Best of The Pietist Schoolman: Football at Christian Colleges and Universities

[UPDATED, 12:30pm: Baylor announced that, as of May 31, Starr will step down as president but remain as law school professor and most likely chancellor, but Briles “has been suspended indefinitely with intent to terminate.” McCaw has been placed on probation, and unidentified members of the athletic department and administration have been fired.]

Baylor University still has not confirmed reports that its board has dismissed president and chancellor Ken Starr. But in light of further reporting on sexual assaults by Baylor football players and the apparent downfall of Starr (if not athletic director Ian McCaw or head coach Art Briles, like Starr sued by one victim), this post — including the closing sentence — seems even more timely now than when I wrote it last fall. 

It’s relatively unusual for a religious private college to have a football team. While George Fox, Missouri Baptist, and Southeastern are among the most recent of the 270 NCAA football programs to have started in the last thirty-five years, it appears that about three in five schools in the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities do not have football teams, including Calvin, Gordon, Goshen [which left the CCCU not long after I posted], Messiah, Seattle Pacific, and Westmont. (Ditto Union and Oklahoma Wesleyan — the two institutions that recently left the CCCU.) I suspect that cost and Title IX are the main factors here, though there might well be theological or cultural reasons in some cases.

Bethel University logoSo as a sports fan, I feel fortunate that I could take my family to the home football opener at Bethel University last weekend. While perhaps best known at the moment for some laugh-out-loud-funny roster pictures, the Royals are a consistently strong team, often contending for the championship of the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference against Bethel’s much larger rival, the University of St. Thomas.

Bethel dropped to 1-1 after losing to their cross-border rivals from Wartburg College. (Just after Thanksgiving 2013, Bethel won a terrific game in the second round of the NCAA Division III playoffs, then lost its opener to the Knights last year in Iowa.) But whatever their record this year, I know head coach Steve Johnson and his staff well enough to know that they are even more committed to forming character and building community than to winning games. I’m sure that, for many of hundred or so student-athletes on this year’s roster, their time on the football team will play a big role in moving them towards the “whole and holy persons” ideal that we talk about all the time at Bethel.

And even in the midst of a hard-fought game, I appreciated that the home crowd was rooting for Bethel, not against a college that also represents the church of Christ. At one point with the Knights driving down the field, a young boy behind me worried that “the bad guys” were about to score. “They’re not bad guys,” corrected his Bethel alum father. “They’re good guys. We’re just playing against them today.”

But another moment tainted my memory of the afternoon. With the Royals failing to take advantage of two Wartburg turnovers in the red zone, our entire section of the stands had to listen to a Knights assistant coach, stationed in the press box, screaming profanities at the top of his lungs into his headset.

Someone must have said something because the coach restrained himself the rest of the half. (We had to leave at halftime, so I don’t know how things went as the game went on.) But the sound of such profanity and the sight of such visceral anger sticks with me, and revives some concerns I’ve been wrestling with for a while now…

Bethel football in 1964
Bethel football about half a century ago – Bethel University Digital Library

In my post on Anabaptist views of sports last week, I mentioned a 1988 pamphlet by a conservative Mennonite named Ronald Border. It’s easy to dismiss a work whose first page asserts that “The pre-occupation with sports… is an indication of a spiritual void in hearts which can only be fully satisfied with the presence of Jesus.” But while I believe that the example of coaches and athletes like those at schools like Bethel demonstrate that love of sports and love of God are not mutually exclusive, I do think Border points to some problems that most mainstream Christians gloss over too easily.

Detail of the cover of Border, The Christian View of Competitive Sports
Detail from the cover of Border’s pamphlet

Whether or not it’s fair to say that those of us who play and watch competitive sports are among “the unsuspecting, the unknowing, and the willfully short-sighted,” Border’s not entirely wrong to argue that our innate desires to be “totally dedicated to something,” to be part of a community, and to engage in practices that foster personal development can be misdirected by sports. Rather than dedicating ourselves to God, for example, we can make an idol out of any sport.

Border doesn’t focus solely on players. There’s a whole section on the problem of Christians participating as spectators. But he thinks that athletes “have misinterpreted this yearning [for dedication to God] and have offered their ‘last full measure of devotion’ (their lives) on the battlefield or in the sports arena.” Not only are they then tempted to sacrifice themselves for the sake of praise, glory, fame, and (especially) money, but they risk physical and psychological danger.

Of course, this isn’t unique to football. But I do think there’s reason to have special concern about that particular sport as it’s played professionally and at the highest levels of intercollegiate competition.

If you don’t normally read ESPN: The Magazine, go back to August’s issue and read Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada’s profile of Chris Borland, who this past March walked away from a promising pro football career after just one year in the NFL. Borland was concerned about the neurological effects of playing football — a topic the same reporters have covered well for a few years now, despite ESPN taking its name off of their work for the PBS program FrontlineBut that wasn’t his only concern:

Borland has consistently described his retirement as a pre-emptive strike to (hopefully) preserve his mental health. “If there were no possibility of brain damage, I’d still be playing,” he says. But buried deeper in his message are ideas perhaps even more threatening to the NFL and our embattled national sport. It’s not just that Borland won’t play football anymore. He’s reluctant to even watch it, he now says, so disturbed is he by its inherent violence, the extreme measures that are required to stay on the field at the highest levels and the physical destruction 
he has witnessed to people he loves and admires — especially to their brains.

Borland has complicated, even tortured, feelings about football that grow deeper the more removed he is from the game. He still sees it as an exhilarating sport that cultivates discipline and teamwork and brings communities and families together. “I don’t dislike football,” he insists. “I love football.” At the same time, he has come to view it as a dehumanizing spectacle that debases both the people who play it and the people who watch it.

Chris Borland as a Wisconsin Badger in 2013
Borland in 2013, during his collegiate career at the University of Wisconsin – Creative Commons (Enrique Sanabria)

“Dehumanizing sounds so extreme, but when you’re fighting for a football at the bottom of the pile, it is kind of dehumanizing,” he said during a series of conversations over the spring and summer. “It’s like a spectacle of violence, for entertainment, and you’re the actors in it. You’re complicit in that: You put on the uniform. And it’s a trivial thing at its core. It’s make-believe, really. That’s the truth about it.”

“Dehumanizing” does sound extreme. I think that, at the level of Division III and the NAIA (where most Christian colleges play), the spectacle is so much more muted and the competition so much less heated that football can instead help humans to flourish, rather than debase them.

But if I take the remembered sound and sight of one D3 assistant coach giving in for a few seconds to his ugliest emotions, and then magnify it by a factor of thousands… I think I’d have a clear sense of what the upper echelon of college football — to say nothing of pro football — can be like.

If the nature of small-college competition — where there’s hardly any fame or money on the line — could leave a person so unhinged, what’s possible at a level of competition where millions of viewers and billions of dollars are in play? (Borland attended the University of Wisconsin, a perennial football power in the Big Ten.) Or when the stakes of any season, any game, any play have bearing on one’s access to the still greater status and wealth available in the NFL? (Borland played his first and only season for the San Francisco 49ers — and paid back most of his $600K signing bonus.)

In such economies and such cultures, I think it’s an open question whether avowedly Christian institutions ought to be participating in a brand of football that risks dehumanizing or debasing those who participate in it — or tempts institutions to compromise their convictions for the sake of competitive success.

One particular version of the question was raised over the summer when Sam Ukwuachu, a player for the Baylor Bears, was convicted of sexual assault. Moreover, Ukwuachu’s former coach at Boise State disputed Baylor coach Art Briles’ contention that Baylor knew nothing of a previous incident involving the player. (Some of the most important reporting came out in late August in Texas Monthly magazine, just before Ukwuachu’s conviction.)

That led Sharon Grigsby, a Baylor alum herself, to write an editorial for the Dallas Morning News:

It would be generous to say the school was in denial. It probably would be more accurate to say that, just as it has at other Big 12 schools, football has gotten too big at Baylor. And I hope my fellow Baylor alums are as troubled about that as I am.

Briles, Beating Goliath: My Story of Football and Faith

In a previous post, I argued that building a top-ranked football team has been central to Baylor’s claims to preeminence as a Christian university. (And likewise, that Liberty University’s attempt to rival Baylor’s claim to be “the Protestant Notre Dame” has driven that school to move its own football program into the NCAA’s highest division.) While promoting his 2014 memoir (subtitled “My Story of Football and Faith”) on CBN, Briles paraphrased the apostle Paul: “We can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. When you need strength, Christ is where you look.”

So if success on the gridiron is inextricably linked with claims about the Christian identity of the university, what happens when that athletic program itself seems to enable, if not encourage, such unchristian behavior?

The official response from the school emphasized that “Acts of sexual violence contradict every value Baylor University upholds as a caring Christian community.” But not surprisingly, many in the media and blogosphere have complained of hypocrisy. For example, New York Times business writer Joe Nocera questioned the gap between professed principles and apparent priorities at Baylor:

But it’s at moments of crises like this one when people discover how a university, and its president, prioritizes athletics. Baylor, a Baptist school that professes to adhere to Christian principles, appears to have “sheltered” a “perpetrator,” to use [Baylor president Ken] Starr’s own words, because this particular perp might be able to help the team win a few games. It happens way too often.

I’m leery of pushing too hard here. I’ve seen — and previously written about — the educational benefits of sports at schools like Bethel. What I’d heard of Art Briles before this summer was only positive. But as we enter what ESPN Radio host Mike Greenberg this morning predicted would be “a magnificent weekend of college football,” I wonder if readers agree that there’s a level (the Football Bowl Series subdivision? lower?) at which the cost of sustaining such magnificence requires a Christian university to run an unacceptably high risk of compromising its mission and values.

You may recall that I was at Baylor last November to give a paper on Anabaptist leeriness of competitive college athletics (hinted at in the mention of Ronald Border’s booklet). Among other sessions, I live-tweeted a panel that featured Ken Starr…


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