Coach Dabo Swinney and his Clemson football program face a blitz again.
This time it’s not South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney seeking to slam their quarterback into the turf, or even a lighthearted sound-byte from Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier aiming to bringing them down a notch. Instead, it’s an oddly dour out-of-state assault in the form of a complaint filed against the football program by the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), an atheist rights group from Wisconsin. The FFRF claims that Swinney’s program is “entangled” and “entrenched” in religion. Prayers and Bible studies instituted by the team from at least 2011 through April of 2013 serve as the basis for the complaint.
The motivation of the Wisconsin group is up for debate, given that there haven’t been any complaints lodged by any Tiger football player, and that these kinds of activities are hardly unique to Clemson. Nonetheless, the FFRF claims that religion has become “interwoven” into the program, and that this entanglement was initiated by state-funded employees on the coaching staff and not by the athletes.
Clemson officials are not backing down, telling the Raleigh News and Observer that the FFRF is “mistaken in its ssessment.” The school released a statement saying, “We believe the practices of the football staff regarding religion are compliant with the Constitution and appropriately accommodate differing religious views. Participation in religious activities is purely voluntary, and there are no repercussions for students who decline to do so.”
Perhaps anticipating the argument that there must have been playing time repercussions for non-Christians from such an overtly Christian coach and staff, the statement made it clear that they are “not aware of any complaints from current or former student-athletes about feeling pressured or forced to participate in religious activities.”
If players had complained, it is reasonable to assume that their complaints would certainly have been part of the FFRF’s official complaint. So with no plaintiffs and no specifics, why Clemson and why now? After all, Swinney hardly serves as the only overtly Christian football coach in the country, and almost every major college game now ends with many players from both teams huddling in prayer on the field. The problem seems to focus on Swinney personally, and also team Chaplain James Trapp, a former player Swinney chose for that role.
Citing what they claim is a university rule, FFRF notes that student organizations must nominate their chaplains to administrators for approval before they can serve. Trapp, a two sport star at Clemson who went on to Olympic and NFL acclaim, likely would have been approved easily.
The co-president of the FFRF, Annie Laurie Gaylor, told the News and Observer that “there are churches on every other corner, tax-free, where you can go and pray and you can go to Bible study, but it shouldn’t be through the athletic department. You can have Bible study groups on campus, but they’re supposed to be run by students.”
The FFRF claims “100 new legal successes” on their website, including a complaint against Appalachian State and former coach Jerry Moore. App State capitulated, and issued a statement saying that Moore’s activities “had no legitimate place in the University’s athletic program.” Clemson has no intention of being success number 101 for the group, saying in a statement that “the Supreme Court has expressly upheld the right of public bodies to employ chaplains and has noted that the use of prayer is not in conflict with the principles of disestablishment and religious freedom.”
This story promises to develop further, likely including even more coaches and programs. And it’s far more than just a sports story–it speaks to cultural tensions in the country. App State and Clemson are not that far from each other as the crow flies, but one thing is clear from their two experiences: the liberal bohemian culture of Boone, NC is a million miles from the conservative culture prevalent in upstate South Carolina.