As I wrote in my book Football, Faith, and Flannery O’Connor: A Love Letter to the South, sports and faith go hand in hand. Watch any movie or television show about football long enough and you’ll see somebody uttering a prayer in the locker room or on the field — usually it’s the Lord’s Prayer, because Hollywood writers can’t seem to bother to try to write an original prayer, but I digress.
Two recent instances at my alma mater, the University of Georgia, underscore the relationship between sports and faith. At the September 26 game between UGA and Southern University, Southern player Devon Gales took a hard hit and sustained a severe spinal injury. During the timeout, players from both teams spontaneously knelt in a prayer for healing. During Georgia’s October 10 contest against Tennessee, star running back Nick Chubb tore a ligament in his knee. UGA head coach Mark Richt embraced a tearful Chubb, praying with him in a heartfelt, poignant moment.
Unfortunately, like so many other expressions of faith today, the tie between football and prayer is under attack. The latest example involves Bremerton High School in Bremerton, Washington. Coach Joe Kennedy has led his team in postgame prayers f0r seven years. These prayers simply express thanks for the young men who had the chance to be a part of the game. Often, players from the opposing team would join them.
Back in September, the school district launched an investigation into Coach Kennedy over his prayers with the team following games. The district sent a letter to Kennedy to cease postgame prayers with the football team. According to KOMO:
In a statement released last month, the school district said, “Our coaching staff can continue to provide motivational, inspirational talks to students before, during and after games and other team activity. However, talks with students may not include religious expression, including prayer.”
Although Coach Kennedy’s prayers are verbal, he does not pray in the name of a specific religion or deity, and he does not say “amen.” Each post-game prayer lasts approximately 15 to 20 seconds, during which Coach Kennedy is unaware of who may or may not be in the vicinity. Coach Kennedy’s sole intent, as motivated by his sincerely-held religious beliefs, is to say a brief prayer of thanksgiving and then move on. Coach Kennedy has never received a complaint about his post-game personal prayers.
To summarize, Coach Kennedy engages in private religious expression during non-instructional hours, after his official duties as a coach have ceased. He neither requests, encourages, nor discourages students from participating in his personal prayers, or coming to where he prays. His prayers neither proselytize nor denigrate the beliefs of others. And he has never received a complaint about his post-game personal prayers. Under these circumstances, there is no constitutional prohibition against Coach Kennedy’s private religious expression, regardless of whether students voluntarily come to the location where he is praying.
The Liberty Institute issued a letter to the school district asking them to revoke their prohibition on postgame prayer in time for the Knights’ October 16 homecoming game. The organization has also pledged to represent Coach Kennedy should legal action prove necessary.
For his part, all Kennedy can talk about is how much he cares for his players.
“I love my players. It’s an honor to work with them and teach them about good sportsmanship and teamwork. I hope the school district will allow me to continue working with these kids — and thanking God for them,” Kennedy said in a written statement released by the Liberty Institute.
So what’s all the fuss about? Coach Kennedy — who clearly loves his team and wants the best for each guy on that team — simply offers prayers of thanks at the end of every game. He’s not passing out tracts, leading altar calls, or preaching hellfire and brimstone. What parents wouldn’t appreciate an expression of thanks for their son?
The coach is doing no harm to anyone in or around the stadium, and he’s well within his First Amendment rights, as the folks at Liberty Institute have proven. The case in Bremerton brings to mind the recent attacks on college football coaches who don’t hide their light under a bushel, as the busybodies at the Freedom From Religion Foundation would have them do.
Take a look at the Facebook page that Liberty Institute has set up in support of Coach Kennedy, and you’ll see the militant unfaithful out in full force. To read some of the comments, one would think that Kennedy was a delusional menace to society rather than a caring practitioner of the world’s largest faith, one which has remained strong for thousands of years.
I’ve heard it said that non-believers don’t go after Santa Claus, unicorns, Bigfoot, and the like because they’re obviously not real, but that they go after the God of the Bible because the idea of His existence threatens their lack of faith and their reluctance to live by moral absolutes. And I think we see this notion at work in these attacks on coaches who care enough about their players to pray for them.
On Friday, Coach Kennedy defied the schools order to stop his postgame prayers. From the Seattle Times:
Surrounded by members of his team, players from the rival Centralia High School and scores of supporters from Kitsap County and beyond, Bremerton High assistant coach Joe Kennedy knelt on the 50-yard line after Friday night’s game and prayed.
It was some version of the basic prayer he’s said for years, he said afterward.
“Lord, I thank you for these kids and the blessing you’ve given me with them. We believe in the game, we believe in competition and we can come into it as rivals and leave as brothers.”
He said he never intended to become part of the controversy surrounding his postgame prayers, but had to stand up for his right to practice his faith when challenged by the school district.
“I always taught my kids to do what’s right … and fight for what you believe in.”
God bless Coach Joe Kennedy for standing up for his faith and showing Jesus’ love to his players. God bless the Liberty Institute for helping him fight for the freedom to practice that faith. I hope and pray that other faithful believers will support the coach in these efforts to set a good example for the young men he leads.
Images courtesy of Liberty Institute