his duties amid a wealth of NCAA infractions and attempts to lie and cover them up. It seemed inevitable that Jim Tressel, formerly the head coach of the Ohio State Buckeyes, would either be fired or forced to resign, and this owed, not to the violations committed by the players, but entirely to the fact that 78 out of 81 coaches, across all NCAA sports, have lied to their governing body regarding known infractions and survived to coach again at the same school. Tressel left at just the right time too, because later last night Sports Illustrated produced an article indicating that he had a history of rules violations dating back to his assistant coaching days.
This is disturbing on a number of levels. For one, Jim Tressel is a man highly regarded as a father figure and a man of strong Christian character to his players, staff, and fans abroad, and his actions aren’t matching up with his perceived identity (for a great response to this see this article by CaPC writer Adam Carrington). That is not the most concerning issue to me, because all of human history is full of sinful people who fail one another and who do not measure up to the standards they profess, and that includes me.
What is most disturbing to me is how surprising this whole debacle has not been across the landscape of college football. Noted ESPN analyst Joe Schad shared that very sentiment yesterday when he tweeted, “I feel numbed to the # of major programs/coaches/players committing violations. #hardtoshocknow.” Sure, the story made big news and lit up the message boards, but for how long? It is so shocking that people are quickly becoming more interested in, “Who will Ohio State hire next?” Within an hour I saw article giving lists of the best candidates out there for the new job opening.
In a culture driven by success and the desire to be the Next Big Thing, it has become too easy to simply acknowledge wrong doing and move on. Whatever helps a team get the best recruits, win the most games and bring in the most money is permissible as long as they don’t get caught or its not too serious. Thus, it has become common place for coaches to cheat and boosters to give $100 handshakes and players expect an easy ride to the top. As long as the team is winning most fans don’t seem to care. People even make silly attempts to justify their team’s particular sin with arguments that go something like, “if you’re not cheating you’re not trying hard enough,” “everyone breaks the rules, some are just better at it than others,” or “there’s not a team out there that isn’t breaking the rules in some way, shape, or form.” As true as those statements may be, they do not justify any act of cheating, and where cheating occurs it should be dealt with in a manner that reverberates through the participants and causes them to reflect deeply on their culpability, rather than enabling them to react with mere acknowledgment in passing.
As Christians we deal everyday in a world that will continuously fall short of the glory for which God created it, namely Himself. The nature of sin permeates everything, including my beloved college football, and it is evident in seedy dealings revealed by investigation after investigation. In the midst of all these things I am pressed to not move on so quickly. Sin is incredibly destructive and can only do more damage if dealt with lightly. When I sin it is not merely enough for me to recognize the sin, but rather I am called to dig deeper in order that the root of it might be exposed and dealt with accordingly. Similarly, when we see these acts of deception and cheating in college football we should not be satisfied with surface-level dealings and punishments. For the sake of the sport, but more importantly for the sake of the student athletes involved, the deep roots of the problems with college football should be exposed and dealt with justly. If not, we will continue to grow more and more comfortable with swimming in the murky waters that we once saw as repulsive.