Proselytizing Basketball Invades Public Campus (December 1995)

Constitutional principles fade into insignificance when sports enter the equation, as illustrated by a recent religious revival/basketball game at the University of Wisconsin.

The once-proud Wisconsin tradition of state/church separation was shattered at the University of Wisconsin Field House when Athletes in Action, a spinoff of the Campus Crusade for Christ, was invited to play exhibition basketball by the new University women’s coach, Jane Albright-Dieterle, who is in her second year of coaching at Wisconsin.

During the second half of the game on Sunday, November 5, the Christian group leafletted the audience with religious flyers featuring “testimonials to Jesus” by the team members. Christian speakers offered additional oral testimonials following the game.

Although the Wisconsin Badgers won the game, the aggressive proselytizing by their opponents did stir considerable controversy. Many individual students, faculty, alumni and others complained to University officials.

“Our office asked that the coach resign,” said Anne Gaylor, Foundation president. “This is not the first complaint we have had about her religious extremism. The invitation to this proselytizing team obviously originated with her.”

Formal complaints to David Ward, chancellor of the University of Wisconsin and to the athletic department have been made by the Foundation on behalf of its members. Information on payment to the proselytizing team and other entanglements is being sought under Wisconsin’s Open Records Law. Athletes in Action was guaranteed a minimum of $3,000 for their appearance, plus a dinner, complete with prayers and religious songs, with the Wisconsin team.

Lisa Foss, one of the speakers at the religious service following the game, had played for Northern Illinois when Albright-Dieterle was coaching there.

“Over the course of my college years,” Foss wrote in the group’s distributed literature, “my coach shared with me time and time again about the importance of having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Eventually I realized I wanted God in my life. I’ve always had a passion for basketball and that’s why I continue to play, but now I live life to tell people about Jesus no matter what I’m doing–playing basketball, chopping wood or teaching kids. I believe everyone deserves a chance to meet Jesus, the new passion of my life.”

In a Nov. 19 exhibition game, the women’s basketball team played an Israeli team:

“I don’t think they’d be very happy about hearing about Jesus from the UW basketball team!” Gaylor said.

University of Wisconsin officials defended the arrangement with the proselytizing team by saying that they did not know the team planned to distribute religious literature during the game, and that the athletic department had specified a post-game religious service rather than the half-time service the proselytizers preferred.

Two years ago the Foundation protested the presence of a Catholic priest as “chaplain” for the University of Wisconsin football team. He regularly was flying and staying with the team with expenses borne by the taxpayer.

“Foundation pressure and questions from reporters finally brought the admission that this violation indeed was going on,” Gaylor said, “but the priest is still with the team and still praying, supposedly at the behest of the students. We are assuming that his expenses are being picked up privately, but it is very, very difficult to get information out of the athletic department.”

That team prayers were initiated by Coach Albright-Dieterle was confirmed by one player who said that the UW women’s team prays before each game, after no one objected when Albright-Dieterle asked about doing so last year.

Albright-Dieterle told the Madison Capital Times she planned to invite Athletes in Action back. “There isn’t an issue,” she said. “This is something I hope we can do for years to come.”

A UW representative told the Capital Times that the proselytizing team would not be allowed to distribute its literature in the future during a game. The implication, however, was that the group has the blessings of the University to return and to distribute Christian literature after games. The Foundation has not received any official response yet.

The Athletes in Action women’s team played 18 exhibition games in November, 1995. All but three were played at publicly-supported universities. Schedules for its two men’s teams also show a large majority of games played at public colleges and universities.

Athletes in Action has staff members working full-time on most major sports campuses, including UCLA, Ohio State, Auburn, Penn State and Texas, whose purpose is to “lead them [players and coaches] to Christ, train them to disciple others and use their athletic platform to speak publicly about their faith,” according to the group’s literature.

The men’s and women’s basketball teams’ primary purpose “is to share the message of Jesus Christ with the thousands of spectators each night they play, as well as to the members of the opposing team.”

“Pro Challenge” goes into public schools ostensibly lecturing against drug abuse, using Athletes In Action team members to compete against students in relays, sit-up contests and basketball, but for the admitted purpose of making “a stand for Christ.”

Sponsors include Reebok and Nike.

For those wishing to complain about such sponsorship, the corporate addresses are: Reebok, 100 Tech Center Drive, Stoughton MA 02072, and, Nike, 1 Bowerman Drive, Beaverton OR 97005. The University of Wisconsin Athletic Department’s address is 1440 Monroe St., Madison WI 53711.

Freedom From Religion Foundation