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Where does religion belong in sports?

WashPost: Usually some form of Christianity accepted in locker rooms, while Islam, Judaism not at forefront.

When Air Force football coach Fisher DeBerry hung a religious banner on the wall of his locker room and told his players to "go to church," was he guilty of religious intolerance? Or is he a victim of minority complainers with eggshell sensitivities? Generally, we like to keep our sports comfortingly separate from news events, but good luck finding a neutral corner in the discussion that erupted this week over the role of coaches as spiritual guides. At Air Force, football has become part of a heated real world debate.

The banner DeBerry hung in the locker room was the Competitors Creed, a fervent four-paragraph poem from the Fellowship of Christian Athletes that reads, in part:

  • I am a Christian first and last
  • I am created in the likeness of God Almighty to bring Him Glory
  • I am a member of Team Jesus Christ
  • I wear the colors of the cross

When a football coach at a federally funded military academy engages in Evangelicalism in the locker room, he comes perilously close to requiring a certain orthodoxy. The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment forbids the establishment of a state religion.

DeBerry hung the banner last November before the final game of the season, after consulting with his team captains. It stayed up for one day before he was asked to remove it by academy officials. The academy is under review by a Pentagon task force, looking into claims of religious harassment and institutional Evangelicalism. A report by the American Society United for Separation of Church and State included cases in which a Jewish cadet said he was told the Holocaust was revenge for the death of Jesus, and another was called a Christ killer.

DeBerry's good friend, Florida State Coach Bobby Bowden, added to the controversy when he gave a speech to a Fellowship of Christian Athletes group this week. He said: "Fisher is fighting a heck of a battle over here at your academy [with] the U.S. government. He's fighting a heck of a battle because he happens to be a Christian, and he wants his boys to be saved. I want my boys to be saved." Bowden added, "We realize we have other religions with us."

Now, the first thing that needs to be said is that DeBerry and Bowden are hardly known fanatics. And they seem to put their best players on the field regardless of religious persuasion. No one has ever suggested they bench heathens. DeBerry is also known for his self-deprecating country humor. Once, when he was on the radio promoting his autobiography, "For God and Country: Foundations of Faith," DeBerry said, "When I was 3 years old, I was drugged. I was drugged by my grandma to church every time the church doors were open." After every game, DeBerry used to habitually tell his Air Force players the same thing, "Go to church tomorrow; call your mom and daddy and tell them you love them, and remember who you are."

If it's DeBerry's view that only Christianity should occupy the locker room, then he is wrong and shouldn't be coaching at a public institution. If, on the other hand, he was simply expressing his personal religious view, was asked to post the banner by his team, and didn't overly proselytize, that's another thing. DeBerry is caught smack between two clauses of the First Amendment. He has the right of free religious expression but he can't use his job at a federally funded institution to promote a religion. He's also caught between two feuding advocacy groups. The Society United for Separation of Church and State claims that the academy (and DeBerry) is engaged in religious coercion. Focus on the Family, meantime, claims that nonbelievers are trying to eradicate religion on campus altogether.

Attorney Jordan Lorence, who has litigated freedom of religious expression cases for the Alliance Defense Fund, said there may be legitimate cause for concern at the academy, and he would have advised DeBerry that he was crossing a line when he put up the banner. But, he adds, that doesn't mean the academy should stamp out all religious expression. "The thing that concerns me is that it's all portrayed as government-approved coercion of nonbelievers," he says.

Unfortunately, it's hard to know precisely what DeBerry's intentions were; he won't discuss them. A media representative said, "He just feels that whatever he says, one way or the other, he gets barbecued for it." Recently, DeBerry was asked by the Gazette of Colorado Springs if he would consider doing away with prayer in the locker room. "It's something we will have to consider," he said, "but this is our foundation and this is what we're all about in Falcon football. I don't think you separate religion from normal, everyday life. Religion is a part of life. Football, academics, military training — everything."

Surely, there is a place for religious expression in the academy locker room, where the players are chronically undersized future squadrons of young fighter jocks who are training in unit cohesion so they can defend their country. In fact, it's almost impossible to extricate the sport from its themes of morality. Its origins are pagan and folk, but its growth in this country is tangled up with religious overtones; a game founded by roughhousing students was institutionalized as spiritual and educational at places like Notre Dame, and Fordham under Vince Lombardi. At Yale as far back as 1894, professor Eugene Lamb Richards wrote, "The best teams in Yale have not only the best players, but the most successful teams have contained the most moral and religious men."

Prayer in locker rooms is invariably Christian; you almost never hear of alternate worship. "In our locker rooms we're just so used to having chapel," Redskins quarterback Mark Brunell says. "The norm is always Christian, either Protestant or Catholic. I'm not aware of any Islamic services or Jewish services. It's just something I've never really seen. It would be interesting to see if they felt constrained."

Brunell has gotten to the heart of the matter. The argument against exclusively Christian prayer in a locker room is not just a constitutional one. There is a fascinating array of religious views among athletes. When Desmond Howard was a Heisman Trophy candidate at Michigan, he disconcerted his coaches by wearing an Egyptian ankh and asking to live alone, in part because he was a practicing Muslim. Lance Armstrong is a confusing brand of agnostic who wears a crucifix and considers himself abstractly spiritual. Brunell was saved in college when he attended a Charismatic worship that included speaking in tongues.

The philosopher William James would have said a range of religious feeling itself is useful. In Varieties of Religious Experience, he wrote: "Each of us, from his particular angle of observation, takes in a certain sphere of fact and trouble, which each of us must deal with in a unique manner. . . . If an Emerson were forced to be a Wesley, or a Moody forced to be a Whitman, the total human consciousness of the divine would suffer. The divine can mean no single quality, it must mean a group of qualities . . . each attitude being a syllable in human nature's total message, it takes the whole of us to spell it out completely."

The trouble with prayer in a locker room, a small space that contains such wide divergence, is, at what point does one man's message become another's coercion? Brunell regularly led a Bible study group when he played in Jacksonville, Fla. But one day a teammate was quoted anonymously in the local paper saying he worried that if he didn't participate, he could be ostracized. What frustrated Brunell was not just that his teammate felt intimidated, but also inhibited. "I just wished someone had approached me," he said. "There was no conversation. It would have been nice. No one should be afraid. You talk it out."

So, while Air Force should eradicate religious coercion on campus, it shouldn't eliminate talk. It's all too dangerously easy to eliminate expression completely. It would be a shame if, in inhibiting his religious views, DeBerry was to lose his unique personal articulation altogether. "If they win a game with a Hail Mary pass, I hope he can still say it in the press conference," Lorence says.