While assisting some of the head coaches with the Oakland Raiders, I would often hear from my friends that “I must be doing a lousy job as a character coach”. I would respond with, “you really don’t know what is happening inside the locker rooms and chapels”. During my tenure the Raiders had from 15-20 guys in chapel every week. The others teams where I have been involved with chapel service have had as many as half the team involved. This isn’t a total indicator of a person’s heart and effort in trying to be a godly man, but it is an interesting fact. Does that mean all players and coaches going to chapel are exempt from acting out? No, but I’ve found that too many people are willing to cast a dark shadow on football because all they see is the violence on the field.
I’ve had the privilege to know, at a deep level, two NFL athletes who at one time or another graced Sports Illustrated as “The toughest and meanest men in football”. To meet these family men off the field you would make a strong case for these guys being two of the nicest men you ever met. They are kind-hearted, gentle giants who played the game with great intensity, but when they leave the field they re-booted their personality to be the wonderful guys that boast of family and faith. They took personal responsibility for their behavior.
So, why do some guys have difficulty with anger issues and integrating into society? Just as my two friends made a choice to be great role models off the field every athlete, coach, and executive has a responsibility to watch their character both on and off the field. Some athletes would say to me, “I didn’t choose to be a role model”. I would tell them by virtue of what you do and the privilege you have to play professional football you are a role model. The issue isn’t if you are a role model, but what kind of role model you will be.
I believe that part of the answer associated with behavioral issues can be found in our society. The problem with the NFL’s bad actors is seismic in nature. As goes the family so goes our nation. Let’s look at the evidence. The SAT scores for our youth, discipline, and respect for country started to decline in 1963 when prayer and the Bible were taken out of public schools. The increase in violent video games, movies, and television programs has dramatically increased. The average teenager spends twenty percent of their waking hours in front of the boob tube. Tonight 41% of the nation’s children under 18 years of age will go to bed without a biological father in the home. Without a positive male role model in the home there is significantly higher incidents of teen pregnancy, juvenile delinquency, drug and alcohol abuse, violent behavior, sexual identity problems, and teen suicide.
Over 85% of the prisoners in our penal system were products of families without a father in the home. Ray Rice’s father was killed in a drive-by shooting when Ray was one year old. Many of the players I’ve counseled never had the opportunity within their homes to experience a positive male role model. That is why good coaches like Tom Landry, Tony Dungy, Lovie Smith, Steve Mariucci, Dan Reeves, Andy Reid, Marvin Lewis, and a host of others have been great for the game. They have endeavored to instill within their players a sense of pride, poise, and character that goes beyond their playing days. Chaplains from both Protestant and Catholic backgrounds are becoming as important to a successful team as an assistant coach. The Seahawks are a good example of how they look at the total person not just his play on the field.
Even though discussions about intervention programs and increased discipline continue, teams must find a way to balance the risks by helping players stay within accepted moral bounds. Most coaches are ranking character as being as significant as speed and athletic ability. As John Wooden stated, “Sports doesn’t build character, it reveals it”. And I believe it starts with coaches taking on personal responsibility even at the flag football level. I maintain we need to have coaches talk about the moral, ethical, and spiritual undergirding that rests on truth, that reinforces a life, and that helps a boy resists the temptation to compromise. After all, character is doing the right thing on purpose, doing the right thing regardless of the consequences. Players must be coached in not conforming any longer to the immoral and illegal patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of their minds to those things that build great character. We must stress the importance of individual responsibility and not blaming others for our actions.
Eugene Petersen’s paraphrase of Paul’s words to Timothy helps us gain prospective on the matter: “Concentrate on doing your best for God, work you won’t be ashamed of, laying out the truth plain and simple. Stay clear of pious talk that is only talk. Words are not mere words, you know. If they’re not backed by a godly life, they accumulate as poison in the soul.” – 2 Timothy 2:15-17
I regularly tell players your name is on your back – don’t let your family down. Peyton Manning, quarterback of the Denver Broncos, has this to say about character, “My dad was a classy person on and off the field. That’s the person I want to be.” A proverb reminds us, “A good name is to be more desired than great wealth” (Proverbs 22:1 NASB). The next generation will not remember the ranking of a player as much as they will recall his attitudes and comments made in front of the camera or how he lived his personal and family life. As we follow various retired athletes, character is also the single most consistent quality for success in life.
It’s about integrity and modeling Christ’s words, my friends. As the nineteenth-century writer Charles Reade once said, “Sow a thought, and you reap an act; sow an act, and you reap a habit; sow a habit, and you reap a character; sow a character, and you reap a destiny.”
Once again the apostle Paul has a final thought for us: “Know God’s Word so you can be a guide to the blind, a light in darkness, and instructor to the foolish, a teacher to the young.” – Romans 2:18-19
Dr. Jim Grassi is the founder/president of the culturally strategic Men’s Ministry Catalyst. He is an author of thirteen books – three on character and football. His recent book, Guts, Grace, and Glory, published by Thomas Nelson, features a number of current NFL players and coaches with a foreword by Super Bowl MVP, Kurt Warner.