UW Clips Badger Priest’s Wings (March 1994)

A Catholic priest, who has been leading pre-game and post-game locker room prayers for the Wisconsin Badgers football team, may no longer be allowed to accompany the team on its flights, and public money will no longer be spent for his travel and accommodations.

These restrictions were announced by the University of Wisconsin Office of Administrative Legal Services following a complaint by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which asked UW Chancellor David Ward for an investigation of Rev. Michael Burke’s relationship to the team.

Burke is rector of Holy Name Seminary where the football team has held its preseason practice for several years. The Foundation also had asked the University to sever that contractual relationship.

In 1986, following a Foundation complaint that then-coach David McClain was asking players to kneel and pray with him, the Wisconsin Attorney General’s office issued its opinion that such prayers were unconstitutional. That abuse was halted.

The Foundation’s initial inquiries to the current athletic department regarding Burke’s status were met with evasion, misleading statements and, eventually, stonewalling.

“It was not an uplifting experience,” said Anne Gaylor, Foundation president. “Originally we were told the priest was ‘just a friend.’ We were told he did not lead team prayers. We were told he reimbursed the department for his expenses, or (take your choice) that his expenses had been paid by a booster club. Eventually, all of this proved to be untrue.”

With one exception, Wisconsin media, accustomed to being cheerleaders in covering sports, gave cursory and dismissive coverage to the emerging scandal. Madison’s conservative morning daily, the Wisconsin State Journal, published two inaccurate and incomplete reports and then editorialized against the Foundation complaint on the basis of their inaccurate, incomplete information.

Only one reporter, Jennifer Galloway, an intern at the Capital Times in Madison, persisted with the story, following leads and interviewing two players who confirmed that contrary to the athletic department’s pronouncements, the priest indeed was conducting team prayers, both before and after games. Galloway was chided by an athletic department official who said that football players were not to be contacted at home.

“It’s all mind-boggling,” Gaylor said. “First the public is told that Burke’s role is only that of ‘supporter and friend.’ And then, look at the record. The priest is in the thick of things as a clergyperson, parasitically ubiquitous.”

In 1993 Burke was with the team for all home games, all road games, flew to Japan with the team where he gave a stadium-wide invocation, flew to the Rose Bowl with the team (a 10-day junket), went to meet Vice-President Gore with the team, led prayers in locker rooms across the country, led prayers with players at hotels and gave a daily Mass at the training camp–all under the auspices of a public university.

The stage is set for Burke’s continued presence.

In its news release of Feb. 18, stating that Burke might no longer be a member of the official team party on flights and would no longer be subsidized by the University, the University said that players in the future could decide if they wanted someone to lead them in prayers, as long as the decision was theirs and not that of the coaching staff. If Burke was their choice, that would be acceptable.

“Since such an announcement presumably would come from coaches already known to approve of Burke, it is difficult to see how current practices will change,” Gaylor said. “Coach Alvarez regards Burke as a ‘special friend,’ and what player is going to risk his good standing with his coach or risk his scholarship by saying, ‘Let’s just play football!'”

Furthermore, locker room prayers would not only violate the Attorney General’s opinion and the state constitutional prohibition on sectarian instruction, but the UW-Madison’s own policy on prayer at UW functions. In 1977, after a complaint by Annie Laurie Gaylor, then a UW student, and the Foundation, the University of Wisconsin-Madison dropped commencement prayers. Nor would this new-UW pro-prayer policy conform to the recent Weisman decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Under Wisconsin’s Open Records Law, the Foundation requested records from the athletic department relating to contracts and payments.

“It took almost three weeks before they sent anything and then it was a two-pound pile of forms, many irrelevant, and not a copy of a canceled check in the lot,” Gaylor said. “Despite incomplete hotel and food bills, we were able to piece together that Burke cost the public at least $6,000 for the 1993 season.”

The University said that a booster club will reimburse for Burke’s expenses to Japan and to the Rose Bowl. “We’ve heard that one before, too,” Gaylor said.

The Foundation’s request that the relationship with Holy Name Seminary be terminated was denied. Although a four-year contract with Holy Name ended in 1993, the athletic department apparently is free to continue a noncompetitive bidding arrangement to use Holy Name Seminary facilities for pre-season practice. In 1993 the University paid almost $60,000 to Holy Name Seminary for a two-week period.

The coaching staff maintains Holy Name is the only place to go despite practice facilities built by taxpayers on the Wisconsin campus and empty campus dormitories in August.

The Diocesan newspaper, the Catholic Herald, has described the arrangement with the University as “a financial boost” for the seminary.

“Of course, it’s a boost; it’s a bonanza!” Gaylor said. “These are dorm rooms. The seminary’s expenses would be primarily housekeeping service– the food is catered elsewhere.”

In 1993 the seminary billed the University $1,274.03 for rental cots, despite the per person charge which implies a bed is included.

The seminary reaps other fringe benefits from its arrangement with the University. In a December 23, 1993 article the Catholic Herald reported: “The (preseason) camp also benefits Holy Name Seminary. It is a financial boost to Holy Name, with proceeds helping finance the seminary’s own athletic program. Holy Name also holds its pre-season football training program at the same time as the Badger camp. So while the Badgers are at Holy Name, the seminary coaches and players also are able to take advantage of advice and assistance from the UW coaches and players.”

And, “The relationship between the seminary and the Wisconsin Athletic Department continues beyond the football season. The coaches and department staff have come out to Holy Name for the Serra Basketball Tournament and Serra Games, as well as the seminary’s annual golf outing in June.”

A photo of UW Coach Alvarez and the priest accompanied the article.

At a recent Holy Name Seminary weekend, when Diocese eighth grade boys were brought to the seminary to interest them in the priesthood, a Badger coach and three players were on hand to speak and sign autographs.

“Look at the message,” Gaylor said. “Come be a priest and hobnob with a Rose Bowl team. It should not be the business of a public university’s football team to help a Catholic seminary recruit priests. This arrangement with Holy Name Seminary never should have started. We will continue to press for separation of state and seminary.”

The Wisconsin Constitution is clear on the subject of payment to religious entities. It states in Article 1, Section 18: “. . . nor shall any money be drawn from the treasury for the benefit of religious societies, or religious or theological seminaries.” Holy Name Seminary is a prep school for priests.

“As someone who has observed the University of Wisconsin for decades,” commented Paul Gaylor, a member of the Foundation’s Executive Council, “I see this as a dumbing-down of the University. The University is letting the athletic department set the moral and intellectual tone of a once-great University.

“It’s become a case of the tail wagging the dog.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation