Of God, Money And Football

The Chicago Tribune/August 2, 1998

Austin, Texas — Champions for Christ shares a three-story red brick building with a travel agency, an insurance firm, a dentist, a regional National Wildlife Federation office and the headquarters for a car lube company, among other businesses.

If some NFL agents are to be believed, this is where the Great Satan of pro sports resides.

It is here, Champions for Christ's critics say, that athletes are coming to the Lord, abandoning their secular financial advisers and filling CFC's pockets with millions of dollars.

None of it, CFC leaders say, is true.

"We do not represent pros," said Brad Butts, a CFC staff member. "We're not a sports agent, never have been. We don't sign players. We don't represent players. We don't have agents within our organization. That's just not the truth. I really believe that the truth's going to come out. The truth will prevail."

Champions for Christ was shoved into the spotlight recently when Curtis Enis, the Bears' first-round draft pick, fired his agent, former Raider Vann McElroy, and hired Houston financial planner Greg Feste, who represents Jacksonville quarterback Mark Brunell. Brunell is one of the loudest voices advocating Champions for Christ, a non-profit ministry that tailors its message to high school, college and pro athletes.

About six weeks ago, Enis underwent a religious conversion after attending some CFC Bible study sessions with other Bears players. Agents have charged that CFC is urging athlete members to transfer their business to Christian advisers such as Feste. The NFL has begun an investigation into the organization, whose officials say that, if anything, they tried to dissuade Enis, flush with his new-found spirituality, from making any such important changes in his life.

"I think what has happened is the guy (McElroy) got mad that he's not making money off Curtis where he could," said Butts, a former Kansas fullback. "We have nothing to do with Greg Feste here. He's a friend of the ministry. He's not even a member of Champions for Christ. He's a friend. Period."

Records show, however, that in 1992, Feste and CFC President Greg Ball formed a corporation called Executives for Christ, based in CFC's Austin office. The non-profit group never took off, CFC officials said.

Feste did not return telephone calls last week to his Sugar Land, Texas, office. Ball was on vacation last week and unavailable for comment.

Ball, a former kick-boxer, started the organization in 1985. It currently consists of about 15 chapters and collects nearly $1 million annually in donations. It conducts spiritual conferences for athletes, sells videotapes and books and boasts as members several high-profile athletes, including Dallas Mavericks forward A.C. Green, CFC's vice president.

Religion and big money are a combination that often breeds uneasiness and suspicion. So when several agents charged that CFC requires members to tithe 10 percent of their salaries to the organization, it sent up red flags. The NFL is investigating Enis' switch to Feste.

But CFC officials dispute the tithing claim. They maintain that they recommend their athletes give 10 percent to their churches, not to the organization. CFC members attend various churches, ranging from evangelical Christian to Roman Catholic, officials said.

"I tithe to my church," said former Broncos linebacker Britt Hager, a CFC member. "I give an offering to Champions. An offering is to spread the gospel. I tithe to a church."

Butts said: "To be a part of Champions for Christ, they don't have to give anything. That's the bottom line. Probably the majority of our finances comes from businessmen who see the vision we have to reach athletes. The money isn't even from athletes."

In the Bible, Jesus tells a rich man that, in order to be perfect, he should sell everything, give the money to the poor and follow him. These days, spreading the word of God costs money.

In 1996 Champions for Christ took in $805,249 in donations, according to its most recent tax documents. Staff member Dave Polus would not reveal what the largest gift was that year, but he said it's not uncommon for businessmen who believe in CFC to give $50,000.

One agent for a player formerly associated with CFC said his client gave occasional gifts of $10,000 or $20,000 but didn't tithe specifically to the organization.

"If players were tithing 10 percent to us, we'd have more than $800,000 in donations," said Polus, CFC's national staff coordinator.

CFC leaders say they live simply and abide by their own self-imposed salary cap. According to documents filed with the Internal Revenue Service, Ball earned $62,200 in salary in 1996 and received another $48,000 as a housing allowance. Property records show that he built a $312,000 home in Austin last year, but friends say he comes from a wealthy family and had done well in the real estate market with his previous home.

CFC has nine staff members in Austin and another 21 at college campuses around the country. Most of them earn between $25,000 and $30,000 a year, Polus said. Generally staffers don't get their pay from CFC. They are required to find sponsors to fund most of their salaries.

Tax filings show that CFC uses donations for a variety of purposes. In 1996 it held four conferences--two for college athletes and two for pro athletes--that cost a total of $194,774. Another $138,993 went toward speaking engagements and chapel services for athletes and teams. CFC targeted $120,520 for "evangelistic" programs, giving $81,300 to other groups, including overseas missionaries. Another $33,040 went toward producing newsletters, books and tapes.

And with net assets in 1996 exceeding a half-million dollars, CFC eventually will build a new headquarters, Polus said. The organization currently rents office space.

It also is trying to mend its image, he said.

"We do not seek to in any way control anybody's mind," Polus said. "Now we do try to have their heart and their mind filled with the word of God, OK? The only thing we're trying to do is say, `Stop living a life of sin and start living a lifestyle that's pleasing to God.' Most of the people we work with are not going to give a penny. We're totally fine with that.

"If no pro athletes were to give to our organization, we'd be able to be supported by other people."

The ministry didn't really take off until 1995. Tax records show that donations more than tripled from the previous year, going from $254,838 in 1994 to $781,985 in 1995. It was during the same period that Jacksonville entered the NFL. Led by such highly paid stars as Brunell and star tackle Tony Boselli, the Jaguars have become a stronghold for CFC.

"A bunch of people got saved," Polus said.

"It has been prayed for for a long time," Hager said. "What Mark and Tony did there--all the men who got saved--is special. A church actually started being planted out of a professional team. It could be the first church ever to be planted out of a professional football team. It's pretty exciting."

When it comes to saving souls, athletics are a growth industry, CFC leaders say.

"We see spousal abuse, drugs . . . I mean, you can't read the sports section without seeing some sort of allegation against some kind of pro or college athlete," Polus said.

"The thing we don't like to see is that some people say they're Christian, but their lifestyle is totally against it. What we try to do is get their lifestyle to match what they're saying. Not just to say it, but to really live it, to put their money where their mouth is."

The issue of money makes some uncomfortable about CFC. Prominent sports psychologist Don Beck said he has studied CFC and has warned the NFL and some agents that the organization is seeking to control young, mostly male athletes who come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

"These are kids who can't make good decisions because they've never dealt with good authority," Beck said. "They've never learned impulse control, so whenever they stumble and make fools of themselves . . . well, that's when you often have religious conversions anyway--`I'm a sinner, I surrender all to whatever this happens to be.'

"This has answered some questions and aches in the hearts and minds of players who are searching for definitive answers and structures in their beliefs. Particularly inner-city kids, who have had a lack of direction."

CFC officials say Beck never has talked with any of its staff or members.

Beck calls CFC a "religious zealotry movement" in a very visible industry, allowing the organization to win more converts to Christianity.

The fact that CFC caters to athletes, many wealthy, makes some agents uncomfortable.

"My biggest problem with Champions for Christ and other groups like it is that God doesn't care if you're an athlete or a street worker," one agent said. "Everybody should be allowed at these meetings. What, only huge athletes making six and seven figures are allowed to hang with Christ? It sounds a lot like those drug-rehab centers in L.A. that cater to $20,000-a-week people. Other people don't need that kind of help?

"I just think the premise is flawed."

CFC officials argue that only a third of the athletes to whom they minister are pro athletes. Butts works primarily with University of Texas athletes.

"Whoever God puts across my path, I'll minister to them," he said. "Hey, we'll see God move in their life. They'll be faithful to their wives, whatever God calls them to be. We don't just minister to the ones who are going to be pros. That's not us. I think that would be ungodly."

Leaders say that although CFC's budget continues to increase, Ball has turned down some athletes' offers of money.

"Either they weren't living the life that we look for or they were new converts, and we thought they were doing it prematurely," Polus said. "They didn't really understand what they were doing. Maybe they had experienced a forgiveness and they experienced freedom from the guilt of their sins, and they are so thankful that God has changed their lives, people naturally want to give somehow whenever God touches them like that."

As for Enis, he remains unsigned and unavailable for comment, but CFC officials are thinking of him.

"Our hope is that Curtis would first of all walk with God, that he'd have a great marriage, a great family," Polus said. "If he wants to give, we encourage him to give to his church and Christian organizations. Hopefully, he'll set up a foundation where he can give back into the community. If he wants to give to us, that would be great."

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