“I’ll tell you a funny story,” Jerry Falwell Jr. says.
It’s about his school, Liberty University, and about its football team, the Flames, and about his friend, the most powerful man in the world. “My wife and I attend a lot of Friday-night dinners with recruits,” says Falwell, the president of Liberty, the conservative Southern Baptist university that ascended in 2018 from FCS to FBS football and will play in its first-ever bowl game this Saturday. We’re talking last August, a few days before Liberty’s first FBS game.
“We’re sitting around a table like this one,” Falwell continues, gesturing to our table in a conference room high above Liberty’s Lynchburg, Virginia, campus. “It’s me and my wife, and it’s the recruit’s father and his son, who’s a running back.”
He leans forward. He has a gray beard, blue eyes, and a charmed bluster. He smiles. The story is just getting good. “And then my phone rings,” he says. “It’s an unknown number. And I answered it.” His eyes brighten.
“It was the president.”
Donald J. Trump, calling Falwell right in the middle of a recruiting dinner. He grins, remembering the moment. “Hey, Jerry,” he remembers Trump saying, “I just wanted to tell you that you did a great job on CNN the other night.” Falwell often appears on cable news to defend Trump’s decisions and to bolster his connection with evangelical Christians.
“We talk politics for a minute,” he says, “and he asks about Becki”—Falwell’s wife—“and he says he’s glad she and Melania are becoming friends.” And then, Falwell remembers, after a few minutes of small talk, Trump had a question:
“So, how’s the football team looking?”
I went to Liberty to write about football. I went twice, once last year, for the program’s very first FBS game, and again this July, to talk with the school’s new head coach, Hugh Freeze. But thinking about Liberty’s football team is impossible without also thinking about the university at large, and any consideration of the university is colored by the legacy of its founder, Jerry Falwell Sr., and the public impact of its president, Falwell Jr., both giant figures in the history and present of politicized American evangelicalism; and all of this leads, inevitably, from thinking about football to thinking about God.
“The difference between Liberty and other schools,” says Turner Gill, Liberty’s coach until he resigned last winter to care for his wife as she deals with a heart condition, “is that at Liberty, everywhere you go, you pray. Professors pray with you. Staff prays with you. If you’re talking about something serious with someone, they’ll say, ‘Hey, let’s pray about this.’” Liberty is the largest nonprofit Christian university in the country, a place where students and faculty enter most every conversation with an expectation that they’re talking to someone who shares their Christian faith. Prayer opens many classes and meetings. Casual conversation, even among strangers, is often peppered with evangelical slang. “I was really on fire for the Lord,” senior Ivory Edosomwan says of first arriving on campus as a first-year student, “and I’d never been surrounded by 15,000 Christians before. I was amazed.”
Walk around Liberty’s campus, and it can feel at first glance like any other university, with gleaming facilities and cranes for new construction and students shuffling between classes, some in sweats and sandals, a few in Yeezys and Supreme. I graduated from another evangelical university, and the first layer of Liberty’s culture felt familiar: aggressively and startlingly nice. “People are so happy and excited to talk with you,” says Jake Page, the former student government association president, who graduated this spring. “Whether you’re passing in the hall or just walking outside, they’ll welcome you, give you directions. There’s a spirit in Liberty students that’s contagious. There’s a genuine joy.”
Just underneath that first layer, though, the campus’s culture reflects an assumed ideological sameness. “Just like Harvard is known as a liberal institution, but you don’t have to be a liberal to go there,” says Falwell, “you don’t have to be a Christian here. But we attract Christians for the most part, and we attract conservative students for the most part, because everyone knows what Liberty stands for.” Liberal students have to go searching for like minds. Students describe the English and religion departments as home to more liberal professors, and say social-justice-oriented ministry organizations are more liable to attract liberal students. Online, private Facebook groups serve as havens for LGBTQ students. “For students who are a little more on the woke side—quote unquote—finding a community can be a struggle,” says Hannah Hartsook, a student who helped start a group called LU for #MeToo. “I’ve definitely found that community, but it’s small.”
Each student arrives on Liberty’s campus for their own personal reasons. Hartsook faced pressure from her parents. Edosomwan chose LU because it had a mechanical engineering program and the distinction of the world’s largest Christian university (though it has since been passed in enrollment by Arizona’s Grand Canyon University). A number of football players say they chose the school for the same reason recruits choose any other school: They wanted playing time.
All arrive with their own personal mission, their own ambitions and desires. In 2019, though, it’s difficult to understand exactly what the university’s mission is. Though his father founded the Moral Majority, the Reagan-era movement that solidified the alliance between evangelicals and the Republican Party, Falwell Jr. is a lawyer, not a minister. His public comments focus far more on a Trumpian brand of conservative politics than on any expressions of faith. He has built the once-modest university into a national brand, using revenue from online education to fund a building boom on campus. It is a university founded on evangelical Christian theology, led by a president spreading nativist politics, expanding with the money of online students, most of whom live many miles away.
Liberty’s football players compete for themselves and their teammates. “It’s a family-like atmosphere,” says Juwan Wells, who played defensive line for the Flames from 2015 to 2018. Like in any college football program, though, their play also serves to draw attention to their school. This Saturday, Liberty will play in the Cure Bowl, perhaps the biggest game in the program’s history. All around the country, college football fans starved for games will flip to the CBS Sports Network and watch the Flames play Georgia Southern. Some might be learning about Liberty’s existence for the very first time.
In 2019, Liberty continues growing in size and stature, Falwell in influence and notoriety. The reputation of the university and that of the man who runs it are bound up together, intertwined. And lately Falwell’s personal conduct has drawn more scrutiny than ever before. In September, Politico published an investigative piece by Liberty alumnus Brandon Ambrosino, outlining a university culture that one administrator called a “dictatorship.” The piece also detailed university financial dealings that appeared to enrich people close to Falwell, including his son Trey, and anecdotes about Falwell’s loud and enthusiastic descriptions of his own sex life to subordinates on campus.
Students staged a protest against Falwell in September, a few holding signs that said “We Want Change” and calling for an independent investigation into Falwell’s leadership and conduct. (As of December, no investigation has been announced.) Falwell has threatened to sue Ambrosino and has called for the FBI to investigate an alleged “criminal conspiracy” by former board members who may have participated in the story. On campus, some students feel a certain tension. They love their classmates and many professors, but feel uneasy about what their university and its leader now represent. Says Hartsook: “Jerry kinda sucks, but the school itself does not. They’re pretty good people here.”
Falwell’s father, Jerry Falwell Sr., founded the university in 1971, its football program two years later. He spoke then about building Liberty football into a national power, a program to compete with the likes of Alabama and USC. The idea, then as now, was that Liberty could represent for evangelicals what Notre Dame does for Catholics and Brigham Young University for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—a cultural unifier, a team and an institution in which members of the faith could feel a sense of investment, whether or not they attended the school. “My dad’s goal,” says Falwell Jr., “was to create for evangelical young people a university that had all the facilities, the NCAA Division I sports, and the academics that any major secular university would have. That was the goal.” It took decades for the university to build the resources necessary to compete anywhere near that level. Now, though, Falwell Jr. says the move to FBS “is sort of the realization of that.”
Just ask the coach. “Here we are, getting to walk in that vision,” says Freeze. “Pretty neat.”
Freeze is talking to me this July, sitting in a press box in Liberty’s stadium, a few weeks before his first season kicks off. “I love a challenge,” he says. “If we can take this program to a bowl game in the first two, three, even four years, that would be pretty neat.” Five months later, he’s done it in year one. “I’m just overjoyed,” he said after the Flames’ bowl matchup was announced. “To stand here today knowing it’s a reality and that we are achieving something that’s never been done before … is really, really special.”
Freeze has led his program to new heights and brought national attention, sometimes for reasons that have little to do with its play on the field. Early this season, he coped with a health scare in ways that became one of the strangest story lines in college football. In August, weeks after I interviewed Freeze, he underwent surgery for a debilitating staph infection. As he recovered, Freeze coached from a hospital bed and Skyped into a postgame press conference.
Weirdest sport on earth pic.twitter.com/rLw5RkvkGK— Jason Kirk, Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl CEO (@thejasonkirk) September 1, 2019
when u do a good tweet pic.twitter.com/hczBSiiNJL— Yahoo Sports College Football (@YahooSportsCFB) September 1, 2019
when you do that thing I forgot to do before I passed out on the couch and I appreciate it pic.twitter.com/4E1zWzv2Na— BUM CHILLUPS (@edsbs) September 1, 2019
The images of Freeze coaching from a bed seemed to perfectly capture the beautiful ridiculousness of college football. Here was a man so committed to coaching—or perhaps to giving the appearance of coaching—that he would lie prone on a mattress, shouting calls into a headset from beginning to end of a blowout loss.
This is Liberty’s coach. Offensive whiz, talented recruiter, man willing to coach from any surface, prone or upright, that his body allows. Freeze has also long been one of the sport’s most outspoken evangelical Christians. When we meet, Freeze looks healthy. He sounds confident. He talks about the opportunity before him. Freeze says he was drawn to Liberty by the school’s faith-based mission, but admits, “I wouldn’t say that’s the biggest thing.”
The primary draw? “It was the one school,” he says, “that offered me the opportunity to step back in as head coach.”
You may have heard why.
The light was soft and warm, the stage massive and spare. Freeze stood before 13,000 students one morning in January 2018, his wife and his hometown pastor seated behind him, and started talking about sin. Freeze had been invited to speak at Liberty’s convocation, the thrice-weekly services held in the Vines Convocation Center, to tell the story of how he had lost his job.
Well, kind of. Freeze spent much of his time telling stories of others who’ve come back from failures, before eventually offering vague references to his own personal shortcomings. “Can you have a genuine faith,” he asked, “and have a season in your life when you struggle with a sin?”
Six months earlier, Freeze had resigned as head coach at the University of Mississippi, amid an NCAA investigation and reports of personal misconduct. Ole Miss faced 17 allegations of NCAA rules violations during Freeze’s tenure, most regarding impermissible benefits in the form of cash, merchandise, or food for recruits. Also in 2017, university phone records emerged showing multiple calls placed from Freeze’s university phone to numbers held by escort services. When Freeze resigned, the university’s statement said that he admitted to the administration “a pattern of personal misconduct.”
On stage, Freeze made no mention of specific ways he’d failed. He kept things vague. “I didn’t honor my wife totally,” he said. Freeze did, however, explain that he’d been privately dealing with the consequences of his failures long before anything became public. He said, “What I thought was a private sin I had struggled with, confessed to my wife. … It became public. My world crumbled.”
Liberty’s convocation felt like a fitting setting for a public apology. “Liberty is a place where people come to get forgiveness from the public,” says Edosomwan. Michael Vick has spoken there. So has Ray Rice. Forgiveness is, after all, baked into the core of evangelical Christian theology, which teaches that Jesus’s crucifixion served as atonement for all of humanity’s sins, and that anyone who asks God for forgiveness is saved from punishment for those sins.
During his talk, Freeze said to the crowd, “I am sorry. Please forgive me.” In a matter of seconds, someone called back, “We forgive you!” The students cheered.
In our interview, Freeze again declined to give details on his misconduct, but he said of his family, “They know exactly what I did.” He spoke about initial anger at the coverage of his resignation. “I used to really get frustrated with that,” he said. “But I finally came to the conclusion, ‘Look, if I had never done anything wrong, they couldn’t write anything or get their own assumptions.’”
Once, a coach with Freeze’s résumé would have been well out of Liberty’s league. For years, the university barely remained afloat. “I remember times when my father and I spent weekends talking to donors and lenders about loaning us money to cover the paychecks that had gone out the Friday before,” Falwell Jr. says. “We were that close to the edge for so long.” The school turned around its finances by investing in online and distance learning, becoming a nonprofit competitor with institutions such as the University of Phoenix.
Liberty now has more than 100,000 students, about 85 percent of whom attend online. As the university found solid financial footing and the quality of its facilities rose, Liberty began exploring the possibility of finally making the jump to FBS earlier this decade. NCAA rules require a team to move up into a conference, rather than as an independent, but Liberty couldn’t come to an agreement after conversations with the Sun Belt and Conference USA. (Falwell said the Sun Belt rejected Liberty because of its politics. The Sun Belt disagreed.) In 2017, the NCAA granted the school an exception, allowing it to move up with no conference.
The move has been overseen by athletic director Ian McCaw. Like Freeze, McCaw once worked in the highest levels of college sports, as AD at Baylor. And like Freeze, he resigned amid scandal. McCaw stepped down in 2016, after the university released the findings of an external investigation, in which the law firm Pepper Hamilton found “specific failings within both the football program and the Athletics Department leadership, including a failure to identify and respond to a pattern of sexual violence by a football player, to take action in response to reports of a sexual assault by multiple football players, and to take action in response to a report of dating violence.” The report also expressed “significant concerns about the tone and culture within Baylor’s football program as it relates to accountability for all forms of athlete misconduct.”
Several students I interviewed did not even know who McCaw was, much less what had happened under his watch at Baylor. Joel Schmieg, the former sports editor of Liberty’s student newspaper, The Liberty Champion, followed his hire closely. “I was really upset,” he says. “To me, that was the biggest step in Liberty putting sports above everything, just like any other school.” Schmieg had followed Liberty sports obsessively since the moment he arrived on campus, traveling to road games as a fan, covering playoff runs as a student reporter. “It was like, ‘What do I do now? How do I root for this? It’s my own school, and I don’t even want to root for them anymore.’”
Falwell bristles when asked about McCaw’s handling of sexual assault reports at Baylor. “We did a lot of due diligence,” he says, “and I believe in him. We looked into it and couldn’t find where he had done anything wrong. And everybody we talked to on the board down there said, ‘He will never embarrass you. He’s golden.’”
McCaw denies responsibility for the culture of his department at Baylor. “It was a university-wide, systemic problem,” he says, sitting in his office in 2018. He points to a deposition, which he gave last year as part of an ongoing lawsuit, in which he discussed the dynamics at Baylor in greater depth. In the deposition, McCaw referred to the Pepper Hamilton report and other moves by the university as an “elaborate plan that essentially scapegoated the black football players and the football program for being responsible for what was a decades-long, university-wide sexual assault scandal.”
I relayed all of this to Brenda Tracy, the woman who has become the most prominent activist voice regarding issues related to sexual violence in college football. “Of course there was a campus-wide problem,” says Tracy, who spoke to Baylor’s football team several months after McCaw’s resignation. “But to say that athletics wasn’t centered in all of this—that is wrong for them to say that.”
Like Schmieg, Hartsook says that McCaw’s hiring mostly went unnoticed by students, but among those paying attention, she says, “It was politicized.” In Hartsook’s conversations with other students about McCaw’s hiring, she says, “Most people took a really defensive stance on it. They either said he did nothing wrong, or they said, ‘We’re supposed to be Christians and forgive.’” This emphasis can feel, at times, like weaponized theology. Grace becomes the enemy of justice. “As a Christian university,” Hartsook says, “we should be holding leadership to a higher standard. But it feels like we’re not.”
Liberty wants to compete. This means recruiting the best players it can find, regardless of how closely they hew to the university’s professed beliefs. “I don’t treat it any differently from any other schools I’ve been,” says Freeze. “I don’t know if I should or I shouldn’t. I don’t know what the answer is. … I still look for the same kind of kid I looked for at Arkansas State or Ole Miss. Number one, does he fit with our program? Is he a gym rat? Does he love to compete? I don’t ask, ‘Well, is he an angel?’”
Freeze says he doesn’t bring up the university’s faith-based mission early in the recruitment process, but that he discusses it openly when asked. “I’m happy to tell them, ‘This is a difference between this university and others. How you view that difference is ultimately going to be up to you.’” He tells them it’s a Christian school, that they will hear and see Christian teaching most every day they’re on campus. “I hope it attracts you at some point,” he says he tells them, “but that doesn’t go into me deciding whether we offer you a scholarship.”
Liberty’s last two recruiting classes have ranked near the bottom of FBS, as expected of a program new to this level. (The current class looks to be an improvement, ranked no. 92 in the country.) When I ask players what drew them to Liberty, most say their decision was about football first. “The coaches made it clear,” says Wells, who chose Liberty over offers from Old Dominion and Troy, “you can have the chance to compete for a starting job from the moment you get on campus. If you have the talent, you’re going to get a shot.” Says senior quarterback Stephen Calvert, a former three-star recruit who had offers from FIU and USF: “The facilities are amazing. These are way better than at any of the other programs that were recruiting me.” Bejour Wilson says that on his visit he could sense that the team felt like family, and Ceneca Espinoza Jr. explains that he felt a loyalty to the Flames for offering him a scholarship before anyone else.
But Espinoza also felt drawn to the school’s religious affiliation. “At home I believed in God, but I wasn’t really a strong believer,” said Espinoza. “I felt like here I could really develop myself.” Others liked what the school’s culture can help to limit: “I wanted no distractions,” said Antonio Gandy-Golden, seeming to refer to the lack of a party atmosphere on campus. “Just focus on football and school and nothing else. I love that aspect of it.”
While neither Freeze nor Gill told me their players needed to be Christians, Gill emphasized the fact that once his players arrive on campus, they’d be fed a steady diet of Scripture and Christian teachings—in their classes and in convocation, at the very least. “This university is evangelical,” he said. “That means you’re trying to find the lost and bring them to Christ.”
Christianity is built around a man who taught peace and nonviolence; football is among the world’s most brutal sports. I tell Falwell a story about someone I know, a high-level administrator at a Christian university, who has resisted developing a football program because of worries that the sport’s culture clashes with its mission. “It’s a challenge,” Falwell says, “but the positives outweigh the negatives. It brings attention to your school. That shines a light on your Christian mission.”
I mention this to Schmieg. “The idea of using sports to broadcast the message of Jesus is awesome,” he says. “But here, I think most of the time it comes off as broadcasting Liberty instead of the message of Jesus.”
And these days, drawing attention to Liberty means drawing attention to Falwell. The university’s president has carved out a public identity as a Trump-promoting talking head, appearing regularly on camera to defend the president on everything ranging from charges of stoking anti-Semitism to criticisms of his personal morality after the release of an Access Hollywood tape in which Trump bragging about “grabbing” women “by the pussy.”
Falwell insists, time and again, that these are only his personal views, that he’s not representing the university. But after the release of the Access Hollywood tape, Falwell spiked a student newspaper column by Schmieg in which Schmieg criticized Trump’s defense of his words as “locker-room talk.” Schmieg says he felt compelled by his own faith to speak out against Trump’s words and actions. After the administration killed his column, he resigned from the student paper. “I wasn’t fired, but if I had stayed it would have felt like I had to fall in line, or else,” he says. “I wasn’t interested in that.” By giving up his role at the paper, Schmieg says, he was giving up the scholarship money that came with it too. “It sucked,” he says. “I loved my job. I loved being a part of that newspaper.” (Falwell said that he spiked the column because the paper was already running a pro–Hillary Clinton letter to the editor, and that running both would be “redundant.”)
Falwell used the same defense of Trump then that he has used so many times since, the same defense that seems to follow so many around campus. “We’re all sinners,” he says. “People say, ‘How can you support a sinner like Donald Trump?’ We’re all sinners. Come on now. Nobody’s better than anybody else.” Here, again, is the tension between the Christian compulsion toward forgiveness and the Christian compulsion toward just doing the right thing. Says Hartsook: “Forgiveness is used as a manipulative tool. It’s like, ‘Forgive me because the Bible says so, even if I never have to take responsibility for anything I did wrong.’”
Falwell uses Jesus’s words as justification for his support of Trump. Yet the core of what Jesus taught centered on embracing the stranger, caring for the poor and the sick. (On Thursday, Christianity Today’s editor-in-chief wrote an editorial using a theological justification to advocate for Trump’s removal from office.) How does Falwell reconcile his faith with his support of a president who has consistently spoken ill of racial and religious minorities in this country, who has drawn the support of white supremacists, who has built much of his political identity around policies of keeping those less fortunate strangers from entering our country?
“Jesus never told Caesar how to run Rome,” he said. “He told us as his followers, as believers—he told us that it’s our job to help those in need, to help the least of these. He never said to Caesar to take money from the rich and give it to the poor.” This is a common refrain among some conservative Christians regarding social welfare policies. Caring for the poor is the job of the church, not of the government. “It’s very clear,” he continues. “And people get confused by that. They think, ‘Oh, Jesus said to help the poor. Doesn’t that mean the United States should let in anybody that wants to come?’ Well, the United States is not a theocracy. It’s not meant to be run according to the teachings of Jesus. I’m sorry, but it’s not.”
Falwell is one of the bulwarks of the religious right, an heir to his father’s Moral Majority. His family has built its legacy on the intertwinement of faith and politics, fighting for prayer in schools and against gay marriage. Yet Falwell seems to be suggesting that his political activity is no longer guided by his Christian beliefs. So I ask how much his faith informs his political views.
“Not at all,” he says.
Without pausing, he rushes into an explanation. “I mean, I believe what I do politically because I believe it’s what’s best for the country. And I take to heart what Jesus said. Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s. They’re two different things.” In years past, many within the religious right have seemed to equate Christian belief with conservative politics—particularly on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. Falwell, though, justifies his support for Trump by suggesting that faith and politics need not be intertwined. “I think you can be a liberal, a conservative, or a libertarian, and still be a good Christian.”
I refer back to what Falwell said earlier, that he sees Trump as a “Christ-centered” man.
“Well,” Falwell says, “I’ve never talked to him about that in particular. But I think he’s a good man. I do think he’s a Christian.” To be clear, Jerry Falwell Jr., one of Trump’s first and loudest supporters from the religious right, a man who talks to the president often, who began our conversation by bragging about getting a phone call from him during a recruiting dinner, and who has developed his own platform through his presidency of the nation’s best-known evangelical university, said that he doesn’t talk to the president about faith.
Hartsook says that after both the Politico piece and a Reuters piece that quoted emails in which Falwell called a student “retarded,” support for Falwell’s leadership has waned, even among more politically and religiously conservative students. “The rules we have to follow, he breaks them all the time,” says Hartsook. According to the school’s code of conduct, “The Liberty Way,” students can be fined for using “obscene, profane, or abusive language.” Says Hartsook: “It’s not enforced with him.”
When he ran the program, Gill seemed unbothered by Falwell’s political outspokenness. “It has never been an issue for our football team,” he said. “He’s speaking on behalf of himself, not on behalf of the university, and people can agree or disagree, and that’s OK.”
Administrators see the football program as a way to unite Liberty’s increasingly diverse student body, connecting students and alumni from across the country and even the world. They tell stories of students who never set foot on campus until arriving in Lynchburg to walk across the stage at graduation. “They’re just as much of a part of this school as the on-campus students,” says McCaw. “Athletics can give them a great way to connect to the university.”
In his campaign for student government association president, Page ran on a platform of building school spirit among the student body. “We’re such a young school,” he says, “that we don’t have the traditions that so many other schools do. … I felt like by building those, we can build a deeper sense of pride among the student body.” He worked to centralize tailgating before football games, to design and offer class rings available to students near graduation.
How much that translates into a fan base invested in the football program’s success remains to be seen. Players and coaches have spoken at length about the energy they feel around campus, the excitement that has accompanied the program’s ascension to the highest level. Schmieg says he’s seen the administration go all in on promoting the program, but he adds, “From a student perspective, though, I don’t think most people care.”
In 2018, Liberty had an average attendance of 17,047, which ranked 110th out of 130 FBS programs. (The school’s stadium capacity is 25,000.) This year, attendance improved to 18,272, though it’s unclear where that ranks among FBS programs. The product on the field is improving. The energy around the program is growing, if slowly. Liberty remains far from Falwell Sr.’s dream of truly competing with the likes of Alabama or Notre Dame, but Liberty football matters more now than it ever has.
Back in his office, Falwell Jr. isn’t quite done with his story. The one about the recruiting dinner, about the phone call from Trump, about the time the president told Falwell he did a great job on CNN. Sitting around the table, he holds his smile and continues. After Trump asked about the football program, he says. “I handed the phone to Turner.”
“I used to watch you play at Nebraska,” Falwell says, imitating Trump’s conversation with Gill, still Liberty’s coach at the time. “You were the best quarterback they ever had!”
Soon enough, Gill handed the phone back to Falwell, and Falwell traded banter with Trump for a few moments more. Finally, Falwell says, he hung up and returned his attention to the dinner, as well as to the football recruit and his family who were sitting at his table. “The boy’s dad was just sitting over there,” Falwell says, “and he’s just like, ‘Oh, my God.’”
He shrugs. “Anyway,” he says, “that was our last recruit.” Falwell leans back and he smiles, pleased with his team and his school, his president and himself.
“We got him.”