Prayer in Football: Separate and Unified
Monday's SCOTUS decision adds legal affirmation to the sport's already conjoined relationship with religious expression
Monday, the Supreme Court released another ruling just a few days after overturning Roe vs. Wade.
This ruling from SCOTUS, involving school prayer, did not result in nationwide public protests. But all week, there’s been plenty of outrage and handwringing.
By a 6-3 margin, SCOTUS ruled on the side of a Washington state football coach who for seven years, fought a decision that banned him from kneeling and praying on the field after games.
In giving the majority opinion, Judge Neil Gorsuch said that a private prayer recited by the coach, Joe Kennedy, was protected by the First Amendment because it was given at a time when “school employees were free to speak with a friend, call for a reservation at a restaurant, check email or attend to other personal matters…while his students were otherwise occupied.”
Judge Sonia Sotomayor, in a dissenting opinion, said the court cannot condone prayer led by a school employee, as Kennedy was at the time of Bremerton High School.
Properly understood, this case is not about the limits on an individual’s ability to engage in private prayer at work. This case is about whether a school district is required to allow one of its employees to incorporate a public, communicative display of the employee’s personal religious beliefs into a school event
Sotomayor went on to add how the facts of the case demonstrated Kennedy had a long history of leading such prayers and how such displays of religious expression are impermissible, according to the Constitution, and turn over decades of precedence surrounding the the separation of church and state.
Leading up to Monday’s decision, corporate media amplified the “church and state” argument, anticipating SCOTUS handing a ‘W’ to the coach.
Sports Illustrated featured a kneeling Kennedy on its magazine cover, crediting the coach for being a martyr in our ever-escalating culture wars over personal freedoms:
He’s a human embodiment of a country that’s deeply divided; a religious movement that’s surging with momentum, even as organized religion becomes increasingly less popular; and, most of all, a powerful right-wing machine many say is employing a timeless division tactic: us vs. them
The juxtaposition of the prayer ruling so closely following one on abortion rights cannot be understated. Reproductive rights and religious expression are controversial subjects in America and have been for decades, even centuries.
I understand the complexity around Dobbs vs Jackson. There are so many layers to abortion, effects so many people – with so much political capital invested – the subject justifies the hundreds and hundreds of angst-ridden think pieces posted on the internet in the week since the announcement (and more to come).
But with Kennedy vs. Bremerton School District, there is a dishonesty behind the anxiety, the wedginess of the issue more dissension creation than true assault on democracy. I think it comes from a place of ignorance and incomprehension of just how football teams function.
In the long history of football-themed movies, God and religion are almost always featured either prominently or subtly.
There are films like “Rudy,” or “When The Game Stands Tall,” where an atmosphere of spirituality is ubiquitous with the story. In movies like “We Are Marshall” or “Remember The Titans” or “Friday Night Lights,” constant are references to reaching elevated levels of performance and heightened consciousness with the assist from an unseen entity. Abundant are scenes involving intimate group huddles where devotional words are spoken.
Football is so omnipresent in America we are conditioned to expect religious signals from players; a skyward finger point after a touchdown (the act not exclusive to football) or athlete references to biblical passages as a personal nod to creation’s oldest Life Coach (“I owe it all to my man JC”).
I’ve attended hundreds and hundreds of football games in my life as a player, reporter and youth coach. I don’t think there’s ever been a game where I didn’t witness or feel some touch of spirit.
In his book “Why Football Matters,” author Mark Edmundson writes, “in high school and college in particular Jesus and the eternal Father preside over the contest.”
Those participating choose how they greet such divine inputs. Just as angelic messaging can be motivating, conversely, there are times players and coaches react to the evocation of the eternal Father as mindless hooey. They are in on the joke.
A scene in the hilariously raunchy 1979 movie “North Dallas Forty” encapsulates prayer-as-malarkey when a priest gives the pre-game prayer, asking “not for victory, not for glory, not for fame…we ask only for the preservation of our bodies and our minds.”
The facial expressions of the players while the ‘monsignor’ speaks says it all (and the rally cry immediately after the prayer…’LET’S GO KILL THOSE CO**SUCKERS!!!’)
These semi-fictional, half-truth creative representations of the sport’s customs reflect our real life experiences with football.
The character of the sport – it’s messiness, it’s beauty, its otherworldliness, its consistent malapropos – all dumped into one big pot of dysfunctional stew is why it’s our nation’s most popular entertainment consuming past time.
One SCOTUS ruling won’t change that.
I called up a couple of high school coaches I know and asked them about prayer.
What have they seen in their years of coaching? Is prayer integrated in some form?
Rarely, if ever, is prayer initiated by adults, they said. It’s almost always the kids – the players – taking the lead.
“It’s never been something that has been an issue other than when groups of kids want to do it,” Batavia High School Head coach Dennis Piron said. “It ebbs and flows.”
Piron said there are years when he has teams that are more comfortable with religious expression than others. When those groups want to pray, it’s permitted, but boundaries are set.
“We have to be clear. We call it ‘reflection time' and we give our kids their own time prior to or after a game. It’s almost always player-led,” Piron said.
There have been seasons when a volunteer coach or youth pastor has spoken to Batavia players and some of them joined in and some didn’t, Piron added. Bible study groups have popped up from time to time, and there are years when players are members of organizations like Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
Regardless of how its done, expressions of faith are an extension of team culture that particular year. Piron neither encourages or discourages any act of prayer.
“Most kids are given the freedom to express whatever it is they need to prepare themselves for a game, whatever it is they need to do,” he said.
That form of expression – private, not directed by a school official – is protected by the Constitution.
When the courts began to hand down decisions in the 1960’s, it granted permission for student-driven prayer.
“When the student initiates it, there is nothing being pressed on the student from anyone in a position of power,” Northwestern Law Professor Andrew Koppelman told The Kerr Report in an interview. Koppelman has written extensively on the intersection between law and religious liberty.
Koppelman casts doubts on the Kennedy vs. Bremerton School District ruling over the court’s interpretation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.
The Establishment Clause prohibits the government from establishing or creating a religion in any way. Monday’s SCOTUS ruling overturns the court’s long-standing interpretation of the clause “without giving any clear interpretation of what should take its place.”
“One of the core purposes of the establishment clause is to prevent the state from bullying people into religious activities they don’t believe in because it produces a phony and contemptful religion,” Koppelman said. “One of the adamant concerns of the establishment clause was that official religion tends to be phony religion. The idea that people will engage in religious activity just to impress the neighbors has a long history.”
There was testimony from the SCOTUS case of coercive tactics from the defendant, Coach Kennedy. A photograph from the seminal event in 2015 that spawned his eventual firing and lawsuit does not appear to be a private moment. Kennedy’s self-appointed martyrdom – making him a human cudgel in the Material World’s war against religion – came off as opportunistic and in all honesty, a bit tacky.
(On Kennedy’s media barnstorming, Koppelman references stories from The Bible: “This goes back to the concerns of Jesus of Nazareth. If you go into your own rooms and close the door and pray it is clear you are not pursuing any extrinsic benefit because no one can see you, whereas once there is a tangible reward that comes from doing it publicly, then not even you can tell what your motives are.”)
For those critical of Monday’s ruling, the “mischaracterization of the facts” argument is somewhat justified.
But from a pure application to how football is lived and experienced, it’s mostly empty clatter.
Luke Mertens, Head Football Coach at St. Patrick’s High School, a private Catholic school in Chicago, admits his school prays before class and conducts mass before every game.
“Prayer is very much a part of who we are. We’re out in the open about it, that’s who we are,” Mertens said.
But Mertens, who coached for over a decade at two Lake County public high schools, Lakes and Lake Zurich, before taking over the Shamrock program this year, said St. Patrick’s catholic school classification doesn’t necessarily mandate the expression of catholicism.
“It’s a misnomer. Although we are a Catholic institution we are not shoving it down someone’s throats,” Mertens said. “We do not shame anyone or make them feel like a second-class citizen if they don’t share (our religion). We still welcome them and want them to come to a school like ours.”
Mertens could easily have added how they play pretty darn good, physical football in the Chicago Catholic League. Have for a long, long time.
The same can be said for teams in public school conferences all over Chicagoland. And like their private school peers, those football players, along with the customary warts and blemishes, elation and ecstasy, may also get a dose of religion sprinkled in.
Because that’s football, where God and sport have always been intertwined in some form.
“The sport tends to lend itself to opportunities for spirituality to be mixed in. I don’t see it as much as the other sports,” Piron said. “There are wrestlers I’m sure that say a prayer before and after they go on a mat and there are track athletes that put on a cross and kiss and point up to God before a race. Kids forever have been showing and comfortably willing to express their spirituality and whatever they want to express. It’s a common thing.”
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