Thomas Jefferson’s self-written epitaph famously omitted any mention of his presidency, instead listing his life’s great accomplishments as the “author of the Declaration of Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom and father of the University of Virginia.” Nearly two centuries after his death, Jefferson’s legacy drives a debate that’s manifested itself within the world of major college football—the role of organized religion within the locker rooms of public universities.

Recently C-Ville Weekly, a tabloid published in Jefferson’s hometown of Charlottesville, published a cover story asking, “Does practicing Christianity in UVA’s locker room violate the Constitution?” The writer, Jayson Whitehead, offered a lengthy narrative of Virginia football coach Mike London “effectively combining” his coaching role “with his status as a believer in Jesus.” Whitehead then assembled a group of disapproving scholars and lawyers to suggest London’s actions may threaten the very foundation of the Republic:

Rebecca Glenberg, legal director of [the American Civil Liberties Union’s] Virginia branch, unsurprisingly called what I described to her—the chapel services, or coach London’s recitation of the Lord’s Prayer before each game (a common practice throughout college football)—troubling. “A school official—particularly one with a great deal of power over students, like a coach—leading or organizing the prayer raises First Amendment concerns,” she wrote in an e-mail. “Such activities send the message to students that the school wants them to participate in religious activities, and that they are not full members of the team if they do not.”

Glenberg also found the locker room Lord’s Prayer problematic since it is an explicitly Christian prayer. “Even in those rare contexts in which courts have allowed government-sponsored prayers—such as in legislative bodies—those prayers must be nonsectarian,” she said.

Both Glenberg and Douglas Laycock, a UVA law professor and First Amendment scholar, expressed concern over the voluntary nature of the football team’s religious acts. “Every member of the team should feel entirely free to participate or not to participate in the chapel and in the locker room prayer,” said Laycock. “I hope that is true here.”

If you are a player and your coaches are organizing or even leading a religious event or act it seems like that individual would feel a certain peer pressure to join in. “In a college football team, being ‘a member of the team’ is strongly emphasized,” Glenberg added. “Players may therefore feel pressured to join in prayers even when they are nominally optional.”

It was Jefferson who was famously credited with the phrase “separation of church and state,” which appears nowhere in the First Amendment. It comes from an 1802 letter Jefferson wrote to the Baptist Association of Danbury,

I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.

The Baptists were then a persecuted minority in Connecticut, which was dominated by the Congregationalist church. That church was “established” in Connecticut, meaning it was the official state church and members of other Christian denominations, including the Baptists, had to follow special rules. The First Amendment, which prohibited the federal Congress from establishing a national church, did not apply to the states.

After leaving office, Jefferson founded UVA as the first nonsectarian public university in the country. This was an important milestone. Other universities of the time, even those we now describe as “public,” had their origins with some religious sect. For example, Harvard, where college football started in the late 19th century, was founded by the Massachusetts Puritans in 1636 “to enforce the purity of doctrine on society,” according to the late economist and historian Murray Rothbard. “[T]he puritans,” Rothbard wrote, “needed a network of schools throughout the colony to indoctrinate the younger generation.”

Of course, even by the time of the first Harvard-Yale football game—Yale, incidentally, founded by those pesky Connecticut Congregationalists—American universities had started to move away from their theocratic origins and towards Jefferson’s more humanist notions of liberal education. By the mid-20th century, coinciding with the rise of college football as a mass-spectator sport, federal courts began interpreting Jefferson’s “wall of separation” metaphor as a literal command to sanitize state institutions, particularly public schools, of religious influence.

This modern reinterpretation of Jefferson’s words—which were made in what amounted to a statement to political supporters, not a legal document—largely ignored the context of the First Amendment and the notion of “disestablishment,” the amendment’s stated objective.

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Religion & Education

Jayson Whitehead’s article identified several other coaches “who have publicly embraced and espoused Christianity,” presumably raising in his mind the same sort of First Amendment issues as UVA’s London. One of those coaches is Georgia’s Mark Richt. Indeed, there’s little doubt about Coach Richt and the role his beliefs play with respect to his football team, as this profile by Jacob Demmitt of the student newspaper The Red and Black noted last year:

Throughout the years, religious traditions have spread to every corner of the program, including gameday weekends.

Stepping away from the tailgating chaos of the Classic City, the team often meets together in a Lake Lanier hotel the Fridays before games. Typical of the Georgia football program, this is used as an opportunity to grow spiritually.

“[Richt will] speak about football then he’ll put football to the side,” [Georgia fullback Bruce] Figgins said. “He always reminds us there’s a bigger picture. He reminds us that football is just an avenue to use to reach others and to grow spiritually … It’s real nice. I think everyone enjoys going. It’s been a lot of laughs, a lot of tears in that time just with us, but it’s always good.”

The following morning, the team goes through the usual routine — wrapping ankles, suiting up, working out pre-game jitters in warm-ups — but they’ll always make time for even more prayer.

Richt’s approach may raise heckles in the ACLU’s offices, but they’d likely be music to the ears of Abraham Baldwin, the founder of the University of Georgia. Like UVA’s Jefferson, Baldwin was a politician, serving as a Georgia delegate to the Constitutional Convention. Unlike Jefferson, Baldwin was a minister and former Yale divinity professor. And in 1785, when Baldwin convinced the Georgia legislature to authorize a state university—where he served as the first president—the new school’s charter clearly incorporated religion as a key component of higher education:

When the Minds of people in general are viciously disposed and unprincipled and their Conduct disorderly, a free government will be attended with greater Confusions and with Evils more horrid than the wild, uncultivated State of Nature. It can only be happy where the public principles and Opinions are properly directed and their Manners regulated. This is an influence beyond the Stretch of Laws and punishments and can be claimed only by Religion and Education. It should therefore be among the first objects of those who wish well to the national prosperity to encourage and support the principles of Religion and morality, and early to place the youth under the forming hand of Society that by instruction they may be moulded to the love of Virtue and good Order.

The charter further required all university officials be Christians, although discrimination against students based on religious belief was prohibited.

None of this is to suggest that universities should adhere to the original intentions of their 18th century founders. However, in answering the question raised by Jayson Whitehead—does religion in the locker room violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause—I think the answer is quite clearly no. At least, if you’re asking the question, “Does it violate the Establishment Clause as written?” The dilemma here is that Whitehead and others accept the modern view that the Clause somehow requires the walling off of religion behind a barrier that no official in the state’s employment, especially a high-profile football coach, can penetrate. In that vein, Blaine Bronwell rhetorically asked in a comment on C-Ville’s website,

Would the same practices—organized prayer under the supervision of university faculty and staff, Bible study, overt and repeated advocacy of a particular faith, and peer pressure to participate—be considered appropriate in a Chemistry, Physics, or even Religion classroom? Of course not.

The issue is not so black-and-white. In the context of a single classroom, the professor is responsible for teaching a limited, single subject. The role of a football coach like Mike London or Mark Richt is much broader. We commonly hear coaches are responsible for “molding young men,” not just teaching them the mechanics of the spread offense. When players get into trouble, administrators and the press don’t blame the chemistry or physics professors. They hold the coaches responsible. As they should. The coaches recruit the players, earn the big salaries and get the credit when everything goes right.

We commonly hear coaches are responsible for “molding young men,” not just teaching them the mechanics of the spread offense.

Let’s also recall that the history of college football is itself a battle over fundamental principles of ethics and morality. The late 19th-century game was essentially a student-run activity that yielded gruesomely violent results—so much so that one of Jefferson’s successors, Theodore Roosevelt, convened a White House summit to discuss whether football should be allowed to continue at all. That meeting spurred the creation of the NCAA and the “civilizing” of college football under administrative control.

The NCAA’s first few decades were spent developing the concept of “amateurism,” which in the days before the BCS and big television contracts was more a debate over morality than money. In a 1930 lecture, Howard Savage of the Carnegie Foundation noted that while it was acceptable for students studying art or science to profit from their studies, it was inherently “evil” for athletes to do the same because of the “violent” nature of sports:

[Amateurism] reflect[s] the conflict between certain primal, inherited characteristics on the one hand, and certain traditions of social behavior on the other—the moral struggle between force and the uses to which, with the sanction of our civilization, it may be used and should be put … The amateur convention is thus a social convention—that is, a convention that the present order of society maintains for its own good.

Jayson Whitehead noted that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many religious leaders shared the view that college football was a dangerously immoral activity. But “as the sport evolved” under NCAA control, “the evangelical South was slowly won over, particularly when Alabama upset the University of Washington in the 1926 Rose Bowl.” By the 1950s, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes was formed, providing the infrastructure for the melding of religion and football that persists to this day.

The marriage of college football and religion benefits both parties. Football acquires the authority of a religious code that’s not directly tied to wins or profits, while religion gains access to a cultural pulpit squarely outside the political arena. This is especially helpful for religion in a world where the conventional wisdom supports the view that Jefferson’s “wall of separation” metaphor is taken as secular Gospel. When a high-profile athlete or coach proclaims his faith, it’s generally not treated as  a political attack, even if it comes from a state employee like Mark Richt.

Conclusion

When the first Queen Elizabeth proclaimed herself “supreme governor” of the church and the state in 1559, eliminating the “foreign” influence of the Roman Catholic pope, she initiated a complex chain of events that led to the establishment of the early American colonies by various religious sects eager to be rid of the Church of England. The early colonies’ own theocratic experiments, however, eventually gave way to the idea of disestablishment—the notion that the general government should never hold authority over, or be subservient to, any ecclesiastical organization. This is the “wall of separation” Jefferson referred to, no more, no less.

It’s downright silly to argue that in the 21st century, the actions of some football coaches to incorporate religious teachings into their programs somehow represents an effort to turn back the clock and re-establish the link between religious and civil authority. I don’t even think that’s what Jayson Whitehead was trying to argue. But it’s equally counterproductive to perform constitutional gymnastics in order to prevent Mike London or Mark Richt from using religion as a tool of their coaching. Unless you’re prepared to either ban the publicly faithful from coaching at state universities or abandon the notion that coaches bear some degree of responsibility for the overall ethical development of their players, this is just something that secularist interlopers need to accept.

On a final note, I would say to those who are still uncomfortable with religion’s role in football—and I myself am an agnostic who has never belonged to any church—that in the grand scheme of things, it’s not the worst thing in the world for college football coaches to acknowledge and proclaim the glories of a higher power. In the best situations, and I suspect this includes Richt and London, religion can serve as a tempering influence on the enormous pressures and egos present in a major program. The existence of a moral code that supersedes the coach’s authority should be viewed as a positive. The last thing anyone should want are “secular” football leaders who define right and wrong based on their own passing whims, without reference to social customs, precedent, fixed principles or even contractual obligations. There’s a name for those kind of leaders. It’s called Roger Goodell.