Commentary: Tommy Bowden, The ACLU, Church and the Media
Athens, GA (Nov 29, 2007) - Driving my kids to school this morning, I was listening to the local sports talk radio station, 960 the Ref. Dave Johnston, the program director, and Mike Tingle were discussing the news that the ACLU is calling out Clemson and coach Tommy Bowden over an annual team trip to a local church.
As reported in Sporting News yesterday:
"Clemson coach Tommy Bowden violates the constitutional rights of his players by making them have to opt out if they don't want to go to an annual team visit to a church, a leader of the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said."
This seems to be one of those times that the ACLU is making waves over nothing, and the media is eating right into their hands. University of Georgia Coach Mark Richt has the same, or at least used to have the same, practice in place. The intention was to expose the players to different religions as part of their growth process. It came to light in 2001 when the entire team showed up at the Catholic Center at UGA for the Baptism of Coach Brian VanGorder's child, raising some eyebrows. They were never forced to go and there was never retribution if they did.
In a story in the Athens Banner-Herald, reporter Josh Kendall wrote:
The Bulldogs have gone as a group to Ebenezer Baptist Church and the Catholic Center on Sunday mornings this fall. Richt emphasized this week that the trips aren't mandatory and have more to do with building team camaraderie than converting souls.
''We write a letter to the families and tell them we'd like to go together as a team and if they have any problem with that to let me know,'' he said. ''If they don't mind, then we do it. If anybody had a problem with it, they had the opportunity not to go.''
Richt said he got one call from a parent and one player came to him to voice concern. That player was excused without question, Richt said.
''We didn't take roll,'' he said.
Later in the same article, Kendall wrote:
Steve Shewmaker, the executive director of the university's Office of Legal Affairs, said he didn't see a conflict of interest or a blurring of the church-state boundary.
''As long as it's not mandatory or a requirement, it's permitted,'' Shewmaker said. ''Our position is as long as the students are here, that their voluntary participation in any extra-curricular activity is all part of the educational growth. I am sure, knowing Coach Richt, that the voluntariness of it has been made clear.
''When those questions have come to our office our advice has been so long as it is voluntary and not in any way connected to grades or class performance, then it's permissible.''
This practice is much different than the mandatory bible study meetings and accusations of religious discrimination against a Jewish cheerleader that got UGA Cheerleading Coach Marilou Braswell fired in 2004:
"The cheerleader, Jaclyn Steele, claimed Braswell held pre-game prayers and hosted Bible studies in her Bogart home - just a few examples of what Steele's parents say made their daughter feel like an outcast on the squad."
I have a call in to the UGA Sports Communications Department to see if this practice is still done by Richt. I will update this article when they get back to me.
Back to Clemson. One of the first football games I worked at when I moved South was a game between South Carolina and Clemson, played at Clemson. Clemson is a state school. bring a sensible Yankee (well Damn Yankee now), my jaw hit the ground when they started the game with the Lord's Prayer. I never understood why this was allowed and why the ACLU never jumped all over this, instead of the posturing they are doing over the annual Bowden church trips. Walking out of the stadium that day, I was approached by a limousine driver who asked me if "I had been saved."
Yes, college football in the south can be a religious experience in more ways than one.
This commentary was originally posted on "Eye on Sports Media"