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God and the Gridiron

posted: 4.25.14 by Donna Winchell

There seems always to be some scandal in college football. This time my university’s football coach is being criticized for “religious coercion” by the Freedom from Religion Foundation, the same group, based in Michigan, that recently attacked the local school board here in South Carolina for letting a student lead an opening prayer at each meeting of the board. As the Huffington Post summed it up in a headline, “Clemson University’s Football Accused of ‘Christian Worship’ by Atheist Group.” The FFRF is condemning Clemson University’s head football coach, Dabo Swinney, for crossing the line that the Constitution establishes between church and state. The religious culture surrounding Clemson football has even been the topic for an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  As is so often the case with controversies that make headlines, this one is good for our students to explore as an example of argumentation.

What is the FFRF’s support for the claim that Swinney violates the Constitution? He encourages his players to attend church and uses team buses to transport them. He recruited a former player as team chaplain when the University’s rules say that the players should select and recruit their own chaplain.  That chaplain offers Bible study between drills, has Bible verses on his whiteboard and Bibles for distribution in his office, and holds meetings about baptism. As Brad Wolverton, the author of the Chronicle article reports, “At Clemson, God is everywhere. The team’s chaplain leads a Bible study for coaches every Monday and Thursday. Another three times a week, the staff gathers for devotionals. Nearly every player shows up at a voluntary chapel service the night before each game.” A prime example of what the FFRF is opposed to came in 2012 when a player was baptized after practice one day, still in uniform, while his teammates looked on.

The University’s response is that none of this is unconstitutional because participation in any of these religious activities is strictly voluntary. The baptism was after practice was over, for example, and attending worship with the team is not required of anyone. The FFRF’s concern, of course, is whether players feel coerced to participate by a coach who holds their careers as college players and perhaps their careers after college in his hands. The Foundation sees it as a matter of discrimination against students who are not religious.

Is the University’s position defensible? For our students, such a controversy is a “real life” example of what we teach in our argumentation classes.

[Photo Credit: By Parker Anderson from Fliker; No Changes; Creative Commons License]

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