Complaint Against Clemson University Says They’re Taking ‘Football Is Religion’ Too Far

In the American south, a popular phrase is “football is religion” and at Clemson University, a major college program in South Carolina, that may be even more so as a complaint has been filed alleging they’re pushing gospel as much as pigskin.

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The Freedom From Religion Foundation is asking Clemson to create separation between football program and the evangelical Christianity aggressively promoted by the team’s charismatic, outspoken and remarkably successful head coach, Dabo Swinney. The letter claims Swinney has violated separation of church and state by arranging Bible studies and devotionals and distributing Bibles and other religious materials to players with no clear evidence the players asked for any of it. In February, the foundation submitted an open records request to obtain emails and information from Clemson illustrating the connection between football and religion.

“What we have observed in the records is that the football coaching staff is doing a number of things to promote Christianity to their student-athletes, while student-athletes can pray, conduct Bible studies and engage in religious activities, the coaching staff, as public employees, should not be doing that with their student athletes. What we’d like to see is the end of this chaplaincy position and end to Bible distributions by coaches, an end to devotionals scheduled and put on by coaches and staff. The coaches need to step back and just coach (football) and not coach in religious matters.” said foundation attorney Patrick Elliott.

The chaplain position is held by former Clemson player James Trapp, who, the foundation said, is exerting too much religious influence on players.

Some of the group’s complaints include:

• In 2011, coach William “Dabo” Swinney personally invited James Trapp to become team chaplain for the Tigers. That violates the Constitution and Clemson’s own “misguided and legally dubious ‘Guidelines For Athletic Team Chaplains,’ ” Elliott noted. The guidelines say student groups select their choice for team chaplain and then request the coach’s approval. No records were provided that show a student organization selected a chaplain.

• Trapp was regularly given access to the entire team in between drills for Bible study. The FFRF says that by granting Trapp such access, Swinney shows “preference for religion over non-religion, alienates those players who don’t believe as he does, and creates a culture of religious coercion within the university’s football program.”

• The chaplain has an office at the Jervey Athletic Center, displays Bible quotes on a whiteboard and organized and led sessions on “being baptized” in the athletic building, according to the FFRF.

“Mr. Trapp, as a paid employee of a state university, may not proselytize or promote religion and may not use his university office to do so,”  Elliott wrote.

Trapp also serves as a Fellowship of Christian Athletes representative and as a football recruiting assistant.

The foundation contends that Dabo Swinney confirmed that the entire team would attend an FCA breakfast Dec. 31, 2011, wherein three players would “testify.” Three privately funded 116-seat capacity buses were used to take the team and coaches to Valley Brook Baptist Church on Aug. 7, 2011, and on other occasions for worship on “Church Day.”

Swinney schedules team devotionals. Records indicate that between March 2012 and April 2013, approximately 87 were organized by Trapp, approved by Swinney and led by coaches.

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Clemson chief public affairs officer Cathy Sams said her office is reviewing the letter but that she didn’t believe the football program forced religion on its players.

“I can’t comment on any of the specifics in the letter or any of the specific concerns,” Sams told the paper. “No one is required to participate in any religious activities related to the football program. It’s purely voluntary. Religion and faith is a big part of Coach Swinney’s personal beliefs, but it is in no way required. There is no mandatory participation.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit educational charity based in Madison, Wis. claiming to be the nation’s largest association of atheists and agnostics. In 2012 they sent a similar lettered complaint to Appalachian State University and as a result some of their team’s activities were amended.

Elliott says he doesn’t want to infringe on Swinney or his coaches religious freedoms, but he said his group wanted to make sure that those religious views weren’t brought into the workplace.

“He has every right to be a religious person and to engage in these activities. But he doesn’t have the right to do that as a part of his university coaching position. There needs to be a complete separation between his religious views and demonstrating that and encouraging that with people under his charge.”

“Touching the rock” is a unique college tradition at Clemson but it will be interesting to see if pushing the rock will get them into an off-field fight as well.

Lance Burson is a writer living outside Atlanta, Georgia with his wife and 3 daughters. He’s the published author of 2 books, The Ballad of Helene Troy and Soul to Body, available on amazon.com for kindle and lulu.com in paperbacks. He was a college classmate at the University of Alabama with Dabo Swinney and remembers them both praying they’d pass statistics, together.