After Alabama, Atheist Group Looks to Take on Clemson Over Football Coach Dabo Swinney’s Christian Faith

The Associated Press
The Associated Press

When the Clemson Tigers take on Alabama’s Crimson Tide for the Football Bowl Subdivision national championship tonight, at least one group will be watching for something other than the final score on the field.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation [FFRF], a highly litigious atheist group, looks to sue Clemson University over the role head football coach Dabo Swinney’s Christian faith plays in how he runs the program.

The only problem is the group can’t find a current or former player willing to step up as a plaintiff.

“We filed a complaint [against Clemson] in 2014. At this point we don’t think the university has taken appropriate corrective action,” FFRF staff attorney Patrick Elliott tells Breitbart News.

He adds, “We still have concerns about how that program is being conducted. The university needs to appropriately monitor religious activity in the program.”

When asked specifically what those concerns are, Elliott rattled off a list.

“They need to stop doing church day. They need to cease having coaches in team prayer. And don’t know the status of their chaplaincy.”

The aggressively anti-Christian environment in which Swinney and other coaches operate today differs markedly from earlier eras in college athletics.

In the 1954, a young college basketball coach in Norman, Oklahoma, Don McClanen, “wondered why athletes endorsed products like shaving cream and cigarettes, but not a Christian lifestyle. That insight became the backbone for one of the largest organizations in the world that seeks to serve athletes and coaches, all while bringing glory to Jesus Christ.”

That year, McClanen founded the Fellowship of Christian Athletes with the help of “athletic greats who were also strong in their faith—greats like football stars Doak Walker and Otto Graham; baseball players Carl Erskine, Robin Roberts and Alvin Dark; Olympians Bob Mathias and Bob Richards; coaching and front office legends Amos Alonzo Stagg, Bud Wilkinson and Clarence “Biggie” Munn; and … broadcasters Tom Harmon and Red Barber. [Branch] Rickey, the then-Pittsburgh Pirates General Manager who had signed Jackie Robinson,” met with McClanen, helped him raise $10,000 from “a Pittsburgh businessman, FCA became a reality, chartered in Oklahoma on Nov. 10, 1954.”

Legendary University of Oklahama football coach Bud Wilkinson and his players frequently attended the inaugural FCA activities in Norman.

Throughout the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden was universally praised for the way his Christian faith permeated his operation of that school’s storied basketball program.

“Mr. Wooden liked to cite what he called his ‘Pyramid of Success,’ a combination of 15 virtues — such as industriousness, loyalty, and self-control — he considered essential to winning in life and basketball. It exemplified his attachment to the homiletic and didactic,” the Boston Globe wrote in his 2010 obituary.

“The mother of his most famous player, Abdul-Jabbar, described Mr. Wooden as being ‘more like a minister than a coach.’ A competing coach once complained of Mr. Wooden’s churchly bearing, ‘We thought we had a kid sewed up, but then Jesus Christ walked in. The kids’ parents about fell over. How can you recruit against Jesus Christ?’’’ Wooden’s obituary noted.

Fast forward sixty years from the founding of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in 1954 to 2014, when the FFRF filed a complaint with Clemson University because Swinney’s coaching style, an extension of his personal Christian faith, violates the sensibilities of the militant atheists who founded the group.

An example of the type of conduct that bothers the FFRF came in 2012, when Deandre Hopkins, now a star wide receiver for the NFL’s Houston Texans, was a junior at Clemson. Hopkins participated in the football team’s regular Church days at NewSpring Church in Anderson, South Carolina, pastored by Perry Noble, a huge Clemson fan and friend of Coach Swinney.

As the Washington Post reported:

Hopkins, approached Noble with a specific request: He was ready to be saved and wanted the pastor to baptize him — not in the church, though, but alongside his teammates. With Swinney’s blessing, an ice tub was hauled onto a Clemson practice field, land paid for by state taxpayers and filled with water.

The coach spoke briefly about the Tigers’ upcoming game against Auburn, and then he turned things over to Noble. With players and coaching surrounding them, Noble said a few words before guiding Hopkins under, water washing over the young player still in his pads.

Jeff Scott, the team’s wide receivers coach, photographed the occasion and posted it on Twitter, calling it the “highlight of my week.” Scott’s post was shared hundreds of times, eliciting praise from fans across the South — no matter their thoughts on the team Hopkins played for.

“Football may be a religion, but faith is everything,” says Jeff Champion, who as a South Carolina fan usually dislikes anything involving Clemson. “Dabo is actually giving them something they can carry with them the rest of their lives. I’m just jealous that it’s them and not us.”

“[I]t seems as if the Clemson team itself endorses this baptism,” Kelly Freeman wrote at the atheist blog Patheos at the time.

“Clemson is a public university and, while there doesn’t seem to be any legal precedence against something like this, it still makes me uneasy. Sports players are generally expected to support their teammates in any way they can and I imagine it would be very uncomfortable for an atheist that plays for Clemson to speak out against anything like this,” Freeman added.

Two years later, in 2014, the FRFF filed its complaint with Clemson University. As the Anderson (SC) Independent-Mail reported at the time:

Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney says he plans no changes in the Tiger football program in response to a recent complaint filed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation raising issues related to possible violations of the separation of church and state at a public institution.

A Wisconsin-based advocacy group, the FFRF has presented Clemson with a list of concerns related to the Christian culture prevalent in the football program, including the availability of bible study and devotional groups, transportation to church services, and the employment of former Clemson football and track athlete James Trapp as team chaplain and the placement of his office inside the football complex.

Clemson University issued a preliminary response to the FFRF complaint on April 17, outlining its answer to the charges and expressing support for Swinney and the manner in which he conducts his program.

Swinney said on Wednesday that he has no plans to make changes in his program based on the FFRF complaint.

He said he was “a little caught off guard” by the charges, and pointed to a statement he released earlier on Wednesday, prior to the ACC’s post-spring coaches’ teleconference.

“I’m very proud of the way we run our program and the culture that we have here and the young men that we develop here,” Swinney said. “To me, there’s already been too much talk about all that stuff. My statement is what it is.”

Asked specifically if he plans any changes, Swinney said “no.”

“We do things the right way and always have, and we’ll continue to run the program the way we always have,” he said.

In the statement that Swinney released on Wednesday, he said the Clemson football program welcomes players of all faiths.

“Over the past week or two, there has been a lot of discussion of my faith,” he wrote. “We have three rules in our program that everybody must follow: (1) players must go to class, (2) they must give a good effort and (3) they must be good citizens. It is as simple as that.

“I have recruited and coached players of many different faiths. Players of any faith or no faith at all are welcome in our program. All we require in the recruitment of any player is that he must be a great player at his position, meet the academic requirements, and have good character.”

Swinney went on to say that his personal faith is an integral part of who he is, as a man and a coach.

“Recruiting is very personal,” Swinney wrote. “Recruits and their families want – and deserve – to know who you are as a person, not just what kind of coach you are. I try to be a good example to others, and I work hard to live my life according to my faith.”

During his teleconference, Swinney cited former wide receiver Aaron Kelly, a Jehovah’s Witness, as an example of his program’s policy in action.

“We couldn’t have more opposite faiths,” said Swinney of Kelly. “But yet I coached him for five years, and I love Aaron Kelly and Aaron Kelly loves me and his family loves me. I never had a problem, ever, in coaching him.

“He was never a guy that went to church with us. He didn’t pray with the team if the team ever prayed together, and it was never a problem. He became the all-time leading receiver at Clemson and the ACC. It’s not about who the best Christian is, it’s about who the best player is. It always has been and it always will be.”

In its complaint dated April 10, which focused heavily on Trapp’s position as team chaplain and his office space in the WestZone, the FFRF complained that player participation in religious activities led or provided by coaches and administrators might be a violation of the separation of church and state provided by the United States Constitution. The group implied that Clemson’s Christianity-related activities might be less than voluntary, and that players choosing not to participate might be subject to ostracism or stigma.In its response, Clemson University refuted those suggestions.

“We believe the practices of the football staff regarding religion are compliant with the Constitution and appropriately accommodate differing religious views,” said the statement. “Participation in religious activities is purely voluntary, and there are no repercussions for students who decline to do so. We are not aware of any complaints from current or former student-athletes about feeling pressured or forced to participate in religious activities.

“Clemson takes very seriously its obligation to provide a comprehensive program for the development and welfare of our student-athleteswhich encompasses academic, athletic and personal support, including support for their spiritual needs.

“We will evaluate the complaints raised in the letter and will respond directly to the organization, but we believe FFRF is mistaken in its assessment. 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.”

In August 2015 the FFRF released a report, titled “Pray to Play,” which it made available to members of the Clemson football team in the apparent hope one member would step forward as a plaintiff

The report argued that:

Public universities and their employees cannot endorse, promote, or favor religion. Yet, many football coaches at public universities bring in chaplains—often from their own church or even members of their own family—to prey on and pray with students, with no regard for the rights of those students or the Constitution. These coaches are converting playing fields into mission fields and public universities are doing nothing to halt this breach of trust. They are failing their student athletes.

The purpose of this report is to expose this unconstitutional system, encourage universities to fix it, and stimulate further efforts to protect students’ rights of conscience.

“Without a player that’s willing to challenge [the football program in court], I don’t think there would be any legal action that could be taken,” FFRF’s Elliott tells Breitbart News.

“We’re not seeking someone,” Elliott claims. “If they contacted us it [representing them] would be something we could do,” he adds.

“We would challenge their action under 1st amendment and file a lawsuit,” Elliott says.

Elliott asserted that the Clemson football program violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment, but responded by laughing when Breitbart News asked how specifically the Clemson football program violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

“What news station are you with?” he asks.

“That makes a lot of sense,” he responds when told Breitbart News, before immediately hanging up.

When Breitbart News called the Freedom From Religion Foundation, we clearly identified ourselves as representing Breitbart News to the receptionist who forwarded our call to Mr. Elliott.

The establishment clause of the First Amendment reads as follows:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…

The question we were about to ask before the Freedom from Religion Foundation’s Elliott hung up on us was to name the law Congress had passed that was uniquely relevant to how Dabo Swinney’s Christian faith influences his operation of the football program at Clemson.

We also wanted to know if the FFRF intended to file a lawsuit against the United States Senate and the United States House of Representatives, both of which have an official chaplain.

Then of course, there are chaplains in the U.S. military.

As the New York Times reported, Swinney himself has an inspiring personal story, though the Times failed to mention the role his Christian faith played in his upbeat approach to life:

“Sometimes they’ll come in my office — my dad this, my mom this — and they use those things as excuses to fail, reasons for their bad behavior, and I don’t buy that,” Swinney said. “Those are reasons to not do that. Those are reasons to get more study hall in. Those are reasons to graduate because you’re trying to be a part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Swinney, 46, speaks from experience. He walked on to the Alabama football team as an undersize receiver. His mother, Carol, who had recently divorced Swinney’s father, accompanied him to campus because she had nowhere else to go.

Business setbacks had sent Swinney’s father spiraling into an alcoholic abyss, hastening the dissolution of the marriage. During his senior year of high school,

Swinney and his mother shuttled between friends’ homes after losing their house to foreclosure post-divorce. At Alabama, Swinney, the youngest of three sons, and his mother shared a bedroom in an apartment with another student.

So upbeat did Swinney remain in the face of adversity, few of his teammates knew the extent of his family’s dysfunction. He is open about it with his players.

The mainstream media appears uncertain how to approach the story of Swinney’s Christian faith as it relates to his operation of the Clemson football program.

While the New York Times ignores it, Slate Magazine plays it as a marketing angle.

“[H]e may… be the most religiously devout coach in the country,” Slate Magazine said of Swinney last month.

“This has engendered controversy among outsiders who have decried the problematic notion of a football coach at a public university embracing evangelical principles, but for Swinney, it is a natural fit, a way of both reinforcing his personal beliefs and marketing his program. It’s also a savvy embrace of the values that have long defined college football in the eyes of Southern fans,” Slate added.

The FRFF, of course, sees Swinney’s Christian faith as a test case on the First Amendment and the establishment clause.

If the militantly atheist group hopes to have any success in the courts, however, it will have to make a better argument than it did to Breitbart News.


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