University Of Toledo Football Coach Caught Leading Prayers

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screencap of Coach Matt Campbell leading prayer at University of Toledo 2012
Coach Matt Campbell leads prayer before a game at the University of Toledo in 2012

Last week, the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) sent a letter to the University of Toledo to advise them that their head football coach Matt Campbell violated the 1st amendment by leading his team in prayer before a game in 2012. Coaches, just like any other teacher, should NOT be leading prayers at a public school since the students don’t have a real choice to participate and the coach is making a big assumption that all the players believe the same way he does.

A nontheist advocacy group is using a University of Toledo YouTube video as the basis for its allegation that the UT football program and head coach Matt Campbell violated the U.S. Constitution by praying before its 2012 game against Bowling Green State University.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit organization, sent a letter dated May 21 from its staff attorney to incoming UT president Sharon Gaber in which it asked the university to begin an immediate investigation into “this serious and flagrant violation of the First Amendment.”

Mr. Campbell, through UT spokesman Paul Helgren, declined comment.

UT spokesman Jon Strunk issued a statement to The Blade that said: “UT is in receipt of a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation regarding UT’s football program and is reviewing its contents.”

The complaint is based upon a YouTube video sanctioned and promoted by UT.

Group asks UT Rockets to end pregame prayers

The article on line includes a large picture of the coach leading prayers at the end of the 2015 spring game so FFRF is correct to assume the practice wasn’t just a one time thing.

The article, written by the Toledo Blade actually offers up previous legal cases that support the FFRF view of the coach led prayers. In Mellen v. Bunting, decided in 2003, a federal court agreed that “the emphasis on unity and conformity at VMI, as well as the pervasively coercive nature of all aspects of its operations, rendered the prayer unconstitutional.”

Participating on a football team isn’t any different then being in a military unit. Working together, conformity, and doing what one is told is the hallmark of team sports. If coach tells you to bring it in and to bow your head, a player doesn’t really have a choice or at least knows they have a choice. Part peer pressure and part cult of the coach, a player is forced to participate or look like he/she isn’t being a team player.

It’s also very arrogant for a coach to assume all his players are not only Christians but are also all believers.

Initial commenters on the Blade’s story of course were outraged that someone was trying to keep players from praying. Some commenters even thought the players really have a choice.

The players don’t have to stop praying. The coach needs to stop leading the prayers because the players don’t really have a choice if the coach tells you to do something. That is the point of the letter.

That is why Coach Campbell leading the prayers is a violation of the 1st amendment.

(pregame prayer starts about the 1:33 mark)


This post was originally posted on the website for the Secular Coalition for Ohio. Used with permission.


*Update* June 12th 2015

Coach Matt Campbell and the University released statements that indicated the coach would not lead prayers but let the players make their own decisions:

Responding to an allegation that he violated the First Amendment by leading a pregame prayer, University of Toledo coach Matt Campbell said in a statement today that UT players will determine individually how to prepare for games in the future.

The comments were Mr. Campbell’s first in response to a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based non-profit, which sent a May 21 letter to incoming UT president Sharon Gaber detailing what it believed to be a constitutional violation.

In the statement, Mr. Campbell did not explicitly say the team will not pray any longer, but that players will prepare for games of their own volition.

“To ensure UT football continues to bring people together, players will determine on their own any personal preparation methods to help them mentally prepare to play the game we love,” Campbell said in the statement.

Toledo football players to personally choose preparation

That is exactly the resolution that FFRF wanted and is the solution that was needed even if the coach didn’t admit he did anything wrong.

The players will probably still kneel in prayer as a “response” and they might even invite the coach to join them. As long as the coach or staff doesn’t lead the prayer then it doesn’t matter what the players decide.


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