The legacy of a faithful pioneer in mainstream media and sports

GREENVILLE, Ill. -- Two decades ago, Bob Briner made a radical decision as he edged away from his 35-year career in pro sports and global media: He sold his homes in Dallas, Texas and Paris, France, and moved to a quiet town in southern Illinois.

The goal was to pass on what he had learned while mentoring students at his alma mater, Greenville College. He hosted Bible studies, helped students find jobs and spent time hanging out and talking sports.

But Briner kept hearing one awkward question over and over, after the release of his book "Roaring Lambs," a bestseller urging believers to get more involved in mass culture. People kept asking if he was going to start producing "Christian media."

Briner always tried to change the subject. Truth is, he once told me, most of his fellow evangelicals would not appreciate his answer. Many would be offended.

"I decided I wasn't tough enough to work in Christian media," he said, a few weeks before he died of cancer in 1999.

"You see, it never offended me when secular people acted like secular people," he explained. "What I couldn't understand was why so many Christians I did business with didn't act like Christians. I found that things were actually worse -- in terms of basic ethics -- in the Christian media than in the mainstream. That really hurt. So I decided I wasn't tough enough for Christian media."

Anyone who knew the man would recognize those words as "quintessential RAB," said retired Greenville College President Robert "Ish" Smith, using the initials that formed Briner's nickname. Smith and Briner met at age 12 on a church baseball team in Dallas, and were friends for life, including during college.

That combination of faith and candor is part of Briner's legacy, said Smith during events this week to open the Briner School of Business at Greenville College.

"I would say that RAB was my best friend, but he was also my worst enemy," said Smith, laughing. "He was super critical, especially of the people and institutions he loved the most -- like the church and the media and this college. He had very high standards and he always wanted you to be your best. ...

"That toughness was rooted in how much he cared about people. He was a tough friend, but once he was your friend, he stuck with you."

Those high standards grew out of Briner's work in the hyper-competitive world of professional sports. He was a media professional for the Miami Dolphins and then general manager of the pro hoops franchise that would become the San Antonio Spurs. He helped build the Association of Tennis Professionals, then became a global media trailblazer by starting ProServ Television. He won an Emmy with tennis legend Arthur Ashe for the documentary "A Hard Road to Glory."

The bottom line: Briner refused to applaud when Christians produced safe Christian products sold to Christian consumers in a Christian niche marketplace.

Briner spoke his mind throughout the 1990s, producing seven books in six years and, at the time of his death, was finishing another. On the manuscript he showed me, it was called "Christians Have Failed America: And Some of Us are Sorry." It was released as "Final Roar."

"Actually, the title RAB wanted pretty much says it all," said Smith. "He didn't get milder with age."

During the years I knew him -- from 1993 through 1999 -- Briner's views kept evolving as he dug into the work of religious believers in television, movies, popular music, journalism and the fine arts. At first, he feared that there weren't enough Christian artists who "really had what it takes" to make competitive, mainstream products. In the end, he decided that this was not the real issue.

"We have people who can tell stories, write songs and be funny," he said. "We have lots of talented people. I've decided that this isn't the problem. Our biggest problem is that we don't have enough people who know how to handle the money, so that the talented people can do what they need to do."

When it comes to doing business in the real world, he concluded, "We simply haven't been doing our best. We haven't been getting the job done. We have failed to show up when it counts."