Public schools not place for coach’s evangelism

Freedom Newspapers

Football coaches are football coaches: We don’t expect them to be political science professors.

But we still have to take issue with some of the comments made by Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden at Sunday’s meeting of the Southern Colorado Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

Bowden, in defending Air Force Academy football coach Fisher DeBerry against accusations that he helped contribute to a climate of religious intolerance at the school by turning coaching sessions into revival meetings, said the following: “Fisher is fighting a heck of a battle over here at your academy (with) the U.S. government. He’s fighting a heck of a battle because he happens to be a Christian, and he wants his boys to be saved.”

Later Bowden said: “The coach has a responsibility to these boys to try to influence their spiritual life, their physical life and their academic life. … We know we’re going to get challenged on it, but that’s what we believe in. I ain’t gonna back down.”

These comments reflect a mindset we find troubling, quite frankly. We have no problem with either man’s religious convictions, or their sharing those ideas and values with student athletes in the appropriate context. But when these coaches are employed by schools partially or fully funded by taxpayers, the game has rules everyone must follow, whatever their win-loss record.

Character development is part of a coach’s job; preaching, proselytizing and pressuring athletes to pray (even if it’s for a game-winning field goal) is not, at least at a public school.

To portray DeBerry as a martyr being persecuted by “the government” for his religious beliefs, as Bowden did, is inflammatory and wrong-headed. It’s also likely to hand ammunition to the rabid secularists who are using an extreme reading of the Constitution’s “establishment” clause to purge all religion from the public square. Now, they’ll be better able to paint DeBerry and other school officials as obstinate zealots who still don’t get it.

If the coaches want to “battle” the government over church-state separation — as Bowden’s comments suggest — they should do their coaching at a private school, where taxpayers aren’t subsidizing their evangelizing, or in the professional ranks. There are lines at public schools, just as there are lines on the football gridiron, it’s wrong to cross. And respecting those limits shouldn’t be portrayed as “backing down.”

If a private college doesn’t mind its locker rooms being used as churches, under the football coach’s ministry, that’s the college’s affair. The burning desire to win has a way of relegating matters of principle to the cheap seats. But the United States Air Force Academy is a special institution, with a singular responsibility for upholding fundamental American principles.

One of those principles is that government institutions should be free from religious preferences, prejudice or indoctrination. That doesn’t mean free from religion, in our view, but free from the perception that any one religion is officially endorsed. The second is that taxpayers of varying faiths, or no faith at all, shouldn’t be asked to subsidize the dissemination of religious ideas with which they disagree.

All academy officials, including the football coach, have a special obligation to recognize and abide by these simple principles, even when the media spotlight isn’t shining on them.

We’re among those who tend to believe too much has probably been made of religious tensions on campus. It strikes us as inconsistent that the school can be both a den of iniquity, as suggested by the so-called sex scandals, and something akin to a Christian monastery, as some observers or critics now suggest. And we believe school leaders have shown that they are serious about dealing with the aberrations on both sides.

But when we hear Bowden describing DeBerry as a Christian martyr, and rooting on his “battle” against “the government,” we begin to wonder whether there really might be a more serious problem after all.