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Losing Their Religion

Jan. 21, 2008
Jan. 21, 2008

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Jan. 21, 2008

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Losing Their Religion

ON CHURCH-AFFILIATED campuses, steeples press against the skies like directional arrows: This Way to Salvation. At the football stadiums, bleachers function as corrugated church pews, where the faithful just might remind you that Jesus not only had a kind heart but also great hands.

This is an article from the Jan. 21, 2008 issue

He was fit. He was divine. He moved swiftly in sandals. "Imagine him as a coach," says Thor Ramsey, a self-described bust as a walk-on running back at Texas Christian in the late '80s and now a comedian with a largely Christian following. "He'd always know what the next play of the game was going to be."

Jesus would have been at home in Division III, where the competition is pure and luxury boxes nonexistent. It's a world without a Rich Rodriguez jumping a $4 million bailout clause at West Virginia so he can take the Michigan job. Or 23 Florida State players getting suspended for cribbing an Internet music test because they might confuse Pavarotti with Liberace. Or a Washington booster offering the university president a six-figure donation if he filled in coach Ty Willingham's pink slip.

The industrialized version of college football is unseemly, soulless—and wildly seductive. Some faith-based universities can't resist Division I glory, with its bounty of fool's gold for administrators desperate to turn a WE'RE NO. 1 foam finger into a marketing tool. "This brings to mind a fundamental question: Is American religion now more Biblical and traditional or is it more American?" says William J. Baker, author of Playing with God: Religion and Modern Sport. "And is it more geared to a market economy than it is to any sort of traditional religious set of values?"

Winning is the ultimate virtue, and the seven deadly sins are tools for victory (except for sloth, which is a definite no-no for success). Church-affiliated schools passionately compete with public behemoths for what Notre Dame's president, the Reverend Edward Malloy, decried as the "phenomenon of the messiah coach" in 2004. That was shortly before the Irish replaced Willingham with Charlie Weis. (Are there savior refunds?)

Southern Methodist got its messiah on Jan. 7, when university officials lured Hawaii coach June Jones out of his lei for almost $10 million over five years. Maybe the Mustangs missed hangin' with a fast crowd. Twenty years after SMU's program was ruined by the NCAA's death penalty, resulting in two canceled seasons and an unemployed marching band, the Mustangs are back. "Athletics is the front porch of the university," says athletic director Steve Orsini, whose team went 1--11 in 2007. "It's what people see when they walk by." In short, big football offers curb appeal.

All of this renders quaint the coveting sin, which apparently still applies to wives and donkeys but not Horned Frogs. TCU, just a 40-mile ride from SMU's Dallas campus, is pouring millions into platinum-level upgrades for its winning team. In a flawed but common formula, ADs gild the program to raise its visibility.

For the late Reverend Jerry Falwell the Holy Grail was Division I. He was a football believer, armed with a blueprint to one day make Liberty the Notre Dame for evangelicals. The Liberty student handbook warns of witchcraft and demonic activity, but Falwell had his heart set on the top 20. As Baker puts it, the reverend saw a D-I team as a "fishhook" to proselytize, as a cash cow for evangelical survival.

But isn't this just a religious fade pattern? There are only loose connections between team goals and Christian university mission statements, especially as schools hand off the untidy affairs of sports to turnaround artists (the hot AD, the glamour coach) and tax-exempt booster groups (the sugar daddies who ultimately pay the coaches). Football factories, Baker notes, are "run by business people, not ethicists."

Athletic autonomy is good for plausible deniability in the presidents' offices. But even parallel worlds can collide when the NCAA cops start sniffing around. Scrutiny, both internal and external, is far greater when the God squads screw up. "College athletics is so riddled with ethical questions," Baker says. "It's only exacerbated when [the offending school has] a religious heritage."

This makes it almost impossible for church-affiliated universities to walk righteously in both worlds. Is it a no-win situation to pursue No. 1? Financially, probably. The culture of unsustainable expectations makes nearly every NCAA program a money pit.

Still, Christian schools believe. All it takes is one messiah coach. It's a pursuit about greed and pride, lust and envy, wrath and gluttony. A sinner's jackpot.

Jesus wouldn't play that game.

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The industrialized version of college football is unseemly, soulless—and wildly seductive. Some faith-based schools can't resist Division I glory.
ILLUSTRATIONILLUSTRATION BY KEITH WITMER