Last week I posted about a letter the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent to the President of the University of Toledo complaining about the head football coach Matt Campbell being seen, in a video, leading a prayer before a game in 2012. The Toledo Blade published an editorial, on May 29th, supporting Coach Campbell and I had a letter to the editor published responding to their wrong conclusion.
The Blade editorial seemed to say the only thing wrong was that the prayers were made public when the University posted the video on YouTube.
Pre and post-game prayers are a long-standing tradition among high school and college athletes. You may not see a team at prayer, only because it usually occurs in the privacy of a locker room.
The University of Toledo’s football team is under fire because of a YouTube video that showed head coach Matt Campbell and his team praying before their 2012 game against Bowling Green State University. A “nontheist” advocacy group charges that the football program and Coach Campbell violated the U.S. Constitution. That assertion is overblown.
The prayer circle was a private, voluntary gathering, and should have remained such. The university official or officials who signed off on posting the video made a sizable mistake. They opened the university to criticism — and possibly legal action — from a group that targets even the most minute violation of alleged separation of church and state.
While understanding the prayer could cause a legal issue, the newspaper claimed it happens all the time so just move along. Obviously, whoever wrote the editorial has no idea what the FFRF is about or why separation of church and state is important. I also noticed a sneer by putting nontheist is scare quotes.
Dave Hackenberg, a Blade Sports columnist, pretty much said the same thing as the editorial.
In my role as co-chair for the Secular Coalition for Ohio, I sent in a letter to the editor which was finally published on June 4th:
We take exception to the conclusion of your May 29 editorial “Flag on the play,” about pregame and postgame prayers by the University of Toledo football team led by head coach Matt Campbell.
There is a legal problem with the coach leading prayers even if the action wasn’t public or in a video posted on YouTube. Running a red light isn’t illegal only if you get caught.
Participating on a football team isn’t any different from being in a military unit. Working together, conformity, and doing what one is told are the hallmarks of team sports.
If the coach tells you to bow your head, a player doesn’t really have a choice, or at least know he or she has a choice. Part peer pressure and part cult of the coach, a player is forced to participate or look like he or she isn’t a team player.
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 to participate if the coach tells you to do something. That was the point of the letter sent to UT from the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
The day before my letter appeared, the Blade published an article in the sports section where legal experts agreed with FFRF and had the same view as my letter.
The practice of praying before or after games is not unique to Toledo. Many football teams at public high schools and public universities pray, though Mr. Friedman said the commonality of prayer in football likely makes no difference.
In the circumstances shown in the video, Friedman said it was evident that Campbell was speaking as the coach, not in private. Even if the majority of people are not offended by the prayer, Friedman said he believes it is not protected by the First Amendment.
“It’s really a question of whether they’re speaking on behalf of the university or they’re speaking in their private capacity,” Mr. Friedman said. “Here, it’s pretty clear [Campbell] is not speaking in his private capacity.”
We will see if anything comes of the complaint. I would like to see the coach not lead the prayers and the players specifically told they don’t have to participate in the prayers if they don’t want to for religious or freedom of conscience reasons.
*Note* In case the links above don’t work or you would like to see the articles and letter, here is a link to a pdf document with screenshots.