New York Times
Increasingly, Football's Playbooks Call for Prayer
By JOE DRAPE
October 30, 2005
Every preseason for 30 years, Coach Bobby Bowden has taken his Florida State football players to a church in a white community and a church in a black community in the Tallahassee area in an effort, he said, to build camaraderie. He writes to their parents in advance, explaining that the trips are voluntary, and that if they object, their sons can stay home without fear of retaliation. He remembers only one or two players ever skipping the outing.
Since becoming the football coach at Georgia in 2001, Mark Richt, too, has taken his team to churches in the preseason. A devotional service is conducted the night before each game, and a prayer service on game day. Both are voluntary, and Mr. Richt said he does not attend them.
On game days, Penn State players may choose between Catholic and Protestant services or not go at all. Coach Joe Paterno and the team say the Lord's Prayer in the locker room after games.
As in politics and culture in the United States, college football is increasingly becoming a more visible home for the Gospel. In the past year more than 2,000 college football coaches participated in events sponsored by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, which said that more than 1.4 million athletes and coaches from youth to professional levels had attended in 2005, up from 500,000 in 1990.
Mr. Bowden believes that prayer and faith are part of the American way.
"Most parents want their boys to go to church," he said. "I've had atheists, Jews, Catholics and Muslims play for me, and I've never not started a boy because of his faith. I'm Christian, but all religions have some kind of commandments, and if kids would obey them, the world would be a better place."
But others raise concerns about separation of church and state.
"This is a lawsuit waiting to happen, and I believe university administrations are playing a game of chicken," the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, a lawyer and executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said. "But eventually, you got to believe that one kid is going to say, 'I've had enough,' and step forward."
The spiritual fervor of some coaches and athletes at public institutions, however, did not escape notice at the high school level this month. Marcus Borden, the football coach in East Brunswick, N.J., resigned rather than stop participating in a player-initiated pregame prayer, as he was ordered to do by the district after parents complained. He returned to his team after agreeing not to pray, but is considering a legal challenge.
Last June, in the wake of a Pentagon task force investigating broader allegations of religious intolerance at the Air Force Academy, Fisher DeBerry, the football coach, stopped leading pregame prayers and removed a banner in the Falcons' locker room. It bore the Fellowship of Christian Athletes' Competitors Creed, which begins "I am a Christian first and last."
"The problem inherently is the hierarchal nature of the player-coach relationship, where the coach is all-powerful," Mr. Lynn said. "Team members want face time and playing time. And if they don't go along with what the coach offers, they fear that they will become second-stringers."
Peer pressure in a group dynamic, Mr. Lynn said, has prevented any college player from coming forward to mount a legal challenge. No one wants to alienate a coach, especially a popular one.
In 2000, the United States Supreme Court reaffirmed its decisions against officially sponsored prayer in public schools in a case involving a district in Santa Fe, Tex., where prayers preceded high school football games over the public-address system.
The 6-to-3 majority opinion by Justice John Paul Stevens said that even when attendance is voluntary and when the decision to pray is made by students, "the delivery of a pregame prayer has the improper effect of coercing those present to participate in an act of religious worship," which violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment.
That may be the law, but God has long played a prominent role in the game's mythology, from the postcards of the former Alabama Coach Bear Bryant walking on water, to the mosaic of Christ with raised arms on a Notre Dame library that looms above the football stadium and is known as Touchdown Jesus.
"It's an awkward issue to raise because much of these things are grounded in boosting team morale and building unity more than hard gospel," Leo Sandon, professor emeritus of religion and American studies at Florida State, said. "When you juxtapose it with the iconic status of some of these coaches, it becomes more daunting and doesn't get much comment. "
Mr. Richt, 45, was once Mr. Bowden's assistant at Florida State and has followed his successful ways on the field. Entering yesterday, the Bulldogs (7-0) were ranked No. 4, while the Seminoles (6-1) were No. 10 in the Associated Press news media poll. Mr. Richt has also followed his mentor's lead by making his private faith a matter of public record.
He has one supporter with a different perspective: Musa Smith, a rookie running back for the N.F.L. Baltimore Ravens, who played at Georgia. Smith was reared a Muslim and did not attend chapel services with his teammates. When he did pray with them, he stuck to his own prayers. Mr. Smith said he was inspired by the example set by Mr. Richt.
"At the end of the day, it was about strengthening your spiritual foundations and to walk in a righteous way in whatever you believe," Mr. Smith said. "It reminded me of my fundamentals and made me a better person."
Mr. Bowden, 75, who has been outspoken about his faith throughout his 50-year career, does not doubt that he has kept critics at bay because of his success and his popularity in north Florida, where the predominantly Christian population recognizes one of its own in his folksy ways.
"I win too many games," said Mr. Bowden, who is major college football's most successful coach with 357 victories.
Neither Mr. Richt nor Mr. Bowden drinks alcohol or smokes, and both adhere to a spiritual regimen. Mr. Richt reads a chapter of Proverbs a day, and prays between meetings and before interviews; Mr. Bowden begins his day at 4 a.m. with an hour of reading the Bible and is known for offering fiery church sermons.
Each believes that by exemplifying his religious values he can develop not only better players, but also better students, sons, husbands and fathers.
Center David Castillo, who is in his final season at Florida State, said that Mr. Bowden has been sensitive to the diversity of his players. The pregame and postgame prayers Mr. Bowden leads are nondenominational and directed at the safety of both teams and those traveling to see them, Mr. Castillo said.
"He tells us that he doesn't care if we don't believe what he does, "Mr. Castillo, who is preparing for medical school, said. "But he wants us to believe in something."
Mr. Bowden, however, injected himself in the Air Force controversy when he told attendees of a Fellowship of Christian Athletes event in Colorado Springs, home of the academy, that Mr. DeBerry was in a "heck of a battle because he happens to be a Christian, and he wants his boys to be saved."
"I want my boys to be saved," Mr. Bowden added.
In fact, he said, when about 70 percent of his players come from single-parent homes, or are reared by an extended family, it is his right and responsibility to be candid about his faith. "You got 90 kids in a history or psychology classroom around here, and a professor can stand up and say anything he wants in creation," Mr. Bowden said recently in an interview at his office. "Why can't I tell my boys what I believe?"
Ron Riccio, who is representing Mr. Borden in New Jersey, said God and religion have not been swept away by the government: the Pledge of Allegiance, and the words In God We Trust remain on currency. Legislative bodies often begin sessions with a prayer, and "you have nearly every president in history saying, 'God bless America,' " Mr. Riccio, who teaches constitutional law at Seton Hall's law school, said.
Mr. Sandon, the retired Florida State professor, has had an amicable relationship with Mr. Bowden since serving as a member of the university's athletic board. But in his syndicated newspaper column, Religion in America, Mr. Sandon criticized Mr. Bowden's remarks regarding Mr. DeBerry and Air Force.
"Don't make any mistake - the biggest man around here is Bobby Bowden, and I have never seen any president or athletic director call him to heel," Mr. Sandon said. "If you have a strong religious dimension to your program, there is going to be church-and-state issues."
Despite the Santa Fe decision, T. K. Wetherell, the president of Florida State, said he did not believe Mr. Bowden had violated the Constitution, nor was he worried that Mr. Bowden would.
"Coach Bowden has the right and ability to speak his mind, as do all of our faculty," Mr. Wetherell said. "He doesn't push his views on his players. It gets back basically to the academic-freedom issue, and we give that some leeway for all our faculty and staff. He understands that he works for a public institution."
So does Mr. Richt. Yet in 2001 and 2003, Americans United for Separation of Church and State wrote to Georgia saying that Mr. Richt's program was in violation of the establishment clause. In both instances, Stephen M. Shewmaker, the executive director of legal affairs at Georgia, replied that because participation was voluntary the university had found no violations of the Constitution.
Mr. Richt has shown he is sensitive to both the threats to the Constitution and public opinion. In 2002, after Georgia clinched the Southeastern Conference East title, he began his news conference with religious comments. He was criticized by some fans and the news media, and subsequently apologized.
"My goal is not to cause somebody grief or to make anyone upset," Mr. Richt said. "My goal is to love these guys and put them in a situation where they can grow up to be the best men they can be. We are an authority over them, and I have influence over them, and I take that responsibility seriously."