The Fall Of Art Briles

Art Briles is out as the head football coach at Baylor for the university’s role in covering up sexual assault allegations against football players. I’ve long been a fan of Briles, but there was no question he needed to go. This is a man I admired, and still have positive feelings for. But the hypocrisy in his actions was too much.

I admired him because of his seemingly sincere Christian beliefs and the way he bounced back from the tragedy of losing his parents early in life. Then he turned around the Baylor program. But now a question that—at least for anyone who believes in the divinity of Jesus Christ—is more serious than football or academics rises—did Art Briles sell his soul to win football games?

That’s the most serious accusation one can make, so I won’t speculate on whether Briles cut a deal with the devil, a la Joe Hardy in Damn Yankees, or was guilty of the lesser charge of putting his head in the sand—which is still a firing offense.

Briles was prominent in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. I respect the FCA—I recall one defensive tackle in my freshman year of college was a member and one of the truly most decent kids in our otherwise raucous dorm. There wasn’t a trace of hypocrisy in him.

On the other hand, was the head coach of our football team who in a redneck town of northern Wisconsin neglected to praise any African-American players to the local paper (even though one was clearly the best player and the other a tough kid who played through a concussion).

I bring this up to say that I don’t think being in the FCA makes anyone pearly-white. But I did view it as a positive. And that Art Briles either condoned or ignored actions that directly violate his own spiritual principles (and mine) is, at least to me, the most troubling part of all this.

Part of believing in the Gospel is a willingness to walk away from the rewards of this world if they conflict with what’s right. What was it Jesus said to the rich young man in the Gospel?…

“If thou wilt be perfect, go sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come follow me.  And when the young man had heard this word, he went away sad: for he had great possessions”

Was Art Briles confronted with the choice of “selling what he had” to protect the female students on his campus being victimized by football players?

I don’t want to judge Briles harshly—or even at all, because the choice he made is one we’re all confronted with daily and it’s not that hard to go down the wrong path—even just a little bit, and soon find yourself in a situation that you never intended spinning out of control. But there’s no denying that because he’s a public figure and made his faith part of his public persona, that this is a scandal that has religious implications.

Living up to one’s principles is hard. We see it unfolding at North Carolina. The late Dean Smith was a principled advocate for racial minorities and made some tough and courageous decisions on behalf of his African-American players at a time when that wasn’t easy to do in the South.

But we also know now that the academic fraud at UNC—which preyed on black players—started under Smith and that if he didn’t know about it, he had to have put his head in the sand.

I don’t give my opinion on theological or political matters often, because I’m not that important. I only do it here because it’s relevant to the topic at hand. The deeper lesson behind the Baylor scandal is that living up to one’s more idealistic principles—whatever they are—is easily hindered if one insists on also having all the rewards this world offers (in this case, Big 12 titles and chances at the College Football Playoff).

I hope Art Briles gets another chance. Redemption, mercy and new beginnings are at the core of the Gospel that he believes. But so is penance. That chance should certainly not be at a Power Five school and probably not even in FCS. Somewhere along the line, Briles fell in love with the sport of football for the purest of reasons. Go to a smaller college or a high school that’s far away from the Friday Night Lights culture. Teach kids the game you love. It’s the road back and there’s a lesson there for all of us.