Teams seek Inquiry into Religious Group

New York Times/August 2, 1998
By Mike Freeman

The story of Chicago Bears running back Curtis Enis has taken another interesting turn.

7The security arm of the National Football League has recently been asked by at least two teams, the Bears and the Jacksonville Jaguars, to investigate a religious group with a growing membership of N.F.L. players, including Enis, according to high-ranking team executives around the league. Their concern? That players may be giving an inordinate amount of money to the group, Champions for Christ. The Bears, those team executives said, are worried that the group recruited Enis as a way of raising money, something a spokesman for Champions for Christ denied. The Jaguars have similar concerns about some of their high-profile players, team executives said.

The executives said the request for the investigation was in no way an attempt to interfere with players' religious beliefs. Rather, there is concern that players could be taken advantage of financially, they said. The N.F.L.'s investigation is in the early stages, team executives said. An N.F.L. spokesman said the league had no comment.

Enis's life has been a whirlwind in recent months. He was ruled ineligible at Penn State after an agent bought him a suit. Enis fired that agent and hired the respected firm of Casterline, Vines & McElroy Team Sports. He was picked fifth over all in the April draft.

In May, Enis was named in a sexual assault complaint filed by a woman in Irving, Tex. Prosecutors there said last week that they doubted Enis would be charged because of lack of evidence.

Soon after the complaint was filed, people close to Enis noticed a change in his personality. He became more boisterous about his religious beliefs. At the N.F.L. rookie symposium in June, Enis asked the Giants' Tiki Barber how he justifies playing football on Sunday, traditionally a day of worship for many religions.

Next, Enis was married in a ceremony performed by a minister who was a member of Champions for Christ, according to people close to Enis.

In July, Enis dropped Casterline, Vines & McElroy, which had already begun negotiating his contract, and hired Greg Feste, a friend of several members of Champions for Christ. The Bears say the switch set negotiations back weeks because Feste has never negotiated an N.F.L. contract.

The main snag in talks now appears to be how the signing bonus is going to be structured. Concerned that Enis may one day give up football because of his religious beliefs, the Bears want to defer chunks of the signing bonus to later years of the contract.

About 10 Bears players belong to Champions for Christ. One, defensive end Mark Thomas, said the team is wrong to worry that the group will take advantage of Enis.

"They don't care about Curtis's money," he said. "They just care that Curtis is walking with God."

Calls to Feste seeking a comment were not returned.

Champions for Christ, based in Austin, Tex., started in 1985, said a spokesman, Dave Jamerson. It is made up primarily of athletes, including widely respected figures such as the former Los Angeles Laker A. C. Green, who is a vice president in the group, and the Washington Redskins cornerback Darrell Green, a board member. Jamerson said there are at least 50 pro athletes in the group and there are chapters on about 20 college campuses. He said the group's mission is to "communicate the gospel of Jesus Christ to youth, college and professional athletes."

Thomas said: "We believe in staying in somebody's life and being part of a family. That's all Champions is. We're trying to grow in Christ."

Jamerson said he was unaware that any member of the group told another member to donate money.

But several Jaguars players who were interviewed said that teammates in the group aggressively tried to recruit new members on the team last year, passing out leaflets. They said the players asked teammates to donate to Champions for Christ, and would also express disapproval of players who used alcohol. At times, the players said, the team was divided between those who were members of the group and and those who were not.

The possible influence of Champions for Christ on players' finances, team executives said, led Jaguars management to ask the N.F.L. to investigate.

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