By Tom Krattenmaker
Pro football superstar Ben Roethlisberger, the Christian quarterback who used to take the field with the letters “PFJ”–“Playing for Jesus”–scrawled on his armbands, is almost making it too easy for the cynics and snark-mongers.
If you spend any time consuming sports media, you know that Roethlisberger in recent weeks has become the latest star athlete to find his reputation sacked because of his off-the-field sexcapades. For the second time since his heroics in the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2009 Super Bowl win, Roethlisberger has been accused of sexually assaulting a woman.
This week we learned that the two-time Super Bowl champ had escaped criminal charges in the latest case, which involves a 20-year-old woman he met during a bar spree in Milledgeville, Georgia. No criminal charges came out of the earlier case, either. But the verdict of public opinion is loud and clear: Big Ben is most definitely not innocent — not innocent of reckless partying, and not innocent of aggressive sexual conduct that is highly immoral and highly un-Christian, if not downright illegal.
Time for a new catch phrase: Partying for Jesus? Hitting on women (and maybe assaulting them) for the Lord?
What’s gone begging for attention in this week’s coverage of Roethlisberger’s half-hearted “apology” and his success dodging criminal charges is the mockery he is making of the Christian piety that has been a big part of his persona since his arrival as an NFL star in 2004.
Sincere or contrived, Big Ben’s faith has been on his sleeve, in full public view, like the faith of so many other pro athletes who together have made big-time sports one of the most conspicuously religious sectors of popular culture. There’s the “playing for Jesus” shoe message. There are the frequent sky-pointing gestures to the heavens in Ben’s triumphant moments on the field. There are the media interviews, Big Ben often ready to tell the world about the central role of faith in his life and his intention to use his sports stardom to glorify God.
This latest play glorifies nothing and no one. But there is a moral to the story, as well as some harsh new light being shed on a dynamic in sports-world Christianity that is too seldom acknowledged.
Christian fans and ministry organizations tend to glory in the piety of Jesus-professing athletes, putting them on a celebrity-endorsement pedestal as if to say, “Hey, Ben Roethlisberger is a Christian. Our faith is legit!” But for all the visibility and pop-culture stature Christianity gains via its high-profile place in sports, it loses in this equation, too. It loses each time players in the spotlight trivialize the faith with the common “God gave us this win” rhetoric and, worse yet, exhibit behavior that exposes the falseness of the God-fearing image they cultivate.
In this, Roethlisberger has had a partner these recent weeks in Santonio Holmes, the talented Steelers receiver who called his game-winning catch in the Super Bowl “God’s will.” Right around the same time that his quarterback was getting in trouble in Georgia, Holmes got into his own mess with a woman in a Florida bar, initially facing accusations that he threw a glass at her. He was later cleared. But that scrape, coming on top of a series of substance-abuse violations and other missteps, was too much for Steelers management. They discarded Holmes to the Jets this week in exchange for a lowly fifth-round draft pick.
As one who spent years researching and thinking about sports-world Christianity for my book Onward Christian Athletes, I empathize with those in sports ministry who are attempting to use the platform of big-time sports to spread the gospel. That necessarily implies using athletes. But athletes, like the rest of us, are human. They stumble. They fall. Unfortunately, when they’ve been turned into celebrity faith endorsers, their “product” takes a hit with them. As if the cynics didn’t already have enough material to work with.
To be fair, Roethlisberger’s fall also showcases an important and worthy part of the mission of sports-world Christianity: to exert a positive moral influence on the behavior of athletes, people with more temptations laid at their feet than most of us can imagine. It’s important to note, too, that many Christian athletes do walk the talk. Kurt Warner, the since-retired quarterback against whom Roethlisberger competed in that stirring 2009 Super Bowl, is a Christian superstar who has been a model of decency, generosity, and class.
Big Ben seemed relieved when he made his media statement earlier this week, offering profuse gratitude to the district attorney’s office for its thorough investigation and decision not to bring charges. He is far from exonerated. As D.A. Fred Bright put it, “We are not condoning Mr. Roethlisberger’s actions that night. But we do not prosecute morals. We prosecute crimes.”
By draping himself in Christianity, however, Roethlisberger has made himself subject to a greater standard, to a higher “law” that indeed does convict abusive and immoral behavior.
Will Big Ben’s Christian piety be remembered now?
Tom Krattenmaker is a Portland, Oregon-based writer specializing in religion in public life. His book Onward Christian Athletes on Christian engagement with pro sports was published in October.