At Baylor University, head football coach Art Briles is out, and university president Ken Starr is “reassigned,” due their failures to properly respond to allegations against football players. The fact that it’s that Ken Starr, President Bill Clinton’s “special persecutor,” and that the news at Baylor broke at the same time that news broke about how Bill’s “wife,” presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, mishandled her email as Secretary of State, all of these wonderful details remind us that we live, indeed, in a fallen world.
Briles was my colleague at the University of Houston, if you can count as a colleague a coworker in a labor-force that numbers in the tens of thousands. I do have one personal memory of him that’s poignant in its own way. During the summer sessions, he would sometimes walk down to the Writing Center, where I worked, with football student-athletes who had to take the remedial writing course, and he would sit out on our breezeway to make sure the student-athletes didn’t leave early.
On another occasion, I felt like I was in Briles’ corner in an embarrassing moment. When Houston lost to South Carolina in the 2006 Liberty Bowl, Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier essentially snubbed Briles in the post-game hand-shake. “Saint Steve Superior” has a well-established reputation as an arrogant prick, and Briles took the snub with low-key dignity. Not so hard to muster, really, since while Spurrier was the victor that day, Briles was ascendant as an up-and-coming coach, and Spurrier was essentially a has-been on his last legs.
When I was researching Farewell to Football? (Now available in paperback and Kindle!), I found out from quarterback Case Keenum that Briles was the only coach to offer him a scholarship. Briles coached Keenum into one of the most accomplished passers in NCAA history. Briles’ success at Houston led to his hitting the jackpot with his coaching position at Baylor, where he was paid over $4 million a year.
Now, what is an Evangelical Baptist college doing paying a football coach $4 million a year? On the one hand, as a nominally “private” institution, whatever it wants. But on the other hand, the “FOOTBALL examen” hand, it is setting up football as an idol. To me, it’s no surprise that Baylor football players wear gold helmets. (And lest I be tempted to a Pharisee’s smug sense of superior position, I remember that they probably got the idea from the “Catholic” university at Notre Dame, which also sets up the idol with the golden helmet, along with the icon of “Touchdown Jesus.”)
So, I don’t claim to know Coach Briles at all, but I do know that as a sinner just like me, he was most certainly tempted by that Football Idolatry, and was likely deluded by the biggest distortion that comes out of that idolatry: the mistaken belief that football is really important. The harmful belief that football is more important than the well-being of other people. That’s really what Starr and Briles were demoted and fired for: acting as if football is more important than the well-being of other people.
Read more about my examination of conscience as a Christian football fan in Farewell to Football? An American Fan’s Examination of Conscience, available in paperback and Kindle formats.