Can a Christian School Be Both Ethical and Athletic? Liberty Raises the Question Again.

Washington Post
November 29, 2016

Jerry Falwell Jr., left, president of Liberty University, shakes hands with Liberty’s new athletic director Ian McCaw. (Courtesy of Liberty University)

Ian McCaw will be the new athletic director at Liberty University, the prominent evangelical college in Virginia announced Monday — six months after McCaw left the same job at a different evangelical college in disgrace.

Liberty’s decision to hire McCaw raises an old question: Can a Christian school aim for big-time sports success without compromising its religious values?

McCaw was the athletic director at Baylor when the law firm Pepper Hamilton issued its damning report on the program he ran: that Baylor failed to respond to rapes reported by at least six female students from 2009 to 2016. Since 2011, a recent report said, 19 Baylor football players were accused of violence against women, including four instances of gang rape.

McCaw and football coach Art Briles, who along with Baylor president Kenneth Starr also left Baylor as a result of the scandal, knew about at least one allegation of gang rape yet did not report it to police, the university found.

[The Ken Starr-Baylor story shows the struggle of religious schools to deal with sexual assault]

But to read Liberty’s statement Monday, you wouldn’t know that McCaw resigned his former job in disgrace. “Those in Waco who knew McCaw’s Baylor track record were quick to endorse [Liberty’s] choice, even though they wished he had opted to stay at Baylor,” Liberty’s press office said in a glowing write-up.

Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty and a major national evangelical figure, said in the same statement: “Ian’s success really speaks for itself. You look at what Baylor was able to do during his tenure, it fits perfectly with where we see our sports programs going. This is an exciting time for us.”

[Who’s in the photo behind Trump and the Falwells? A Playboy model now in prison.]

The statement mentioned Baylor’s five national championship teams, 58 Big 12 Conference titles including two in football, and six consecutive bowl games under McCaw’s 13-year leadership there.

But to some students, what went unmentioned was far more troubling.

“It seems like with this decision, we’ve put winning ahead of safety,” said Joel Schmieg, a 20-year-old junior from Florida who recently clashed with the school over an op-ed he wrote opposing Donald Trump, whom Falwell supported during his presidential campaign.

Schmieg wrote on his blog that when he was asked after that fracas whether he would still recommend Liberty to a potential student, he said he still would — 100 percent. On Monday, he wrote, he changed his mind.

He told The Post that he doesn’t see the Christian value of forgiveness as a reasonable explanation for hiring McCaw. “I’m a Christian. I’ve been given so much grace,” said Schmeig, who aspires to become a youth pastor. “There’s a difference between grace and putting someone in a position where they can do the things they’ve already done.”

No Liberty officials were available to speak to The Post on Tuesday, but Falwell told the News & Advance in Lynchburg, “I think [McCaw] was a good man in a place where bad things were going on and decided to remove himself from that atmosphere.”

In an emailed statement, the university told The Post that before hiring McCaw, Liberty officials interviewed people at Baylor and concluded that McCaw hadn’t intentionally hidden information about any reported sexual assault from police. Moreover, the statement said, McCaw is now very aware of the importance of responding to sexual assault. “I can’t think of an athletic director in the country who is more sensitized to the importance of complying with the intricacies of Title IX than Ian McCaw,” the university’s statement said.

Liberty has never been the sports powerhouse that its evangelical counterpart Baylor is, but has long expressed the goal of becoming a more dominant sports school. In the past decade, it has built three new sports facilities, the News & Advance said.

The school has been lobbying for years to join the Football Bowl Subdivision, but hasn’t been invited by any of its conferences.

[At Liberty University, big goals — and big money — for football and other sports]

Athletic prominence is alluring to many Christian schools like Liberty, said Tom Krattenmaker, author of the book “Onward Christian Athletes.”

“It’s a great way to raise the university’s visibility, attract students, increase the opportunities for fundraising,” Krattenmaker said. “You can understand the temptation. But oh my goodness, we’ve seen time and time again that there is such a tension between big-time college football and basketball, and Christian values.”

Krattenmaker said that after doing the research for his book on Christianity in sports, he couldn’t understand any longer why so many coaches preach that the values of Christianity dovetail well with the manly values of the playing field. “In pro sports, and in big-time college football and basketball, there’s an almost overwhelming temptation to cut ethical and moral corners, or worse,” he said.

He said he was surprised to see Liberty hire McCaw — he saw the sexual assault scandal at Baylor as a perfect example of a school letting its athletic ambitions trample its ethical obligations, and thought Liberty would want to avoid even the appearance of following in the same path.








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