No Zealots need Apply: NFL Clubs Worry Religious Group will cause Schism

New York Post/August 23, 1998
By Wallace Matthews

The way people are talking, you would think there is a cancer eating away at the NFL, and if a cure isn't found soon, the whole thing will wither and die.

As they see it, the problem is this: There are actually guys, on professional football teams, preaching abstinence and fidelity and piety in the locker room.

There are players out there, not scrubs but real players, who believe cheating on spouses is wrong, as is fathering children out of wedlock, public displays of drunkenness and other forms of generally boorish behavior. And besides being goody-goodies, some of these guys have the unfortunate tendency to preach their gospel in that most unholy of cathedrals, the NFL clubhouse.

Needless to say, this kind of talk and behavior is making a lot of people very uncomfortable.

After all, this is a league that loves Michael Irvin, who cuts sharper in the locker room than on the field, and employs Christian Peter and Tito Wooten, who can play for Wellington Mara's team but probably not date his daughters, and reads Keyshawn Johnson, the Bard of the Bloods.

These are the kind of men who have made the NFL the kind of attraction it is today, the Dodge City of sports. People love it for its lawlessness.

No wonder some of the teams are getting worried with the threat of all this goodness, and have asked the league to find out what in hell - er, make that heaven - is going on?

Unless you have been on the spaceship Mir or have recently joined a cult - uh-oh, bad choice of word - you probably have heard about the uproar regarding Champions For Christ, an Austin, Tes. and Nashville, Tenn., based outfit that describes itself as "an athletic ministry" committed to "ministering to individuals," many of whom just happen to be professional athletes.

In fact, many of them happen to be professional football players and one of them - in fact, the reason why the NFL came to know about the CFC in the first place - happens to be Curtis Enis, the Penn State running back selected in the first round of this year's draft by the Bears.

Enis, who left school as a junior but with a senior rap sheet, fired his agent, hired a novice named Greg Feste, who just happens to be "a great friend of the ministry" according to its president, complained about having to play on the Sabbath and hung up on Bears GM Ted Phillips before finally coming to his senses and signing a $5.6 million contract.

The Enis incident was only the most high profile one involving an athlete-member of the CFC, which has been in existence since 1985 but only this summer came to the attention of the NFL.

It seems the Bears - and the Jaguars - have what they consider too much of a CFC presence on their club. The two teams asked the league to investigate, citing two concerns: that players might be taken advantage of financially, and that having a strong religious faction on a club could lead to that most venal of locker-room sins, the sin of divisiveness.

"I think perhaps investigation is too strong a word," said a league source who requested anonymity. "Let's say the NFL is assisting clubs in developing information that might be useful to the teams and their players."

Among the information the league has developed, according to Sports Illustrated, is this: that some players, including Jaguars QB Mark Brunell and tackle Tony Boselli, give 10 percent of their earnings to the ministry; that Feste, who had never negotiated an NFL contract before Enis', was once suspended for a day by the National Association of Securities Dealers for making bad investments for his clients, and that he runs a financial consulting firm that the ministry may - or may not - influence its members to use.

Oh, yeah, and Brunell has been teeing off some of his teammates by passing out prayer flyers in the locker room and, supposedly, telling them they would "go to hell" if they didn't follow him into the CFC.

"Other than provide that kind of information," said the league source, "there really isn't a heck of a lot we can, or would do."

And as it stands, there really isn't a heck of a lot more to be done.

Enis, by all accounts, is a spectacularly unstable young man. Over the past year, he has been suspended by the NCAA for accepting a suit from an agent, investigated by the Dallas police for sexual assault (a charge subsequently dropped for lack of evidence), and has impregnated his stripper girlfriend.

Then, he found the Lord, married his girlfriend and lit into his family at the wedding in a self-righteously chastising toast.

A few days later, he told Phillips he "would never play for the Bears," then turned around and signed a deal may believe will leave him grossly underpaid three years from now.

"Hey, you have the right in this country to make a fool of yourself," said another league source.

That's true. It's in the Constitution.

But other than that - and even that is open to interpretation - what exactly has Enis done, or Brunell or Boselli, or Darrell Green, one of the CFC's vice-presidents, or A.C. Green, the NBA's Iron Man and another vice-president, to frighten and threaten their teams to the point that they saw fit to get the league's antennae up?

"All this kind of stuff, it breaks your heart," said Rice Brooks, the 42-year-old president of Champions For Christ. "Here we are, going about our business quietly, ministering to athletes, preaching the Bible. People can look all they want, but really, there ain't a lot of meat on the chicken."

Brooks, one of those honey-tongued types who can charm the molars out of your tightly clenched mouth, believes the anti-CFC movement is being led by agents who have been fired by CFC athletes.

"We've cost them millions of dollars," he said.

Brooks maintains that he and Greg Ball, CFC's founder, have only targeted athletes because "athletes live in a different world from the rest of us. Especially NFL players, who play on Sunday, and can't go to a regular church."

"Maybe the rest of the world doesn't have quite as much money as the rest of us, either," said one of the league sources, only partly tongue-in-cheek.

The NFL is still gun-shy from the case of John Gillette, an agent who used a Bible-tinged sales pitch to bilk players out of $11 million. Brooks says comparing CFC to scam artists like Gillette is "absolutely slanderous."

He says the number of pro athletes who tithe the ministry is "probably very small," and puts the sum total of the contributions CFC took in from its members last year at less than $1 million.

He says he is paid $2,500 a month, and that between salary and a housing allowance, Ball makes no more than $100,000 a year.

"There's no money in this, believe me," he said.

He says CFC has "influences" in more than 300 college campuses and that it ministers to "over a half-million" high-school kids. He says no one from the NFL has contacted CFC, "and frankly, I don't believe they want to."

I don't know what to believe, but minus hard evidence of wrongdoing by the ministry, or Feste, who is not officially associated with CFC but seems awfully close to some of its members, and confronted by the official silence of the NFL, there is only one view to take.

Yes, it is annoying and tiresome to be preached to. And no, no one has the right to foist his or her personal view of morality on anyone else.

But Curtis Enis, Mark Brunell, Tony Boselli, A.C. Green, Darrell Green and whoever else have chosen to give their lives - and maybe a chunk of their money - to CFC have every right to.

It's their money, their lives, their careers.

And in the process, if they bring a little civility into the NFL locker room, I suspect the league, after a struggle, will survive. In spite of itself.

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