Making Money, Serving God

Jacksonville Times-Union/August 9, 1998
By Margie Mason

The influence of a Christian sports ministry that counts among its members Jaguars Mark Brunell and Tony Boselli has prompted questions about the relationship between the charismatic group and a sports agent.

In addition, Austin, Texas-based Champions of Christ has attracted the attention of the Texas Secretary of State's Office, which says the group has failed to follow state regulations and should not be allowed to do business.

Questions first surfaced after the Chicago Bears' top draft choice, Curtis Enis, fired his agent and hired Texas sports agent Greg Feste.

Feste is a friend and associate of Champions President Greg Ball, and Feste and Ball also are listed on federal tax returns as members of a related organization, Executives for Christ, something Feste denies.

Feste also is the agent of Jaguars linebacker Bryan Schwartz, also a Champions member, and is Brunell's marketing consultant, although not his agent.

Enis became involved with Champions for Christ shortly after he was drafted by the Bears. Ball denies he told Enis to switch agents.

''We don't recommend agents; we're not a business,'' Ball said Friday. ''Do I know Greg Feste? Most certainly; he's a family friend. Do I recommend that players use him for an agent? Certainly not.''

National Football League officials declined to comment on whether an investigation was ongoing into Champions' business operations. But sports psychologist and theologian Don Beck of the National Values Center in Denton, Texas, says the league asked him what he knew about the organization.

The league also has contacted Beck in the past regarding NFL matters, he said.

''It's an entrepreneurial religious group. It's a new start-up business, quite frankly,'' Beck said of Champions. ''What raises a question for me is when a religious organization [Champions] uses Christianity as a front for making money. It makes me kind of queasy.''

But Ball says such comments are unfounded and misguided. He says Champions is a nonprofit organization built solely to serve God, not pad the president's wallet.

''I think a lot of it is unfortunate that people would say things when people haven't done their homework,'' Ball said of recent media reports questioning the group. ''When you touch people of high profile, and their life changes and they start changing, then some people are going to be upset by it. People can say misleading things that just aren't true.''

Scott Casterline, Enis' former agent, says he, too, was told by officials from an NFL team the league is investigating Champions' business practices.

''If they are doing things for the right reasons, glory be to them. If they're not, then I've got a problem with it,'' Casterline said. ''I'm a young Christian, but I do know that Proverbs says if someone is using God's name for false reasons, then you're supposed to speak out against it if you're a Christian.''

Champions is more than two years behind in filing paperwork updating the organization's board of directors and other information, said Sharon Billieu of the Texas Secretary of State's Office. She said that makes Champions an inactive non-profit organization in Texas that ''shouldn't be doing business.''

Billieu said Champions could face penalties for operating, but Ball said no one has contacted him requesting such paperwork and his auditors have no knowledge of any problems.

According to the Chicago Tribune, former Jaguars Greg Huntington and Jimmy Herndon - now with the Bears - started Chicago's Champions chapter. After Enis was drafted, he began attending team Bible-study groups, which included members of Champions and other religious groups.

Shortly thereafter, the former Penn State running back made Feste his agent and talk of an NFL investigation followed.

Brunell, Boselli and Schwartz say they are bewildered by the controversy surrounding the organization to which they tithe, meaning they give 10 percent of their annual earnings.

Boselli says if the NFL is looking into Champions' practices, it is an insult to all of the athletes involved.

''Most people think we're too stupid to make smart decisions with our money, so it's really a cut on us,'' Boselli said. ''I give 10 percent to Champions for Christ. . . . I'm doing what the Bible says to do. I've been told I need to tithe, but I've never been told where to tithe.''

Beck said he first became concerned about the organization after learning that in 1992 Feste and Ball had co-founded Executives for Christ, a religious organization aimed at ministering to business people. Feste said Executives for Christ is a separate group and not linked to Champions.

However, Champions' federal tax returns list Executives for Christ as a related organization.

Records from the Texas Secretary of State's Office show Executives for Christ is an active organization with Feste listed on its board of directors.

Feste said he had not seen Champions' tax returns and did not know why Executives for Christ would be listed on them.

''I have no idea why it would be on there,'' Feste said Friday. ''I have no official affiliations with Champions for Christ.''

Beck says he's not so sure.

''As far as I know there's no legal connection between the two but they seem to work in conjunction,'' Beck said. ''It's a very subtle kind of marketing.''

Past marketing strategies have proved dangerous for many NFL players, which is why league security serves as a watchdog for players' financial interests, said NFL spokesman Greg Aiello.

He said the main reason for such investigations - which are common and don't necessarily mean there are problems - are to prevent players from being scammed. Aiello mentioned agent John W. Gillette, who is serving 10 years in prison for swindling 26 athletes, including $250,000 from Boselli and $150,000 from former Jaguars quarterback Rob Johnson, now with the Buffalo Bills.

Aiello would not comment on whether the league had contacted Beck but said the league was familiar with him and had received previous information from him. Beck also writes a free-lance sports values column for The Dallas Morning News.

''People in the league are free to do as they choose with their money, but we have resources available to help them make informed decisions,'' Aiello said. ''There also is a history of players being taken advantage of financially and of losing tremendous amounts of money.''

Jaguars and Bears officials deny the teams asked for an NFL investigation.

Regardless of who called for an investigation, Brunell, Boselli and Schwartz say it's their business if they choose to give to Champions or any other organization.

''The bottom line is that we as athletes have choices and are responsible,'' Schwartz said. ''It is a choice. I choose to tithe to Champions for Christ . . . I don't think I can put a price tag on someone's salvation.''

Brunell says he joined Champions in 1993 while in Green Bay and making $114,000, which was then the league minimum. He said that's when Ball became his pastor and has since helped him with everything from struggles in his marriage to prayer for healing after his knee injury last year.

''I'm not a follower of Greg Ball,'' Brunell said. ''I'm a follower of Jesus Christ.''

Beck said he sees no pattern of leader dominance, but he said the athletes could become vulnerable and Champions could evolve into a more controlling group.

''This is not a cult. This is a zealous, driven missionary movement up front, and it's also a money-making expansive movement behind the scenes,'' he said. ''I'm afraid a lot of well-meaning people will get burned by it - but that's their choice; they're big boys.''

Ball started Champions in 1985 after ministering to college athletes nationwide. The group's mission is to lead athletes to Christ so they can minister to others.

''We are there to serve these men. We don't exploit any of the athletes,'' Ball said. ''We want to pour our lives into them to help them fulfill their calling.''

Dave Jamerson, a former professional basketball player who is Champions' national spokesman, said the group is non-traditional because it doesn't require ministers to have a formal education. Instead, they attend classes at the Victory Leadership Institute, which has sites internationally, and they are classified by whether they have ''the character of Christ'' in their lives. (Ball, however, is working on his master's degree at a theological seminary, Jamerson said.)

Champions for Christ believes in speaking in tongues and healing.

Brunell admits the practice scares some because it's not a part of mainstream religion in America, but says it's something he and many others practice worldwide.

''Why would God put something in the Bible that he didn't want us to use?'' Brunell said. ''It's not some freaky thing.''

As for religion dividing the Jaguars, team officials say such rumors simply aren't true.

''There are a handful of players on the team who are bornagain Christians. That's pretty well known, and there's been no negative fallout because of that,'' Jaguars spokesman Dan Edwards said. ''There's no noticeable effect on the day-to-day business.''

Currently there are 20 Champions collegiate chapters nationwide, including one at Florida State. The group sponsors seminars, multimedia presentations, conferences and other events for collegiate and professional athletes.

In Jacksonville, about 60 athletes and their spouses attend Brunell's Bible meetings, Jamerson said. That has prompted Champions to consider starting a church in the city.

Jamerson said all of Champions' finances are reported to the Internal Revenue Service. The money is used for such things as literature, seminars and Bible-study groups.

In 1994, the group collected $279,169, but it more than tripled in 1995 when it brought in $820,440. It earned $846,987 in 1996, according to the most recent tax documents available.

During that same period the Jaguars entered the NFL with highly paid stars like Brunell (who signed a three-year deal in 1995 for an average of $1 million a year) and Boselli (who signed for seven years and $17 million). Brunell has since signed a five-year, $31.5 million contract.

The ministry also isn't exclusive to football players. It's open to other college and professional athletes.

Jamerson, who had a brief stint in the NBA in Houston, Utah and New Jersey, says the organization is full of reputable leaders including the Dallas Mavericks' A.C. Green, who serves as Champions' vice president, and Darrell Green of the Washington Redskins, who sits on the national board.

Jaguars players say the way Champions athletes lead their lives also adds to the organization's credibility.

''I have a stronger marriage, I'm a better parent and I have incredible friends I can count on,'' Brunell said. ''Jesus Christ made the difference.''

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.