There was a news headline last week that you probably didn’t notice unless you’re either a fanatical college basketball fan or a resident of Kentucky. The University of Kentucky was forced to stop claiming that its men’s head basketball coach, John Calipari, has 500 career victories, since 42 of those victories were vacated by the NCAA. In other words, the NCAA decided that the wins didn’t count due to violations by Calipari’s teams. Kentucky argued that the wins occurred even if they were declared null and void later. But the NCAA disagreed. So Kentucky released a statement admitting it was wrong to credit the coach with 500 wins.
That story is significant not because it is a shocking oddity but because it represents a trend in college sports. Indeed, it’s difficult to find a successful college basketball coach who has not had some of his wins erased for cheating. The list of men who have had NCAA Tournament appearances vacated is striking. It includes Arizona’s legendary Lute Olson; late North Carolina State coach Jim Valvano; Larry Brown, the only coach to win championships at both the college and NBA levels; Purdue’s longtime coach Gene Keady; and San Diego State’s Steve Fisher, formerly of Michigan fame.
Yet basketball is not the only offending sport. Recently Ohio State forced head football coach Jim Tressel to resign for covering up a scandal, lying to the NCAA, and playing ineligible players. Auburn’s Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Cam Newton was under investigation after his father attempted to sell his athletic abilities to Mississippi State for $180,000 under the table. And the list could go on.
While most fans will continue to follow their favorite teams untroubled by NCAA rules infractions, Christian sports fans should at least pause to reflect on them. And one conclusion is unavoidable: cheating has become an expected part of sports—from the little leaguer who throws a spit ball to the high school football player who fakes an injury to stop the clock to the golfer who kicks his ball out of a divot during a tournament. Add to that the fans who encourage such behavior and the parents of athletes who facilitate it, and it is no wonder that cheating is the norm by the time elite athletes reach college.
Unfortunately, Christians too often conform to the cheating pattern rather than obeying Jesus’ command to be salt and light in every arena of life. Tressel, for example, is a professing Christian. But how marvelous it would be if believers confronted the culture of cheating in modern sports with the same type of courage that they used to abolish slavery, challenge Hitler, and oppose communism in Eastern Europe. Admittedly, athletics are not as weighty as stopping the Holocaust or toppling the Berlin Wall, but Christians must not forget the need for gospel leaven on the court and the field.