FFRF probe: Coaches on a mission from God

The Freedom From Religion Foundation issued a report Aug. 17, “Pray to Play,” condemning more than 25 public universities for letting football coaches impose their personal religion on players by hiring Christian chaplains.

The report revealed that only 54% of college-aged Americans are Christian, and many of the teams investigated have non-Christian players, but 100% of the chaplains investigated are promoting Christianity, usually with an evangelical bent. They preach religious doctrine, including creationism at times, to athletes.

Some universities, like Missouri, paid for chaplains and their wives and children to attend bowl games. Others paid chaplains for their services, including the University of South Carolina, which has a policy prohibiting such payments. Others, such as Auburn, give chaplains an office in the stadium. Chaplains were also involved in recruiting prospective athletes, raising the possibility of violating NCCA regulations.

Chaplains regularly lead the teams in prayer, conduct chapel services and more. These religious activities are not voluntary, as the universities claim, because, as the report notes, “student athletes are uniquely susceptible to coercion from coaches.” Players have educational, financial and career reasons to obey their coach, whatever he asks.

The 25-page report is the result of more than a year of investigation, scrutinizing hundreds of university documents and records. FFRF also interviewed an atheist football player on a ranked team.

That interviewee explained how chaplains impose religion on the team with the coach’s help. The coach even had this atheist lead a team prayer. Pro football player Arian Foster, who recently came out as an atheist, has told media he was forced by Tennessee coach Phil Fulmer, now retired, to attend church with the team.

The report maps out the spread of these chaplains, which often trace back to head coaches Bobby Bowden at Florida State (now retired) or Tommy Tuberville (now at the University of Cincinnati). Bowden and Tuberville’s assistant coaches, players, chaplains and in Bowden’s case, his son, spread this religious epidemic.

Chaplains appointed by Jimbo Fisher, Steve Spurrier, Gus Malzahn, Gene Chizik, Terry Bowden, Brad Scott, Dabo Swinney and Mark Richt all trace back to Bowden or Tuberville. The two men are responsible for Florida State, Clemson, South Carolina, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Texas Tech Cincinnati, Auburn and Georgia’s chaplains. Chaplains typically have ties to the coaches: Bowden’s second chaplain was a minister at his church; Georgia’s chaplain is head coach Mark Richt’s brother-in-law.

This type of activity is illegal at a public university, but coaches think they can get away with it because, as Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze put it, “I do everything through the FCA [Fellowship of Christian Athletes] platform.” But even the FCA seems to recognize the problem. Their own legal analysis says that, “In a public university setting, there must be adequate separation so that an employee’s views are not perceived as connected to a university course” or the university itself.

Yet coaches like Freeze and Tuberville regularly fundraise for their chaplain and the FCA, using their influence and position to direct funds to religious organizations rather than the school or athletic program. The FCA’s influence is especially apparent in the business proposal FFRF obtained between the FCA and the University of Washington, which inadvertently admits there is no need for a football chaplain because “schools have mentorship programs and life-skill programs. Schools also tend to have psychologists on hand that students can access on a need to need basis. Campuses have religious centers where students can attend regardless of faith or denomination. There are multiple outside organizations that exist.”

FFRF sent copies of the report, which includes a model policy to adopt, to presidents at the public schools with the most flagrant chaplaincies, including Auburn University, University of Georgia, University of South Carolina, Mississippi State, University of Alabama, University of Tennessee, Louisiana State University, University of Missouri, University of Washington, Georgia Tech, University of Illinois, Florida State, University of Mississippi, University of Wisconsin and Clemson University.

The model policy suggests hiring a counselor with genuine training if student athletes are truly in need.

FFRF is sending players on several teams, including Georgia, South Carolina, Auburn, Alabama, Tennessee, Missouri, North Carolina, Georgia Tech, North Carolina State, Wisconsin and Illinois, an explanation of their rights as students at secular universities.

Finally, the report exposes the misconception at the heart of this problem: Some coaches think that students need to be Christians in order to be good people. This myth persists despite the arrest of Oklahoma’s chaplain for stealing prescription pills and the conviction of Tuberville’s latest chaplain hire at the University of Cincinnati for sexually assaulting a 73-year-old grocery store clerk.

Auburn and Alabama have refused to provide records for the report, violating their state open records laws. Auburn did so after requesting a $500 deposit from FFRF in December. FFRF is considering litigation.

See FFRF’s press release with the report and supporting documents at: bit.ly/1Lpvjhv or scroll to Aug. 17 press release at ffrf.org/news.

FFRF Staff Attorneys Andrew Seidel and Patrick Elliot produced the exposé with help from Legal Interns Chris Line and Neal Fitzgerald.

Freedom From Religion Foundation