Dabo Swinney keeps faith in Clemson football, but is he crossing the line?

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney’s Tigers will play Mark Richt’s Georgia Bulldogs Saturday night in Athens, Ga., in a nationally televised prime-time game pitting two national championship hopefuls.

Swinney and Richt are two of college football’s top coaches – and also two of the most prominent coaches in mixing their Christian faith with their sport at publicly funded schools.

Both men committed their lives to Christ in a sports-related setting – Swinney in a high school Fellowship of Christian Athletes gathering, and Richt in his college coach’s football office. They feel it’s their mission to share their faith.

“I’ve never been bashful about telling people I’m a Christian,” Swinney says. “That’s just who I am.”

As a new season is about to kick off, Swinney has stayed true to his conviction of offering opportunities for spiritual growth to his players despite one organization’s belief that he has gone too far.

Among the complaints by the Freedom from Religion Foundation in an April letter to Clemson is a claim that Swinney approved 87 devotionals between March 2012 and April 2013 that were organized by the team chaplain and led by members of the coaching staff.

“I mean, that’s a lot of praying going on,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the FFRF, a nonprofit atheist and agnostic group. “And it’s all orchestrated by the authority figures. And that is abusive.”

The FFRF says the state-funded school’s football program is “entangled” in Christianity, and those decisively Christian actions can be coercive for an impressionable young man trying to please his coaches and earn playing time.

Swinney says that has never happened. He and other top coaches in the south and southeast say that any religious activity involved with their football programs is voluntary.

In the homes of recruits, Swinney promises parents he will help their son grow academically, athletically and spiritually.

“Only thing mandatory in our program is you’re going to go to class, you’re going to give effort and you’re going to be a good citizen. You’ll be held accountable for that,” Swinney said. “But spirituality is a personal decision for everybody... It’s a free country here, and I can live my life the way I want to.

“I can’t come to work and not be a Christian.”

Staff knew ‘who wasn’t there’

Christian influences at programs across the region stretch well before Swinney became Clemson’s head coach.

The Bowden family, starting with retired legendary coach Bobby Bowden of Florida State and including three sons who were coaches, has been bringing a heavy dose of religion to football programs for decades.

Richt, Georgia’s coach, was a graduate assistant coach at Florida Sate in the 1980s and was inspired to commit his life to Christ in the coach’s office after listening to Bowden talk to the team about eternal salvation after a player died.

When Tommy Bowden, Bobby’s son, was hired as Clemson’s football coach in 1999, he told then-school president Constantine W. Curris “right off the bat, I’m a Christian.”

Tommy Bowden began the Clemson football tradition of “Church Day,” when the team would go to a local church one Sunday before the season started.

Bowden – an ACC analyst for Fox Sports South as well as an active member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, a Christian sports ministry founded in 1954 – had his team attend FCA breakfasts. He said it wasn’t mandatory but “it was strongly encouraged” and the coaching staff “knew who wasn’t there.”

During recruiting, Bowden says he would get the blessing from parents to help their child grow as an athlete, a man and a Christian.

“I’m going to inquire their parents, but I’m not going to let (the players) make decisions on what’s best for them when they’re 19 and I’m 54 or 55,” Bowden said. “And I have their parents support.

“I didn’t ask my children whether they wanted to go to church, and I sure wouldn’t ask those guys either as far as what I felt was best for them. If they chose not to, that’s fine. They knew I was trying to help them build character and their parents knew it, and I had the support of their parents so I felt that was all we needed.”

Players commit to faith

Swinney gave his life to Jesus at an FCA rally when he was in high school.

He attended Alabama as a walk-on receiver in 1989 when Tommy Bowden was an assistant with the Crimson Tide, and Bowden brought Swinney to Clemson as his wide receivers coach in 2003.

Both Bowden and Swinney say they’ve recruited players of all faiths, as well as players who are nonbelievers. They say they encourage spiritual growth but insist nothing is mandatory.

In 2007, wide receiver Aaron Kelly, a Jehovah’s Witness, didn’t board the bus for “Church Day” or participate in any Christian gatherings under Bowden. He had the best season of his career, leading the conference in receiving yards (1,081) and touchdowns (11).

Kelly said he never felt excluded, or pressured to join, or viewed differently by his teammates or coaching staff because he was a Jehovah’s Witness.

“With football, especially big-time college football, you have to play the best players or you’re going to lose your job,” Kelly said. “College football is a business first...”

Bowden went 72-45 in his nine-plus seasons at Clemson and was named ACC Coach of the Year twice. He resigned in 2008 after a 3-3 start, and Swinney, then the assistant head coach, was named the interim head coach. He later earned the job permanently.

Swinney has returned Clemson to national prominence. He’s 51-23 as a head coach, has won 10 or more games in each of the past three seasons and has his Tigers ranked No. 16 in the Associated Press preseason Top 25 poll. Before home games he touches “Howard’s Rock” for luck and points up to the heavens.

He continues making Christianity a significant part of Clemson’s football program, and it has paid off in recruiting players.

In 2010, Swinney was pursuing Ohio high school quarterback Cole Stoudt, who will be the Tigers’ starting quarterback against Georgia. Swinney won over Stoudt and his family with his values.

“Ninety percent of the guys on the team chose to come to Clemson because of Coach Swinney’s faith and values. That was the biggest reason why I came here,” Stoudt said. “I am also a follower of Jesus Christ. That’s something that I’ve always valued with Coach Swinney.”

Former Clemson receiver DeAndre Hopkins committed to his faith in 2012. After a September practice, Hopkins asked to be baptized in front of his teammates after practice.

With nearly the entire Clemson football team and coaches present, Hopkins, who is now with the Houston Texans, was baptized in a tub filled with water while still wearing his practice jersey on the team’s practice field.

Hopkins, through a Texans spokesman, declined comment for this story, saying his faith is a personal matter.

Complaint against Clemson

When spelling her last name for a reporter in an interview, Gaylor made it a point to say there is no ‘D’ at the end of her last name.

“I like to joke that there’s no ‘Lord’ in my name,” she said.

The co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Gaylor focuses her group’s efforts on the separation of religion from publicly funded entities.

The FFRF is a nonprofit group in Madison, Wis., that refers to itself as the nation’s “largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics)” with more than 21,000 members. Staff attorney Patrick Elliott said the FFRF has 10 lawsuits ongoing after successfully settling two earlier this year.

In the late 1700s, Thomas Jefferson declared in the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom that “no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship” and that “all men shall be free to profess their religion.” This document is the basis for the Religious Clauses of the First Amendment, and Jefferson would later write the First Amendment’s Religion Clauses make for “building a wall of separation between church and state.”

For at least the past seven years, groups have complained that Clemson football and Christianity are too close. In 2007, the American Civil Liberties Union expressed concern Bowden was exercising his office and authority to “impose his personal religion upon university athletes through his so-called ‘Church Day.’” An attorney for the school later responded saying he found no violation of laws.

Religious faith seems more ingrained in football than other college sports. On the field, players huddle at midfield and pray after games. At Clemson, like at other schools, there’s Bible study during the week, a team chapel on Friday nights and a pre-game prayer before the game.

The FFRF’s 2014 complaint against Clemson cites in an April 10 letter what it views as multiple violations of church-state separation.

In the complaint, the FFRF contends Swinney didn’t follow the school’s guidelines for naming James Trapp the team chaplain. Also, the complaint said, Swinney took privately funded buses to “Church Day,” and he approved the 87 devotionals.

“What if these coaches were atheistic and they were organizing all these buses to come to the Freedom From Religion Foundation or whatever,” Gaylor said. “And the players were being told to get together 90 times in the last year and hold their hands and say, ‘There is no god, there is no god.’ Or what if they were praying to Allah and they were being handed Korans? There would be an outcry.”

Swinney picked Trapp, who is Clemson’s campus FCA director, to be the team chaplain in 2011. Also in 2011, Trapp was hired by the school to be an intermittent employee to assist the football program with recruiting efforts, according to a Clemson spokeswoman. His salary for that position is less than $2,000 per year, but it allows him to have an office in the athletic center.

The FFRF also contends Trapp, a former Clemson track star and NFL player, used his athletic center office to proselytize by handing out Bibles and having Bible quotes on his wall. Trapp declined interview requests, but in an email he thanked the university and faculty for their support.

In an April 24 letter, Erin Swann Lauderdale, Clemson’s senior associate general counsel, wrote Elliott it was “clear that you have misconstrued important facts and made incorrect statements of the law.”

But Gaylor says Clemson has created a situation that crosses the line.

“They’ve created this climate where there’s this association between football and prayer, football and Bible study, football and piety,” Gaylor said. “And what football player doesn’t want to get ahead or please the coach? It really puts them in an impossible situation.

“Are they going to turn down invitations? Do they want to be the one person that doesn’t show up? Do they not want to bow their head or join the huddle? Will that make them excluded? Have their career dashed? Not be promoted or used in the game? It’s so rife for abuse.”

Voluntary, or coerced?

Clemson is resolute in its support of Swinney.

The university said in a statement it believes the practices of the football staff comply with the Constitution and appropriately accommodate differing views.

The school said it’s not aware of any complaints from current or former players about the football program coercing players to participate in religious activities.

“The Supreme Court has expressly upheld the right of public bodies to employ chaplains and has noted that the use of prayer is not in conflict with the principles of disestablishment and religious freedom,” a university statement read.

There has been no federal or Supreme Court ruling immediately comparable to the complaint filed against Clemson, and the FFRF wouldn’t pursue legal action until a staff member or player came forward. But if the issue eventually went to court, Bill Marshall, the Kenan Distinguished Professor of Law at UNC-Chapel Hill, said there would be one essential question.

“Is the atmosphere something where it looks like it’s voluntary when it’s actually coerced?” Marshall said

Clemson said in April it would respond to individual claims made by the FFRF. Four months later, the school still has not. And when asked about specific claims against him, Swinney said everything was and is voluntary.

Students, alumni and fans have used the hashtag #ClemsonStrong on social networking sites to show solidarity with Swinney and the football program. With the support of his university and fans, Swinney said he won’t change the way he or his program practices religion.

“I have great respect for other people’s faiths and beliefs – it’s not my job to judge people. But sometimes people have their own agendas that they want to push,” Swinney said. “I’ve never had a problem relating to my players, dealing with players from different backgrounds culturally or religiously. I just want to win and coach football and make a difference in my players’ lives. That’s all I care about.”

Former Clemson coach Bowden said he doesn’t believe anything will change with Clemson any time soon. Although, he said, he expects the publicity around the issue will help Swinney’s recruiting efforts, making him and the school more attractive for parents who want their sons to follow a religious path.

“I can’t understand why an atheist group from Wisconsin will go into the epicenter of Christianity, Clemson, S.C., the epicenter of the Bible Belt and take on a coach that’s just won 11 games two years in a row and beaten Ohio State, Georgia and LSU,” Bowden said. “Why would they even want to?

“They will get absolutely no support from the secular arena – the administration, the president, the board. They got no chance. That’s why they should pick a battle they can win – instead of going down there.”