Outreach to Pro Athletes Faces Curious Investigation by NFL

Leaders of Texas-based Champions for Christ say a recent report in Sports Illustrated distorted their mission.

by Ken Walker

Each Wednesday night during the National Football League’s regular season, a group of Jacksonville (Fla.) Jaguars players meet at a Marriott Hotel–but not to review game films. These professional athletes gather to sing God’s praises and to study the Bible.

Led by All-Pro quarterback Mark Brunell, this outreach of the Champions for Christ (CFC) ministry may become the seeds of a new church, according to CFC national representative Dave Jamerson. Last fall about 60 players, their wives and friends, and community members attended the charismatic group’s meetings in Jacksonville.

In August, however, a controversy erupted over questions about CFC’s motives. Yet CFC members believe the media attention will spur more interest in the organization.

"The philosophy behind Champions for Christ has always been to reach athletes with the gospel and promote the building of Christian leadership," Jamerson said. "We’re discipling these guys to come to maturity in Christ and, ultimately, to minister themselves."

Some cast doubts on those goals when reports surfaced that the NFL had been asked to investigate the ministry, which is based in Austin, Texas. CFC was founded by campus ministry veterans Greg Ball of Austin, Rice Broocks of Nashville, Tenn., and pro basketball star A.C. Green, who currently plays for the Dallas Mavericks. Employing a dozen people in Austin and 20 campus directors across the country, the group sponsors local meetings, annual conferences and sports camps–all focused on reaching athletes with the gospel.

CFC has generally shunned publicity. However, it unwillingly became the center of press attention nationwide in August when Sports Illustrated published an article examining the ministry’s tactics.

The sports magazine painted a picture of alleged arm-twisting to get athletes to tithe to CFC, focusing on the close relationship between Ball and agent Greg Feste, a Sugar Land, Texas, Businessman. The allegations against CFC surfaced after Feste signed a contract to represent star running back Curtis Enis.

A rookie with the Chicago Bears, Enis accepted Christ through Ball’s influence. Afterward, Enis fired the agency that had represented him. But both CFC and Feste deny any collusion was behind the deal.

"We’re not an agency," Jamerson said of CFC. "We’ve never represented anybody. We’re a (federally recognized non-profit organization) with the sole mission of communicating the gospel."

CFC is doing just that, insists A.C. Green, who serves as the ministry’s vice president. Green hotly contested the accuracy of the Sports Illustrated story, calling the article’s allegations untrue and theorizing that jealousy, bitterness or immaturity were behind the claims.

"For your magazine to make suggestions that (Ball) is guiding players to certain financial groups for personal gain is ludicrous and irresponsible," Green said in a letter to the sports weekly. "Neither he nor anyone at CFC has ever told players where to give their money."

Ball told Sports Illustrated he has not been contacted by NFL security but has no objection to the scrutiny. "We’re excited that people are this interested in what we’re doing. We’ve got nothing to hide," he stated in the magazine’s Aug. 24 issue.

Brunell, who calls Ball his pastor, said he is a better husband, father and athlete because of the evangelist’s influence on his life.

"(My wife) and I give to (CFC) because... we have personally seen so many lives changed through this ministry," he told Sports Illustrated.

Jaguars’ All-Pro tackle Tony Boselli also praised Ball for personally helping him and his wife, Angie. CFC has never asked them for money or advised them on how to invest it, Boselli said.

An NFL spokesman said the league has never officially acknowledged that an investigation exists, nor does it have any desire to get involved in players’ religious affiliations, said Greg Aiello, vice president of public relations.

"NFL security is available to run background checks for anyone in the league who requests it," he said. "We run background checks on everyone coming into the draft. So if someone wanted to do a story last spring that we were investigating Peyton Manning, I guess it would have been true."

This summer, hundreds of athletes professed faith in Christ at CFC conferences and sports camps, Jamerson said. During numerous media interviews, Feste frequently answered questions about salvation and tithing when the issue of the NFL inquiry was raised.

Meanwhile, Jamerson said the focus of Champions for Christ has been on the book of Nehemiah. The former pro basketball player believes God wants CFC to help rebuild the nation’s walls so others will see His glory through Christ.

"Our nation is in distress–unprecedented divorce rates, murder, teen suicide, abortion and depression," he said. "All this stuff is destroying people’s lives. But (Nehemiah’s) wall was rebuilt in 52 days. God miraculously worked in the situation, and that’s what we feel is going to happen here."

Reprinted by permission, Charisma Magazine