Where is the Fault Line in Sports and the Church?

I read Sports Illustrated for several reasons. One is, of course, my love of sports. But there are a lot of magazines and papers that cover sports. Few do it with the journalistic excellence of Sports Illustrated. The March 29 issue brought this out in a remarkable way, with a fantastic story (“True Confessions”) written by one of the best sport’s writers of my lifetime, Frank Deford. I may say more about this article at some other point but today I want to comment on Joe Posnanski’s piece: “The Fault Line of Pro Sports.” Posnanski writes: “We live in a time when sports public apologies are judged more or less in the same way we judge figure skating performances. Did he sound sincere? How was the choreography? The artistic interpretation? Did he complete all the technical elements?”

1212 Posnanski is writing, not about Tiger Woods as you might expect, bur rather about Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington, who recently admitted taking cocaine in 2009, while he was the manager of the Texas Rangers. (He tested positive as per the requirements of MLB for regular drug testing.) When Washington met with the press recently he was emotionally moved and very contrite. He talked about the consequences of his actions and personal responsibility. He said the team would be right to fire him as manager. He also said that he had entered MLB’s drug–treatment program and completed it clean of all drug use.

Posnanski writes of this meeting with the press: “It was almost the perfect apology. Almost. The one stumble was Washington’s insistence that this was the first time he had ever used cocaine, which, true or not, sounded off-key. Washington is 57 years old. He played baseball in the 1980s, when cocaine was the baseball player’s drug of choice. A day later he would admit to using marijuana and amphetamines as a player. This was really the first time?”

The public will generally spot these inconsistencies and in Washington’s case this is exactly what happened. Even if he was telling the whole truth, as Posnanski noted, “. . . it did not sound true. And in the apology game, that’s of paramount importance.”

Posnanski goes on to say that there are two unforgivable sins in sports. Why? If you lie you cannot be trusted. Trust is everything in combat, sports and all similar endeavors in life. (The same goes for pastors and churches I might add, which is one reason why I still think a pastor should not remain in the pastorate when he commits adultery, steals, lies, etc. He simply cannot be trusted, at least for the foreseeable future!)

After Washington made his public apology the Rangers chose to keep him as their manager for this season. His players have rallied around him and will, it seems, play all that much harder for him as their skipper. There is something “honorable” about this adds Posnanski; i.e. sticking with your man when he comes clean. The Rangers leadership speaks very highly of their manager right now and will keep doing so if he wins. But if he does not win, as Posnanski concludes, it must be remembered that the other unpardonable sin in sports is losing. I have written this before but a former major league player who is my friend once said that what you see in our culture is magnified by sports, thus we see all the good, the bad and the ugly in sports. (This is another reason why Sports Illustrated still remains on my reading stack!)

I think Ron Washington’s story is much like what we see in churches routinely. The difference in our ecclesial setting is that the stakes are much, much higher. Integrity is everything for us. If our leadership fails then the good news, and our corporate stance, is compromised. We walk a very fine line here between confession and forgiveness and holding to serious standards of integrity in leadership. We must react with grace and love when our leaders confess their sins, which all too often comes after they have “tested positive” for something they actually got caught in. But we must also be very careful that we do not perpetuate the problem by overlooking the real consequences of some damaging sins that destroy trust. This is the very problem the Catholic Church made with priests. Many evangelical churches have done the same with their fallen pastors.

I wonder, has it finally come down to this: “So long as our leader is a winner we can overlook everything else?” It sure seems that way to me.

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