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Hail Mary: College football and religion mix uncomfortably in Florida

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Robyn Blumner
November 23, 2009

College football fans in Florida think of the game as a religion. They wear special vestments that reflect the colors of their devotion. On game day, they imbibe in ceremonial hops-based drink, intone chants of adulation for their congregation of players and invoke the heavens for multiple conversions. They think of winning coaches and quarterbacks as saviors.


This is how many people in this football-addled state have a good time.


But somewhere in all this fuss, Florida's college football coaches have mistaken the religion-like fervor that surrounds the game with faith itself. They notoriously serve up religious indoctrination with Xs and Os, as if you can’t play a decent game of football without Jesus as your receiver.


When the University of South Florida was roundly whupped by Rutgers, 31-0, earlier this month, coach Jim Leavitt told his team in the locker room, “Let’s say the Lord’s Prayer and move on. It wasn’t the Lord’s fault.”


(As a nonbeliever, I’ve never understood why the Lord is thanked for his role in a victory but is not responsible for a loss. Wasn’t God obviously for the other team? And do believers really think football outcomes are the human trivia God concerns himself with?)


But Leavitt’s intrusion into his players’ personal religious beliefs is nothing compared with what is inflicted at other Florida schools.


At Florida A&M, coach Joe Taylor takes his players to church. Last season he took his entire team to services on the first three Sundays of preseason practice. He told the New York Times that his philosophy is “you can’t be a champion on game day. … It starts with church on Sunday and classes on Monday and the weight room on Tuesday.”


Really? To be a champion starts with church on Sunday? And what about the Muslim player or the Jewish player or the guy who just doesn’t believe? Not champion material?


Then there’s preacher Bobby Bowden, the evangelist coach of Florida State University. He makes no bones about proselytizing his players. Bowden, a Baptist originally from Birmingham, Ala., says he always intended to use his position as a coach to expose his recruits to his personal religious views.


Bowden told the Tallahassee Democrat in September that one of his most significant roles is “being a witness. I don’t want any of my players to go away from here not knowing about it.”


He says there is no animus toward players who choose not to hear his message. Still, wouldn’t most parents feel they’d be putting their son’s football dreams in jeopardy by telling Bowden to stop indoctrinating their kid?


All this is patently illegal, of course. These are state schools funded with taxpayer dollars, and the students who attend are constitutionally guaranteed not to have their coaches lead them in prayer or harangue them with good-news testimonials. But the athletic directors and university presidents wouldn’t dream of treading on their coaches’ sanctified turf, afraid of a backlash from devout and devoted boosters as wrathful as any Old Testament plague.


Those who are not offended by Christian proselytizing probably think it’s just fine if coaches use religion to build character and cohesion. More than likely, a majority of players don’t mind their football mixed with Christian ritual. But that’s not the point.


These coaches are sending the message that the Christian faith is key to being a great athlete and an upstanding person, a notion that is not only demonstrably false, it is highly intolerant. What if the coach were a Muslim and Islam was being ingrained? I’m guessing that church-state separation guarantees would have renewed meaning.


Florida’s college football coaches have turned religion by the sword to religion by the scored. Either get with the program or you may be deemed not a team player.


This is not a game that college football athletes should be forced to play.


Robyn Blumner is a civil liberties and labor law expert who writes about individual freedom, trade, globalization and workers’ rights. She is a columnist for the St. Petersburg Times in St. Petersburg, Fla., and syndicated by Tribune Media Services. E-mail her at blumner@sptimes.com.

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