The Intersection Between Sports and Faith
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Do you find it difficult to live out your faith in your work? On FamilyLife Today, join hosts Dave and Ann Wilson as they talk with ESPN commentator Jason Romano about how to bloom where you are planted.
The Intersection Between Sports and Faith
Bob: During the years that he worked as a producer at ESPN, Jason Romano had a conversation with Coach Tony Dungy that marked his life.
Jason: Coach stops; he says, “Jason, I understand that you are a follower of Christ. That’s great.” Then he asked me the question that changes my life forever, and I really mean this when I say this. He says, “Jason, how do you live your faith out in the work place, here, at ESPN?” I thought, “There is no way I could be a Christian and live my faith out at a place that was sort of a big business secular type setting.”
His assistant, Jessica, comes right up in front of him; and she looks at me/she goes, “You don’t get it.” She’s like, “Until you’re called away, you are to bloom where you’re planted. Right here, this is your mission field.”
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Friday, February 5th. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I'm Bob Lepine. You can find us online at FamilyLifeToday.com. We’re going to talk today about how all of us can bloom where we are planted or—as Dave Wilson likes to say—“How we make a dent where we are sent.” Stay with us.
Bob: And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. I’ve just got to say, “I’m proud of you.” We’ve got an ESPN alumnus here with us on FamilyLife Today.
Bob: We’ve been talking for a long time, and you have not said, “Cover 2,” once. [Laughter] I just/I’m really proud that you have been able to—
Dave: Here is what I want to know, Bob. Do you know what Cover 2 is?
Bob: I know it has something to do with a defense; right? [Laughter]
Bob: How’s that? That’s pretty good; right?
Bob: That’s about as far as I can go on that.
Dave: Okay; I want to know if my wife—
Bob: Do you know what a Cover 2 is?
Dave: —knows what Cover 2 is. She’s lived with a quarterback her whole life.
Ann: Isn’t it the defensive backs—
Ann: —what they are running?
Dave: Yes; it’s basically two high safeties in the middle of the field on the hashes.
Bob: That’s Cover 2.
Dave: It determines everything: what you can run and change your routes. Anyway, we’re not here to talk about Cover 2—[Laughter]
Bob: I shouldn’t have brought it up!
Dave: —or talk about football.
Bob: Now, we’re into a pass-rush defense; okay?
Dave: We just lost half the audience, Bob.
Bob: We did; we did.
Dave: It is fun to have somebody from ESPN—17 years—Jason Romano worked for ESPN; no longer works for ESPN. He’s at a level now we all aspire to: he is an author; he’s a podcaster; he’s an emcee of ministries. And really—we didn’t mention this before—but you’re with Sports Spectrum.
Dave: Jason, glad to have you here. Tell us a little bit about what you’re doing these days.
Jason: I love it. First of all, thanks guys for having me on your show. Yes, Sports Spectrum is the intersection of sports and faith/faith in Jesus. Sports Spectrum is a ministry that’s been around for 35 years, telling these stories in the sports world, but intersecting it with faith in Christ. We get to do a lot of interviews like with Dave and Ann Wilson on my show and talk about sports and faith. It’s really cool.
Ann: Jason, how did you become passionate about that?
Jason: That goes back to being a kid—sports. Well, the faith part is later in my life; I was 27 when I began my walk with Jesus. But sports was all I cared about; in many ways, I tell people it was my god; because I didn’t have a relationship with Jesus when I was a kid. I did go to Catholic church a little bit, here and there, but very rarely—out of/sort of obligation—but Sundays were about football/sometimes, bowling.
Not until I was 27, my brother, Chris, was headed down a really bad path. Jesus got a hold of him, and He did a 180 in his life; I watched him live this new life out. I thought he was crazy at first. When he became a Christian, I thought, “What is wrong with this dude? He’s in some sort of cult or something.” But I watched him, for three years, live out his faith; and it became very attractive. I was curious; I said, “Chris, tell me what’s really going on here.” He would kind of give me little hints about Jesus and say, “His church,” and things like that; but for me, it was just a curiosity. I was really impressed with what happened to him in his life.
My life wasn’t spiraling out of control from a worldly perspective—got married, moved into our first house, got the ESPN job—things were looking good; but I saw what he had, and I wanted it. He shared the gospel with me on Mother’s Day, 2001, in the back bedroom of his house. I tell people I had no idea what I was saying, “Yes,” to; but my heart was opened to say, “Yes,” to it. That was the beginning/the start of my relationship [with God]. It’s been—gosh—almost 20 years now. I haven’t reached it, or gotten to wherever we want to get to; but I’m just so glad that he did that [shared the gospel], because it changed my life.
Bob: In your work with Sports Spectrum, has there been anybody, who you’ve interviewed, where it was like that little kid could not wait to get to meet this person that you were a super fan boy for?
Jason: Oh, yes; Darryl Strawberry is the guy. Darryl wrote the Foreword to my first book, Live to Forgive. If you met 12-year-old Jason, the walls were covered with Darryl Strawberry posters; the notebooks were covered with stats. Literally, at bats to at bat to at bat of what Darryl Strawberry was doing, watching WOR in New York as a kid. Fast forward to all the way to 2009, and I’m spending the day with Darryl Strawberry at ESPN.
Now, I’m a Christian at this point; but I’m not working in ministry. I’m still doing my job at ESPN. Darryl comes; and I wanted to spend the day with him, talking about the ’86 Mets. We didn’t talk baseball at all for eight hours. We talked about Jesus; we talked about faith, forgiveness, our parents, addiction—all the things that Darryl Strawberry has been through—if you know anything about his story.
Then fast forward four or five years later—six years later—I’m in ministry, hosting a show that I am doing, and interviewing my childhood hero. We’re not talking about baseball, again; we’re talking about Jesus. It’s pretty crazy.
Bob: That is great.
Dave: Yes; so/and one of the things you said about your job at ESPN is—people come in—some of them heroes—
Dave: —but obviously, sports figures—and leave a mark on you.
Dave: You just hit on one thing that hit me in your book, The Uniform of Leadership, about ministry. Tony Dungy—and, maybe, his assistant—tell us that story, though; because that was a really interesting perspective to think about: “What is ministry? What isn’t ministry?” Tell us that story.
Jason: That is/that was a pivotal, life-changing moment for me that day; and I didn’t know what was happening. My job, at that point at ESPN, I was a talent producer—that was the title—but in essence, I was the booker. I was the guy who would book the guests, bring them to ESPN, and then set their day up. You go through all of the different shows. ESPN, obviously, has many, many, many shows, like SportsCenter, and Mike & Mike, and First Take—all of these shows—NFL Live—that you would have seen and watched.
I put a schedule together. I knew, at that point, that I was a follower of Christ for sure. I’m eight/nine years into my walk with the Lord, but I always struggled with what it was like to have my faith brought to the workplace. I didn’t know what that meant. I always thought, “Church on Sunday; maybe, life group/small group middle of the week”; but when I went to ESPN, that was my job. ESPN and all that church stuff was kind of separate. Now, I wasn’t denying Christ at work; but I thought it was separate.
When Coach Dungy comes, I’m excited because I know he is a man of faith—Hall of Fame coach. I knew, when he was coming, he was going to bring Jesus into the conversation just the way that Coach is. If you ever talk to Coach, or know anything about Coach Dungy, he is a gentle giant; but he exudes Christ/who Christ is, in my opinion, in the way that he talks and the gentle spirit that he is.
Coach is here; he does Mike & Mike in the morning. We find ourselves in this green room, which is just a little side office; but we’re in this green room, and we’re just hanging out. His assistant, Jessica, is there; his publisher, Todd, and his coauthor, Nathan, are with him—it’s four people total. Those other three are all believers, who I had kind of relationships with in different projects in the past; so they knew that I was a Christian. They had told Coach Dungy that I was a Christian.
Coach stops right in the middle, while we’re hanging out in the green room that morning; and he says, “Jason, I understand you are a follower of Christ. That’s so cool.” He didn’t have to do this, by the way; Coach Dungy does not have to stop and take an interest in me. I’m just a nobody; I’m just a producer at ESPN, doing my job; right? But this is great leadership, on Coach Dungy’s part, to actually make every single person around him feel like they are worth a million dollars.
He stops, and he says, “Jason, I understand that you are a follower of Christ. That’s great.” Then he asks me the question that changes my life forever—I really mean this when I say this—he says—and nobody has ever asked me this question before—he says, “Jason, how do you live your faith out in the workplace here at ESPN if you’re a Christian? How does that work for you? How do you live your faith out?”
I was caught off guard. My answer was definitely not the answer he wanted; I said, “I don’t even know if I can do that, Coach. I mean, I’m at ESPN. If I’m going to live out my faith, I need to go work for a sports ministry like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes or Sports Spectrum,”—which, spoiler alert: I am now—[Laughter]—but at the time, I wasn’t thinking about that. I thought, “There is no way I can be a Christian and live my faith out at a place like ESPN, or any kind of place that was sort of a big business secular-type setting.”
I could sense he was not happy. He was just kind of shaking his head, and he was about to respond. Before he could, his assistant, Jessica, comes right up in front of him; and I had known Jessica from a couple previous engagements, and different bookings, and things like that; so she had the permission to be bold in this moment. She comes up with me, puts her hands on her hips. She looks at me/she goes, “You don’t get it; do you?” I said, “Oh my gosh, Jessica! What don’t I get?!” I’m like scared a little bit for a minute; I’m like, “What don’t I get? I don’t understand what you’re trying to say.” She’s like, “You don’t get it. Look where you are working; you are at ESPN. There are 3,000 employees on this campus that you can impact for Jesus.”
Ann: “It’s your mission field.”
Jason: That’s what she said; she goes, “This is a mission field for you, right here at ESPN.” She said, “Someday, you might be called away to go work in ministry”—and that happened—she’s like, “Until that day happens, you are to bloom where you are planted. Right here, this is your mission field.” It was like a light bulb went on in my brain; I said, “Oh my gosh! I get it now; I get it.”
I’ll tell you what happened, guys—before that day, I would say, “I was an ESPN producer, who happened to be a husband, who happened to be a dad.” That was really the identity that I kind of aligned with. After that day—now again, it’s all a process; so it takes a little while—but I realized, “I am a follower of Christ first, who happens to work at ESPN.” Order is important here, and that’s what happened with me.
I went from understanding that [previous mindset to] “Wait a minute! Jesus isn’t just a piece of my life. He is the centerpiece of all that I am. He comes with me to ESPN; so when I go to ESPN, and step in that office every single day, there is an opportunity to be Jesus to someone in there.” I saw the people I worked with; I saw the work that I did as a more purposeful work; I saw that it wasn’t about me anymore. For many years, I was focused on climbing the corporate ladder: “Let’s see if I can get that next producer job,” or “…if I can get that next level,” “… that raise,” “...that salary.”
Well, after Coach Dungy and a few other things take place, I realize, “Wait a minute; I’ve got this whole thing backwards here. My job every day is to come into ESPN and say [to God], ‘How can I serve You at ESPN?’ not ‘What can ESPN do for me?’”
Bob: Tell Jason how you say it; you don’t say, “Bloom where you’re planted.”
Dave: Yes; “Bloom where you’re planted” is in your book—and it’s a great phrase—I’ve always said, “Make a dent where you’re sent.”
Jason: Oh, I like that.
Dave: Here is the thing that I like about that is: “We are sent to make a dent”; in other words, I get it from Tommy Boy. Remember Tommy?—“That will leave a mark!”
Jason: Yes! [Laughter]
Dave: That’s where I first got it! [Laughter]
Jason: “That’s going to leave a mark!”
Dave: “That will leave a mark.” I’m like, “Everywhere God sends you, you want to leave a mark,”—a good mark; right?
But here is the thing that happens—when I used that at our church/you know, “Make a dent where you are sent,”—people will come up every time and say, “Hey, I’ve got a question. I know where you are sent; you are a pastor. I know where he is sent; he’s a missionary/she’s a missionary. I don’t know where I’m sent.” You know what the profound answer is?—“You are sent where you are.”
Dave: That is what Tony Dungy was telling you in a sense: “Where you are is your calling”; you know?
Dave: That’s what you discovered. I don’t think most of us understand that.
Jason: I didn’t either. I had been a Christian for nine years up to that point before Coach Dungy asked me that question. I didn’t realize, “Wait a minute; this isn’t just a job that I’m going to.” I enjoyed my job, by the way;—
Jason: —I loved working at ESPN prior to that moment with Coach Dungy. I loved it even more after, because I knew I got to do a job that I enjoyed; I got to work in the toy department of the world—as I call it—like the sports world; are you kidding me?! But now, it became more purposeful work.
I do miss being around others, who think differently. I try to actually, intentionally, have conversations with a lot of people, whether it’s through social media or even just meeting up at different places that aren’t followers of Christ of just kind of hear their perspective, and talk to them, and be able to witness to them the only way I can.
Dave: And the amazing thing is you are doing it, now, in a different way—
Dave: —because your broadcast/your podcast is influencing non-church/non-Christian people. That’s why you do it, because they are interested in sports’ lives. You’re using that platform to say, “I may not be sitting in an office beside you; but man, we’re impacting your life right now”; right?
Ann: I think it starts with where we talked earlier about putting the jersey on correctly.
Ann: Do you do that the first thing in the morning?—like, “Okay, I need to make sure”—as you said before—“that Jesus is first. I’m going to serve Him before I serve myself today”?
Jason: I try to.
Jason: We all mess that up, obviously. I just/this past year, in 2020, thinking about discipline, and everything was kind of taken away from us in the pandemic—this might be a horrible situation for a lot of people—but this is, also, an opportunity to come out of this different as followers of Christ.
For me, I actually tried to—again, I mess up occasionally; so I’m not perfect—but I try to make sure that the first 30 minutes every morning was with Him. I would spend time listening to worship music, or even just shutting down the phone and just—sometimes, I am going for walks and doing this; but just praying—spending that quiet time—like that has to be/now, it’s almost become habit formed in a good way, where I have to have that time in the morning/that quiet time with God. When I don’t have that—whether I’m on vacation or things kind of get out of whack—you feel it; you feel that.
I think that, if I am going to talk about being a leader, and talk about—especially leading in my house, but also leading others, or writing a book about leadership—I’ve got to be accountable to myself too. I’ve got to make sure I’ve got my priorities straight.
Dave: Yes; one of the stories that hit me about that was you turning down the opportunity to be a producer—
Dave: —because of how it would affect your family.
Dave: Talk about that.
Jason: At ESPN, they give reviews. They have a mid-year review in the middle of the year; and then at the end of the year, you are either on the right track, moving ahead, or—I forget the third one—but it’s like these levels that they kind of qualify you at in terms of your work; they evaluate you. You sometimes get a little bit of a raise or a bump: “Oh, you get a 3 percent raise for your review,”—or whatever.
That mid-year review in 2008—it was scathing—it was like, “Jason is all focused on himself. He doesn’t care about his teammates. He’s focused on the next job and not the job he is currently working at and getting paid for.” I was like, “Oh my gosh!”
Jason: It was bad; it was an eye-opener.
Dave: Was it true?
Jason: It was!
Jason: Yes; at the time, I didn’t think it was: I’m like, “NO! You should have told me this. I was just trying to do what everybody else was doing and get the next job at ESPN.” But it was true; I was so focused on Jason and wearing that uniform backwards.
I will say—that same year, I had this opportunity—I wrote about me and this woman named Carol going after this manager job in the middle of 2008. Carol was 26; at the time, I was probably 34, I think, and more experienced. I’m like, “There is no way that Carol is going to get this job over me.” I went in there, with my chest out, thinking, “I’m good here.”
Carol got the job. [Laughter] You talk about humbling; like I was like, “Whoa! Okay; so I thought I deserved this.” But Carol and I—because we had such a great relationship, as coworkers, we agreed, no matter who was going to get this job, that we were going to support each other. We did. Carol got the job; I said, “Alright; I can either be the bad guy/the bully here, or I can just serve and be a support to you. I am here for you, however I can help/however I can serve.”
Carol was working with me on having this potential of becoming a producer at ESPN. All that title—I’m talking about the title, Producer. Producer is a general term that we can all use for all the behind-the-scenes people; but there is an actual title called Producer 1 that is a level that a lot of people strive towards, and I was trying to go there. I had this opportunity to become a Producer 1 in the summer 2008, and it was about a $30,000 pay increase. When you get that job, it’s sort of/it raises up, in my opinion, the level of how people view you in the work that you do; right?
I was all set to do it; and then I remember one day going in—and they called it shadowing—I would go in, and I would shadow another Producer and see what this job was going to be like. It was like 5 in the afternoon until 3 in the morning; it was Wednesday through Sunday, weekends; and it was not glamorous at all, but it was an opportunity to get this bump in pay; right? —and this raise.
I remember going in, and I shadowed. All it took was one day. The next day, I came in, and I said to Carol—I said, “I don’t think I’m going to be a Producer 1.” She goes, “Why? What’s wrong?” I said, “I see what’s happening here. If I take this job”—which they didn’t offer me the job, actually; I just assumed they were training me toward it—I said, “But if they offer me this job and I take it, I will never see my daughter,”—in my opinion, I will never see her. She’ll be in school during the day, and on the weekends, I’m working; and I’m there.
I said, “She’s four years old”—at that point. I said, “If I take this job, there is a very good chance that I might be stuck in this job for the next five to ten years—however they want me to be in this job, and they control my hours.” I can’t say, “Guys, I need to work 9 to 5 today, Monday through Friday.” They are not going to do that; sports doesn’t happen between 9 to 5, Monday through Friday; it happens nights and weekends.
I made a point/I made a choice; I remember going to a few of the bosses and saying, “Listen, I don’t think I’m going to continue my training to become a Producer 1.” They said, “Well, how come?” I said, “I can’t take the chance of not being able to be around my kid and missing the next ten years of her life.” They looked at me; and they were like, “You won’t miss the next…”—I said, “You can’t guarantee that; can you?” They said, “We can’t guarantee that you can work the hours that you may want to work; but we’ll do our best.” I’m like, “I just can’t; I’m sorry.”
I went back the next day. Carol said to me, “What can I do for you to help your life be better so that you can be around your child?” It changed my life; I said: “Can I work on the NFL?” “Can I work Sunday through Thursday?” “Can I work 7 to 5 during the week, or 8 to 5, and then come home at night and be with my kid?” She said, “Yes, absolutely; let’s make that happen.” I didn’t get the $30,000 raise; but I look back now, and I did not miss my kid—I was there for her, being able to be in the most pivotal moments, I think, in her life, especially when she needed a dad;—
Jason: —because I didn’t have a dad that was around or available. I wanted to make sure that she had what I couldn’t have. If it meant not getting a $30,000 raise increase or a job title prestige—whatever you want to call it—I don’t regret that, by the way, one iota. Other people, maybe, do—I don’t know—but for me, I had to make that choice.
Dave: Yes; and I’m guessing your daughter—maybe, I’m wrong—does she even know that you’ve made that choice?
Jason: I don’t know if she does. It’s weird; she won’t read my books.
Ann: She would know—
Jason: She’s a teenager. I don’t know; she doesn’t read anything. [Laughter]
Ann: But she would know, had you made that decision and taken that job,—
Ann: —because she wouldn’t have a relationship with you.
Dave: And leadership is all the little behind-the-scene decisions that literally change people’s lives. Way to go!
Jason: Thanks, man.
Dave: That was a big decision.
Jason: It was. I look back now, and I recognize—you know my daughter is 16, and she is probably like, “Whatever, Dad!” which is pretty much the response I get on everything—“Whatever, Dad!” [Laughter] But I hope, when she is 24/25, and we can sit down and really—and she maybe gets married, and has kids of her own—that she sees and understands that it’s these little moments and these decisions that you can make in your life that can make the difference between—who knows?—maybe not even being able to have a relationship with her; you know?
Jason: That was big for me, especially with what I went through with my own dad.
Bob: Just don’t do what Dave Wilson would do, and go to her and say, “You know, you owe me $300,000 because I stayed home.” [Laughter]
Jason: “Let me do the math here.” [Laughter]
Dave: Ten years, 30 grand—that’s about right. [Laughter]
Jason: Yes; maybe, she’ll pay me back someday.
Bob: Jason, thank you for being with us. These are great leadership principles for moms, dads—for every one of us.
Dave: Oh, yes!
Bob: Thank you.
Jason: Thank you.
Bob: Jason’s book, again, is called The Uniform of Leadership: Lessons on True Success from My ESPN Life. We’ve got copies of the book available to you in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. You can request your copy, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com; or you can call to order: 1-800-FL-TODAY is our number. Again, get a copy of Jason Romano’s book, The Uniform of Leadership. Order online at FamilyLifeToday.com; or call to order: 1-800-358-6329—that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
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We hope you have a great weekend. Hope you and your family are somehow able to worship together with your local church this weekend, and I hope you can join us back on Monday when we’re going to talk football again, a little bit, because Derwin Gray, who used to play in the NFL, is going to be with us. He is a pastor now in North Carolina. He’s written a book, looking at what makes up the good life; and it’s different than what you might imagine. Join us as we talk with Derwin about that on Monday.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch. We got some help from Justin Adams this week as well. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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