There must be many ex-football players or ex-athletes and at least a few famous athletes who have ended their athletic careers by committing crimes. Most of those cases simply fall into obscurity but not that of Lawrence Phillips (1975–2016), who was a star running back in high school (Baldwin Park) in Los Angeles, at the University of Nebraska, and later a professional football player in the NFL, Canada, and Europe. Many long-time observers of Nebraska football, where Phillips played the position known as the “I-Back” (after his position on the field relative to the quarterback), regarded him as perhaps the best running back ever to play at Nebraska. That is not a small thing since the Huskers have produced some of the best collegiate running backs in the history of football. Before Phillips derailed his role as star running back on the 1995 national championship team, he was one of the leading candidates for the Heisman Trophy, which is awarded each year to the best college football player in the USA.
It is understandable that Phillips’ life and death has received some media attention. During the 1995 season he attacked a woman, another university student and athlete, for which he was suspended from the team. Later, he essentially ruined his professional career through repeated alleged violent episodes. After football he was wanted by authorities for domestic abuse and convicted of attempting to attempting to hit with his car some teenagers with whom he had been playing football. He was doing a long, hard stretch in Kern Valley (Bakersfield), California. Most recently, he was being investigated by in connection with the death of his cellmate. Phillips died yesterday and his death is being investigated as a suicide.
Still, there are many domestic abusers and violent criminals in prisons all over the US and it was not difficult for The Bleacher Report to create a slide show in 2010 highlighting 20 famous athletes who put themselves in prison. Still, the fascination with Phillips seems to exceed interest in at least some of the others. Google News shows 815,000 stories on the man Nebraska football fans called simply LP or Lawrence.
The first part of the answer is that Phillips gained national fame and notoriety at a time when American society was becoming more conscious of the problem of domestic violence. Phillips seemed to be the poster child for star athletes who, despite their criminal behavior, received special treatment because of their athletic prowess. There is some truth, of course, to this narrative but it is a narrative and every such story needs a villain, a role into which Phillips seemed to fit neatly. His rise and fall also occurred about the same time as the internet. In 1995 most people were still using dial-up access and the internet was just a toddler. More than 20 years later the internet is poised to replace just about every other source of information and entertainment. By 2005, when Phillips’ post-football life was careening headlong into prison, the internet was there to capture it in all its TMZ-ugliness.
As a general rule, Americans like stories with good guys and bad guys. We like see people do well but we take a perverse pleasure in watching them fall. There was a lot of drama surrounding the Nebraska football program in 1994–95. It had been 24 years since the last national championship. This team seemed to have everything it needed to end the drought: a star quarterback in Tommie Frazier, a powerful, slashing I-back in Phillips, one of the great offensive lines of all time and a suffocating defense. Along with the size, skill, and speed there was drama. A defensive lineman was accused of a sexual assault. Frazier developed blood clots and hand to sit out. His backup, Brook Berringer, filled in skillfully, thus creating a dreaded “quarterback controversy.” When Frazier healed, would he get his job back? Then Berringer was injured—though he played some with a cracked rib and a partially collapsed lung—and had to be replaced by a small, unknown third-team quarterback Matt Turman, who came in, behind that powerful offensive line, to guide the team to wins over Kansas State and Oklahoma State. It was a scene from Rudy. At 5′ 11″ and 165lbs, one could be forgiven for wondering how the team manager was now playing quarterback before 76,000 fans. With Turman at quarterback the team relied on Phillips, who responded magnificently.
Then, back in Lincoln, after a remarkable performance, Phillips hit his girlfriend and the national media descended upon what was still essentially an over-sized small town. Phillips was suspended but was returned to the team later that season, a decision that was hugely controversial both in Nebraska and across the country. Bernie Goldberg turned the bright lights on coach Tom Osborne. Was the Nebraska mythos about running a clean program (in contrast the flamboyant and apparently criminal-laden programs at Oklahoma and Miami), led by the evangelical grandson of Methodist Lay preacher, just public relations or were the Huskers just another “win-at-all-costs” program and a symbol of the warped priorities of a sports-obsessed people? That brings us back to narratives. Ask Coach Osborne and those who played for him and they will tell you that Lawrence’s return to the team was less for their benefit and more for his and the evidence seems to support that claim. Though he was valuable when Turman was at quarterback, the Huskers had plenty of power at running back: Clinton Childs and Damon Benning to name two. The Huskers did very well without Phillips. Further, upon the return of Frazier and Berringer for the championship game the Huskers had plenty of offensive weapons and they still had that crushing offensive line. Nevertheless, to the world outside the walls of Memorial Stadium and to those beyond the borders of Nebraska football, it looked like the machine was putting a star player ahead of a victim of abuse.
While all this was transpiring I was about as far from Lincoln as I could be. I was in the UK working on my DPhil thesis. I heard the games only because my merciful and generous mother-in-law faithfully taped-recorded each game and sent me the cassettes each week. The Rykens lived just below us and I am not sure to this day if Phil understands the agribusiness commercials that peppered the broadcasts: “There’s power in the pod.” I learned about most of the drama and particularly about Phillips after returning to the US.
What most people did not know about Phillips, what I learned over the decades after he left Nebraska, were the circumstances under which he was raised. This morning as I write, one of his friends and fellow Nebraska I-back, Damon Benning (now a radio co-host in Omaha) is weeping openly as he re-tells the story. Phillips was raised in truly awful circumstances. He was abused violently and a witness to sexual abuse. By the time he got to Nebraska, he was a damaged young man with, as it turned out, “anger issues.” The highly-structured system within the Nebraska football machine was good for him—some testify that Lawrence was an intellectually gifted, quiet, gentle soul—but even the machine could not contain Lawrence’s explosive and sometimes violent outbursts. The same fury that made opposing tacklers fear him—LP ran into contact and made the other teams regret it. Most likely, had Lawrence not been a supremely gifted football player he would have disappeared, anonymously, into the social services system in LA and then into the criminal justice system. Because, however, he was a highly gifted football player on a highly visible team, headed toward a national championship, Lawrence became the focus of a great deal of attention, which followed him to his death yesterday.
Lincoln Nebraska is about as far from Phillips’ upbringing in LA as one can get. LA is in a basin with mountains to the east and an ocean to the west. Lincoln is on the edge of an ocean of corn, wheat, and soybeans to its west. Though Nebraska is mostly rural most of its people live within 50 miles of the Missouri River, which separates it from Iowa. It is an Agricultural state with three cities, Omaha, Lincoln, and Grand Island and hundreds of small towns. Many of those who populate the cities are essential rural folk who have relocated. Western boots and hats, especially outside of Omaha are common. Even in Omaha, no one looks twice at a cowboy hat or a pair of boots. It is a largely blue-collar, working-class state. Some of those blue collars are in Omaha and some are in Scottsbluff.
What most people probably do not know is that Omaha is also home to some of the poorest neighborhoods in the USA. Families who moved to Omaha to work in the beef business (in the 1950s and early 1960s, the Omaha stockyards seemed to stretch as far as the eye could see) and the brewing industry were left with little to do after those businesses began to fail. Jobs and families were replaced by well intended but ultimately cruel federal housing projects, welfare programs, freeways, riots, racism, single-parent households, and despair. The consequences of broken families is very real. I mention all this because of my experience, for a few years from the late 60s to the early 70s, in those neighborhoods, where I came to see some of the same conditions from which Phillips emerged in LA.
Sin has personal consequences and societies are composed of individual persons. For the last 50 years the USA and other industrial and now post-industrial Western nations have conducted a Pelagian social experiment by attempting to solve social ills through manipulating circumstances but without accounting for basic, creational institutions, such as the family. After fifty years later little has changed in North Omaha. The demographics have changed. There are more Hispanic surnames. The gangs are more well-organized and well-armed but those same neighborhoods are among the most dangerous in the USA. There are no film crews in North Omaha looking for dramatic backdrops for some television show, so the conditions in North Omaha are not notorious in the way they are in Compton but they are real nonetheless.
The truth, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan saw in 1964, is that no government, whether Federal or local, can replace the family. The president is not your father or your husband. WIC is not a father or a husband. AFDC is not a husband or a father. SNAP is not a parent. No government agency can teach a young man to shave, how to drive, how to submit to authority, or how to treat others. By nature government is meant to coerce, correct, and punish. The government, at whatever level, only has a sledgehammer when what is needed is a soft hand. Like it or not, all of human history teaches us unequivocally that the natural norm is a relatively stable, heterosexual, married couple (and historically, aided by grandparents and other relatives). The family, whether composed by birth or adoption, is the only agency known to be able to produce and rear children with any degree of sustained success.
When Hillary Clinton declared that it takes a village to raise a child, the “village” in the metaphor was code for “government.” History says that it does not take government to raise a child. It takes a family. If by “village” we mean other families serving as adjuncts to the natural (or adopted) family, that is not disputable. The hubris of the Enlightenment, however, is deeply ingrained in modern social policy and many careers are dependent upon the notion that the state can make a “new man” and that reliance upon the very notion of creation, let alone that of the natural family is archaic. Yet, the evidence is all around us and we are too blind to see it. One might understand how Moynihan’s conclusions might have been disputed in the heady days just after “Camelot” but that policy wonks and social engineers continue to mock it after 50 years of empirical and anecdotal evidence only shows how Gnostic we have become. We have convinced ourselves that we are above and beyond nature and we keep repeating this mantra to ourselves right up to the point when the effects of sin upon nature take their final toll and our cold, dead bodies are wrapped in sheets and pushed down the hall for disposal.
Finally, as evidently urgent as it is, for the future well-being of society, to recover the very notion of nature and of its corollary, the natural family, it is even more important to recover the notion of grace. What Lawrence Phillips needed even more than nature was the work of sovereign, renewing grace. Many people have grown up in circumstances as damaging as Lawrence’s but they did not become violent criminals. That is due to the providence of God. Where the church is still strong, where the gospel is preached purely and the sacraments administered purely, and discipline administered God operates by his marvelous, mysterious grace to bring his people to new life and true faith in Christ. Who knows what, if any, role the church had in Phillips’ life? Instead of “it takes a village,” however, we do better to say it takes a family and the due use of ordinary means in Christ’s church. None of us is God and none of us knows what happened in that prison cell or in Phillips’ mind and heart but we can only imagine what might have been for his victims and for himself had he known with certainty the free favor of God, in Christ, to sinners. Nature provides structure but only grace provides salvation from the corruption, both personal and corporate, of nature by sin.
However politically incorrect nature may be, however heated the social media responses, Christians who are concerned about the culture and society ought to start and stand there. With respect to grace, however, we ought rather to be kneeling, as it were, with the church and in the church and seeking God’s free favor for sinners and his continuing restraint of evil in this world that the gospel might go forth freely, that the Spirit may continue to collect all that are his to the glory of Christ and the edification of his body, the church. There are other Lawrence Phillips in the world and they, as we, need the structure provided by nature and the deliverance and renewal that comes only by grace.
“The hubris of the Enlightenment, however, is deeply ingrained in modern social policy and many careers are dependent upon the notion that the state can make a “new man” and that reliance upon the very notion of creation, let alone that of the natural family is archaic. Yet, the evidence is all around us and we are too blind to see it.” Amen!
“Instead of “it takes a village,” however, we do better to say it takes a family and the due use of ordinary means in Christ’s church”. Amen and amen!!
A legit concern of many of us layman is that “the church” is increasingly co-opting that same Enligtenment hubris itself. In fact it is deeply ingrained in the American church. Increasingly in Reformed and Presbyterian churches. No longer primarily seeing itself as the administrator or under-shepherd of the ordinary means of grace, the church now sees itself as the new baptized version of social worker/ problem solver / pragmatic worker of wonders, organizers of the flocks weekly social calendar, etc.
After all no one dare argue with what has been baptized as “Kingdom work” OR ‘the work of the Lord.” Seeing itself as psychological counselor, office of job placement, social justice champion, classes on financial planning, Time management in a hectic world with your teenagers, how to succeed as a Christian businessman, etc etc. The church often heads down the road of “mission creep”. The power tripping (often do-Gooder & big government/ big non-profit) Nanny mentality in a church setting is no better the big brother mentality of big government.
Christians who are deluded into thinking that the church is somehow purely going to rise above this are mistaken and don’t fully understand the gravity of sin and total depravity. No thanks! They can keep their Protestant sacerdotalism thank you very much. (Note all the bleeding heart talk of community in evangelical and protestant circles) Good community is one thing and the church can come alongside for support or encouragement but there’s no getting around the fact that individual families, by God’s Grace and design, have the responsibility in this great task. Family is the only place to accomplish raising stable children for the future and the only institution that will ultimately make the biggest difference long term to the world at large on this topic.
**Mission Creep** — ” A gradual shift in ultimate objectives during the course of a campaign or endeavor, often resulting in unplanned long-term commitments disengaged from the original purpose.”
“What most people probably do not know is that Omaha is also home to some of the poorest neighborhoods in the USA. Families who moved to Omaha to work in the beef business (in the 1950s and early 1960s, the Omaha stockyards seemed to stretch as far as the eye could see) and the brewing industry were left with little to do after those businesses began to fail.”
Is this a ‘chicken and egg’ thing? How can any society afford to be ‘post-industrial?’ Did families start breaking under the financial strain or did failing families cause the failing businesses?
This is largely the same story in southern California which used to be the number 1 manufacturing center in the world until the Rodney King riots. All the factories were rebuilt in China. All Los Angeles has now is the port and 200,000 gang members which rival the government. Victor Davis Hanson just co-authored a book on the destruction of the state. But is the destruction of the family the cause or is the loss of industry the cause or both?
I appreciate the article about Phillips. This is very well written and I agree that we need to change our culture and get back to family values which includes the church and therefore Jesus Christ and His Mercy and Grace. Thanks for the article.
Been away for a long time, but appreciate the article Dr. Clark.
Aside, regarding mid-90s Husker football, you may be interested in this program on Brook Berringer that aired on the Big Ten Network.
Welcome back Dan.
And an update to a comment from long ago: Someone posted Smithsonian Channel’s Nebraska episode of “Aerial America” on YouTube. I’m fascinated with the Sandhills and enjoyed learning about the Ogallala aquifer.