Jim Tressel, long-revered coach and field general of the Ohio State Buckeyes football program, resigned on Monday after a lengthy saga of unraveling details regarding NCAA violations. Time and truth go hand in hand, so the sporting world must wait, as it often must, for the full revelation.
I’m nauseated by those who turn every buzz of celebrity gossip into a full-fledged electrocution, destroying reputations long before the dust has settled, much less the facts. Tressel’s fall from grace is nothing to celebrate or to employ as an attention-grabbing topic, so I want to steer clear of that here. Yet there’s enough preliminary information to warrant preliminary comment.
A professing Christian nicknamed “The Senator” for his unflappable and dignified demeanor, Tressel was known for his values, his sweater vest, and his winning percentage. But in the aftermath of his long-coming resignation, the sporting news world has been splashed with stereotypically sardonic headlines like “The Sweater Unraveled” and “Empty Vest.”
Tressel’s name, once synonymous with dignity, discipline, and integrity, has joined the ranks of cheap punch lines tossed around by sportswriters. If “a good name is to be chosen rather than great riches” and if “favor is better than silver or gold” (Proverbs 22:1), then Tressel has lost a fortune.
But when an apparently good man falls — especially a revered man who was revered for many of the right things — he’s not the only one who loses.
We all lose. We lose a little bit more of our willingness to trust. We lose a little bit of respect for those who still appear as Tressel appeared before he came toppling down. We lose a little bit of the listening ear that we typically give to those whose reputations are sterling and proven and who (we think?) practice what they preach. And what do we gain? We take yet another small dose of that great necessary evil of suspicion. We start to think and talk in terms of “appearances,” because it seems like all we have left. We wonder — is everyone fake? Who can know anymore?
Isn’t this how it works? Doesn’t every ballplayer’s admission of performance-enhancing drugs increase your fear that the steady Jeter or the iconic Pujols could be next in line? Doesn’t the moral implosion of Tiger Woods make you ask questions about all those gentlemanly golfers who seem so self-controlled as they stroll through Augusta National? Doesn’t the Memorial Day gloom hanging over Buckeye Nation make you ask if your alma mater might be the next high-powered institution splashed across the headlines later this year?
Hypocrisy forces us to wonder — about everyone.
I have an old boss who attended a well-known conservative Christian college in Ohio. Earlier this year he was telling me about how Tressel would come and speak to the students there. The Senator received a hero’s welcome everywhere he went. He was the picture of responsibility, a walking definition of integrity.
What do those students and alumni think now? And what do they now have to wonder about all the other visiting speakers that arrive preaching Scripture and teaching leadership and urging integrity? Shouldn’t the students wonder? Wouldn’t they be foolish not to?
And so the devil, that great accuser of the brethren and architect of suspicion, gains a foothold. Wondering becomes wisdom. Suspicion becomes sensible. But trust? Trust is now foolish, because integrity appears impossible.
Long ago Paul warned his protege Timothy about the secret sins of leaders and would-be leaders: “The sins of some men are conspicuous, going before them to judgment, but the sins of others appear later” (1 Timothy 5:24).
These are sobering words.
Increasingly, I fear my sinful desires and dangerous habits and deceptive weaknesses not just because of what they are but what they might become. Though I can say before God that I have no hidden life of shame, plenty about my hidden life shames me. Thoughts, ambitions, patterns, ruts. I must fight to be pure, to be holy, to be whole.
As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet:
Diseases desperate grown,
By desperate appliance are relieved,
Or not at all.
Protected from the sword of the Word, hardened against the inquisition of the Spirit, hiding in the recesses of self-deception, sin blossoms and flourishes and then builds fortresses to protect its evil garden until the fruit is ripe. Woe to the man who fails to make war before the harvest.