Last Thursday was a bizarre day in the sports world. First there was O.J. Simpson’s televised parole hearing, which I listened to on the radio. It’s hard to believe that after all of these years, the O.J. saga still affects me. O.J. was one of my heroes growing up. I used to pretend like I was him and my daddy even took me to see him play his last football game. At one time, O.J. was the man. He was the epitome of cool. Not only could he rush for over 2,000 yards in a season, but he could also run through the airport and jump over stuff with a brief case in his hand and a big smile on his face. Now, however, he just seemed like an old man trying to get out of jail. It’s like I got to see my childhood hero continue to go down in one big slow motion train wreck.
As if the O.J. hearing was not bad enough, news broke later that night that the Ole Miss head football coach, Hugh Freeze, had resigned his post because of a “pattern of personal misconduct.” The news on Freeze was particularly unsettling because of his public pronouncement of his Christian faith. Before his fall, Freeze was viewed as an up-and-coming coach who had what it took to beat Alabama. Now he is simply known as the hypocritical Christian coach who got caught calling an escort service. One website even ran the headline: “Does the fall of Freeze mark the end of ‘Christian Coaches’?” I don’t think it does but one thing is certain. Hugh Freeze’s life just got a lot more complicated.
O.J. Simpson and Hugh Freeze have disappointed a lot of people. At one time, admiring fans looked to them for inspiration. Now those feelings of inspiration have turned to disappointment. Most of us can identify with that sickening feeling we get when we witness our heroes crashing back to earth. We feel like the kid in the movie 8 Men Out who pleads with baseball player Shoeless Joe Jackson to tell him that he didn’t throw the 1919 World Series. Heartbroken, the little boy says, “Say it ain’t so Joe. Say it ain’t so.” Jackson’s silence is deafening.
If we want to, we could go the cynical route and embrace the words of former NBA star Charles Barkley who once said, “I’m not paid to be a role model. I’m paid to wreak havoc on the basketball court.” However, the whole advertisement industry is built on the likeability and influence of famous people. Even Barkley’s words about not being a role model were incorporated into a Nike commercial. In the commercial he says, “Just because I can dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.” He’s right, but everyone still wants a hero.
So, what’s a person to do?
Recently, I was at a youth worship service on Saint Simons Island. Before the service started, these poignant words appeared on the screen:
“Follow the example of those on stage only as they follow Christ.”
That’s great advice. It’s actually biblical. In 1 Corinthians 11:1, the Apostle Paul says, “Imitate me just as I also imitate Christ.” Paul would be a worthy example to follow only as long as his behavior reflected the character of Christ.
As Christians, we are not to be conformed to anyone else’s image but Christ’s. Romans 8:29 says, “For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His son.” Not only are we to act like Jesus, we are also to think like Him. Philippians 2:5 says, “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.”
So, if you want to follow someone who did something incredibly heroic then follow the One who said, “Greater love hath no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends” (John 15:13). He’s the One who bore the sins of the world in His body on the cross. He’s the One who has lived the perfect life. Let Jesus be your example. Let Him be your hero.
But what about the sports stars who do incredible athletic stuff? Is it ok to copy their athleticism? Of course it is. If you see Scott Skiles make an awesome behind-the-back pass in the NCAA tournament and you want to copy him, then go ahead. Or if you want to catch every football one-handed like Odell Beckham Jr, get some gloves with a lot of sticky stuff on them and give it a shot. Just don’t let someone’s athletic ability or popularity lead you to follow their example instead of Christ's.