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Keith Strudler: Of God And Football

Here’s the good news. If you’re Mormon, or Muslim, or Jewish, you can play football at Clemson University. In fact, you can play even if you don’t believe in God at all. That is according to Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney, who said that he recruits players of all faiths, even those with no faith. Now, he’s had to clarify that because it’s recently come to light that Clemson football, while open to all comers, does have a more active calendar for those who may be Christian.

In fact, the Freedom from Religion Foundation, an advocacy group whose orientation is fairly self-explanatory, filed a complaint against the university after uncovering details of this emphasis. Specifically, the complains include the following: that Swinney hired James Trapp as the Team Chaplain, violating even the generous provisions for having clergy on staff; that Trapp had unfiltered access to all players during practice; and that the team sponsored many Christian activities for its players, including Church Days, devotionals, and Fellowship of Christian Athlete breakfasts attended by all team members. These were some of the specific objectionable actions cited by the Foundation about Clemson football, which, according to the Foundation’s lawyer, is coercive and prostlitizing. More importantly, they also see it as unconstitutional, a claim that Clemson and Swinney staunchly deny. That determination will be made by courts, not coaches. So any talk is more political posturing than legal conjecture.

That said, Swinney and Clemson have already tried to win the hearts and minds of the public, even if they aren’t the true judge and jury. For his part, Swinney has stood by both his religious devotion and tolerance, two constructs that often co-exist in tenuous harmony. According to Swinney, Clemson football recruits must do three things: go to class, give a good effort, and be good citizens. While all of those sound aspirational, it’s the definition, at least of the third point, where things might get messy.

This is not the first such case when it comes to college athletics at public universities. In fact, Appalachian State recently admonished a football coach for proselytizing athletes. Several American public high schools have lost court cases for prayer on the field and in locker room. And schools and coaches have continued to find ways to skirt these rulings, like holding team prayer meetings off campus. It’s a fine line between illegal and unfair, particularly when a majority might see things exactly the opposite.

It is very easy, and correct, to say that religion and college football in public universities should be kept separate, just as the constitution proscribed. Although, to be fair, I can’t imagine James Madison worrying about some 300 pound lineman going to bible study after practice. Coaches do exert enormous influence on their athletes, making an optional religious activity anything but.

That said, it’s a simplification of this case to dismiss Swinney as wrong and everyone else right.  One thing we’d most all agree on it that too often, college sports and its persons – coaches, athletes, administrators, and so on – lack the moral compass to pay a traffic ticket. That is the genesis of about 50% of today’s sports news. That coaches cheat, that colleges are greedy, that teams look like furlough programs. College sports, and particularly big time college football, gets a worse rap than your average street gang.

Dabo Swinney, and let’s take his sincerity at face value, seems to want something else for his program and the young adults involved. Now, to him, Christianity is that pathway to something else, a more righteous, honorable way of living. That’s what he wants to bring to a group of athletes that, let’s be honest, as aggregate don’t always perform that way. Which isn’t a surprise, given the unusual life of a college football player, one filled with aggression, adoration, temptation, and pretty much all the sins and vices available to man. That’s what Dabo Swinney wants to do.

Now, is he doing it the right way? Well, certainly not for everyone, even if the majority of his team does follow his Christian path. And he’s certainly not doing it the legal way, which is of equal concern for those of us who think laws come in handy now and then. But let’s not make Dabo Swinney the enemy, even if he may be wrong.

Football is a game of lines. Swinney crossed one here. Hopefully, he can still preach positive values without religion. That, for people of faith or not, would be really good news.

Keith Strudler is chair of the communication department at Marist College and director for the Marist College Center for Sports Communication.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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