Praying at midfield
This is definitely not the first time I’ve talked about this, or something like this. And I’ve typically had the same basic take each time, which is pretty rare if you talk out loud enough. I’m talking about the case of Joseph Kennedy, a former football coach at Bremerton High School in Bremerton, Washington near Seattle. But to be clear, I could and have been talking about any number of public high school coaches and players. Kennedy, who coached at Bremerton from 2008 to 2016, was and is a devout Christian, and vowed to pray on the field after every game, typically at midfield. And, not surprisingly, some of his athletes decided to join him. He led them in prayer both on the field and in the locker room, something he admitted later was wrong, until in 2015 when the School asked him to stop. Kennedy agreed to stop leading prayers, but he still wanted to pray himself at the end of games at midfield, which led to an eventual suspension and, in 2016, the end of his time at Bremerton High School. That, in a nutshell, is the story, one not that dissimilar to others like it involving coaches, players, and prayer.
This ended up in court when in 2019 the Supreme Court declined to get involved after a lower court ruled in favor of the School. End of story. Until this year, when a new, more conservative court did hear the case this past Monday, and by all accounts, seems poised to be far more understanding of the Coach’s arguments and intentions, one that hits at the core of sports, religion, free speech, and secondary education. So pretty much 75% of all American hot button issues. Justices seemed to infer that there could be a difference between running a prayer group in the gym and paying respects to Jesus after the game. That is likely to be the distinction given and something of a sea change in relationship between school sports and religion. For those of this who grew up down South like I did, this doesn’t seem all that surprising.
I’m going to leave aside the potential ramifications of this case on the larger divide between church and state, or church and public education. Instead, I’d like to talk just about schools, sports, and prayer, interwoven constructs since the days of the Ancient Olympics. Generally speaking, I’ve been 100% against school coaches doing any kind of prayer in or around public school sports, something that seemed an official part of Texas high school sports growing up. My views are for all the expected reasons – it’s pushing religion in state funded education, it feels mandated, and it’s exclusionary in practice. And it’s likely illegal, or at least it used to be. I’m sure much of my perspective is based on my own experiences as one of the only Jewish athletes in a sea of Christian muscularity, where Young Life meetings were a way of life. And now, I certainly wouldn’t want my kids, both scholastic athletes in 6th and 9th grades, to feel any kind of similar pressures. So by and large, my opinions haven’t changed, and I’d largely like for any coach who holds inherent authority to save his benedictions for postgame.
That said, for some reason, I can’t get over this ever so slight subtext of doubt, this small yet incomprehensible feeling of empathy for Coach Kennedy. Not to hold church sessions at school or proselytize, but simply to do something that he obviously feels is a north star in his life, one that admittedly wasn’t always so centered. And as much as I fervently believe that’s it’s a full-on Vaseline slippery slope from praying at midfield to bible study, I still seem to want to contextualize his actions as believing in something bigger than himself, which these days is fairly refreshing. And perhaps as religion has been so weaponized and bastardize over the past several years, maybe the thought of a coach simply praying after a game feels oddly refreshing.
I know this is naïve and likely missing a whole lot of detail. And I also believe that this Supreme Court decision could have more bad consequence that we can imagine. And I still believe that prayer and public school should remain like, well, church and state. I’m just saying that as I get older, perhaps my perspective ages as well.
The good news is, I don’t have to make a final verdict today. It’s not the first time I’ve talked about this topic, and it definitely don’t be the last.
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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