Idolizing Success: Wheaton Football Edition
Note: I’m assuming that the charges brought against the five accused players are largely true, especially given that Wheaton did apparently take some disciplinary action. Perhaps there are details that will justify allowing these players to remain on the team following the incident — but given the propensity of both sports teams and Christian organizations to downplay wrongdoing in order to protect their own reputation, I am skeptical that Wheaton’s approach was sufficient given the magnitude of the hazing. As an alum, I truly hope that this incident is isolated and that it reminds the college that there are greater things than winning football games.
I was going to end this week on a lighter note, with a piece on sin and Wonder Woman (well, somewhat lighter … ). But then news broke about five Wheaton College football players charged with felonies after a hazing incident that took place a year ago. Wheaton is my alma mater, and I’m appalled at the details of this incident.
But even more appalling is the fact that all five football players who are accused of assaulting their first-year teammate were still on the team roster as of early this week. According to the Chicago Tribune, Wheaton did hire a third-party investigator and took “corrective action,” which may have only amounted to community service and an 8-page essay.
Let that sink in: community service and an essay for actions that are resulting in felony charges. (And while the five players have only been charged, not convicted, the fact that Wheaton imposed some disciplinary action indicates to me that the charges have merit.)
A Wheaton spokesperson noted that the actions of these football players are inconsistent with the values of Wheaton, and as an alum I wholeheartedly agree. But if these actions are so far removed from Wheaton’s values, why did the players face such minimal consequences? Why were they still allowed on the team?
Alan Jacobs, a former Wheaton and current Baylor professor (who thus knows something about football scandals), noted astutely that “Collegiate Football Success is the most jealous of gods. It will tolerate the worship of no other deities, and there will be no end to the sacrifices it demands.”
I think Jacobs is absolutely right. Even those of us with little interest in sports (like me) cannot help but be aware of the repeated scandals that plague both college and professional athletics. The need to win excuses, and sometimes encourages, bad behavior on the part of players ranging from cheating (on the field or in the classroom) to domestic violence.
Since I don’t follow Wheaton football, I have no idea if the five accused players were any good — but I imagine that losing five at a time (plus, of course, the assaulted student who left after the incident) would jeopardize Wheaton’s chances of a strong season.
I also imagine that the coaches, administrative staff, and trustees involved in this incident thought that they were right to give the players a second chance. The reasoning is familiar: boys will be boys, college students make dumb decisions, why should one bad choice ruin someone’s collegiate sports experience?
But framing this as a learning opportunity — as the community service and essay seem to indicate — downplays the gravity of the students' actions. It also obscures the fact that the team itself (and its winning record) is what ultimately benefits from such minimal consequences.
All of this adds up to a culture in which winning is the ultimate good, and this is a culture that allows evil to thrive. I’m sure that some of the football players were disgusted by their teammates' actions, and I hope that the five accused students understand that their actions went far beyond light-hearted hazing (if such a thing exists).
But I’m also sure that some on the team were emboldened by the lack of consequences. After all, if you can kidnap a teammate, threaten him with sexual assault, and leave him blindfolded and injured in a strange location at night without losing your place on the team, what else can you get away with?
Wheaton’s motto is “for Christ and his kingdom.” Sometimes you can serve Christ and win football games, but sometimes you can’t. I hope that this incident reminds Wheaton not to bow to the false god of success in college football, but to remain true to Christ and his kingdom in the type of team spirit that they cultivate and in their willingness to confront sin in their midst.