Netflix series ‘Last Chance U’ busts Mississippi college football program

1LastChanceUPhoto from Netflix

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is asking a Mississippi community college to resolve constitutional violations that a recent documentary has revealed in its football program.

The hit documentary series "Last Chance U" has unearthed several infringements at East Mississippi Community College in Scooba, Miss. Religious endorsement is endemic within the football program. Head Coach Buddy Stephens regularly leads his players in the Lord's Prayer. He prefaces the prayer with "everybody touch somebody," and then the whole team and coaching staff recites the prayer. This occurs in several episodes during the series. Stephens has said of faith: "It is the foundation of our program. We start our practices with prayer [and] end our practices with prayer."

In one episode, Assistant Coach Marcus Wood leads a prayer before a game that says, "Dear God, Thank you for these guys, the way they've worked. Thank you for all of our blessings. Help us to play this game in a violent and vicious manner and play it the way it's supposed to be played." He also apparently leads a weekly bible study for the players. An episode of "Last Chance U" begins with him holding what seems to be a bible while discussing a verse from the Book of Job. In another episode, he says, "Maybe my job is to talk to you a little bit every week about the bible."

"As a state-run institution, East Mississippi Community College is bound by the Constitution's Establishment Clause, which 'mandates neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion,' to quote the U.S. Supreme Court," FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover writes to East Mississippi Community College President Thomas Huebner. "Incorporating religious practices into college football activities violates this basic constitutional principle." 

FFRF points out that many of the activities that the coaches are engaging in have been proscribed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

"The Supreme Court has explicitly held school-sponsored devotional bible reading and recitation of the Lord's prayer unconstitutional," Grover adds. "The constitutional prohibition on school-sponsored prayer and religious endorsement extends to colleges, especially when institutional circumstances create a coercive religious environment."

FFRF contends that the reportedly domineering coaching style of Stephens calls into question whether the players' participation can be considered voluntary. In any event, the courts have summarily rejected arguments that voluntariness excuses a constitutional violation.

FFRF requests that East Mississippi Community College take immediate action to ensure that all future college-sponsored activities, such as football practice and games and team instructional time, do not include religious content. Colleges serve the least religious demographic, since one in three college-aged Americans is nonreligious, according to a recent Pew survey. This makes it even more necessary that East Mississippi Community College have an inviting environment for non-Christian and nonreligious student-athletes.

"Any public institution in this day and age has to be mindful of the diversity of belief among its students," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "It is unconscionable for East Mississippi Community College to act as if its entire football team is made up of devout Christians."

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nontheist organization dedicated to the separation of state and church, with 24,000 members all over the country, including in Mississippi.

2LastChanceU

Photo from Netflix

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

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