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The Bobby Petrino Dilemma and our Idolatry of College Football

April 25th, 2012 | 3 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

The demise of Arkansas football coach Bobby Petrino that began in the beginning of April has unfortunately become emblematic of BCS college football in the 21st century.  For those who don't click through, Petrino lied to police and university officials about a motorcycle accident involving himself and a woman with whom he was having affair.

There's no question that Division I football is about money. Lots and lots of money. And power. And TV contracts. Hundreds of NAIA, DIII, DII, and FCS football programs may play mostly for the fun of the game.  But at the highest level of the college game, money and politics have become an intrinsic part of the competition. The pressure to win has created almost impossible conditions for many coaches, players, and administrators who presumably have at least some desire to act virtuously.

The situation with Petrino crystallized this dilemma, especially for fans. Arkansas AD Jeff Long was put in the nigh impossible position of either firing Petrino and incurring the wrath of the entire Natural State for firing the first coach to place the Razorbacks firmly on the national stage for the first time in 40-odd years, or else leaving him in place. Letting him continue would essentially communicate that the University is comfortable with a philandering coach who lies to police and his boss and by all appearances gave a job to his paramour precisely because of their relationship.

The dilemma made a particular impression on me because I grew up in Southeastern Conference (SEC) football country and have many friends who have attended various SEC schools, as well other well-known and successful schools/programs like Ohio State, Michigan, Southern Cal, Texas, etc. I cannot list the number of instances in which the psychological well-being of a friend (or myself!) was shattered over our team losing. My team might lose on a Saturday afternoon and I would be gutted until Monday morning when I achieved emotional equilibrium again. In the words of James, “My brothers, these things ought not be so!” (James 3:10).

Humans are lovers. We teach each other the things that are important to love and not to love. Many of us communicate love that is demonstrably stronger for a college football team of choice than for, well, you name it.  Our love for college football has transformed into idolatry, and it is rampant among college football fans (uh-oh, it’s only April). There are six or seven high holy days every fall wherein worshippers ascend to worship and give homage at the temple of Bryant-Denny (Alabama), Neyland (Tennessee), or the Big House (Michigan). College football fans who are also Christians have yet to remove the high places where our forefathers falsely worship. Our loves have become grossly misaligned; they are not rightly ordered. In the Southeast especially, football pride, state pride, and school pride combine to form a powerful loyalty that often transcends rational thought. It is essentially pre-cognitive. To say it another way, one is a Georgia Bulldog fan the way that one is Caucasian or left-handed.

As it turned out, the decision for AD Jeff Long became quite easy after the details came out. I sympathized with the plight of my Hog-fan friends down in Fayetteville and what they were thinking about the Petrino situation, but it became apparent that if the university were to save face at all, Petrino would have to go. After all, if one argued that he ought not be fired, then one certainly must concede that Arkansas is prepared to do anything to win, participating fully in the zeitgeist of the BCS era. One could certainly not pretend that future wins for the Hogs would be part of the ‘storied tradition of the university,’ connection with Hog teams from yesteryear, about character, grit, will to win, and all that. Those elements might be present, but they would be vastly subordinated to the priorities of cold, hard cash, the virtue of celebrity, and the interests of a powerful few.

If you pushed for the firing of Petrino, you were voting to rob your fellow fans of the ecstasy of potential wins that Arkansas fans have not experienced since the Nixon presidency, but you attempted to hold the single most visible man in the state responsible for his actions and declared that character still matters in an admittedly broken system. You cast a vote for loving honesty and a very basic level of trust over loving to win.

Petrino was fired April 10 and left to pick up the pieces of his career and life and I hope that he can be restored to his family. As for the University of Arkansas, they will mourn the loss of a good football coach and--hopefully--be happy about the character shown by their administration.

This is a guest post by John Patton, Associate Director of Admissions at Covenant Theological Seminary.  

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.