FFRF figured significantly in an in-depth article in Sports Illustrated regarding the football program at Clemson University, a public university.
FFRF Senior Counsel Patrick Elliott was interviewed extensively by Tim Rohan for the article titled “Faith, Football and the Fervent Religious Culture at Dabo Swinney’s Clemson,” which appeared in the Sept. 9 issue. Swinney is Clemson’s head coach.
“Swinney has built Clemson into one of the premier college football programs in the country, while keeping religion front and center,” Rohan writes in SI. “Swinney has hired a team of Christian coaches and support staffers; he’s used faith as a selling point for recruits; and he’s created an environment where players openly discuss and bond together over their Christianity.”
The article begins with an anecdote from 2012, when Clemson’s star receiver DeAndre Hopkins was baptized on the field.
“One assistant coach was so moved by the scene, he snapped a photo of Hopkins in the tub and tweeted it out,” Rohan writes. “After that, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), a nonprofit organization that promotes the separation of church and state, received at least three complaints about the Clemson football program. The following year, in the fall of 2013, The Chronicle of Higher Education wrote a story examining Clemson’s religious culture, highlighting Hopkins’s baptism again, and the FFRF received two more complaints. They were coming from alumni and people in the Clemson community.
“At that point, Patrick Elliott, an FFRF attorney, opened an investigation and, in April 2014, sent Clemson a letter noting that the First Amendment prohibited the school, as a public institution, from supporting, promoting or endorsing religion. The letter asked Clemson to stop its team prayers, bible studies and organized church trips.”
Later in the article, Rohan writes: “After receiving upward of five complaints about the Clemson football program, the Freedom From Religion Foundation opened an investigation around early 2014. Elliott, the FFRF attorney, obtained a trove of internal e-mails between Swinney and his religious advisors, and sent Clemson a letter of complaint in April 2014. The FFRF accused Clemson of creating a culture that pushed Christianity on its players and violated the First Amendment.”
Rohan then writes about a 2003 case involving the Virginia Military Institute, in which the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that VMI had coerced its cadets into participating in a dinner prayer.
“The court noted how VMI cadets often had to ‘submit to mandatory and ritualized activities,’ because ‘obedience and conformity remain central tenets of the school’s educational philosophy.’ Elliott sees a lot of similarities between VMI and the Clemson football program. Like military officers, coaches also hold immense power over their charges. ‘They control several aspects of the players’ lives,’ Elliott says. ‘Their playing time, their ability to have a scholarship, potentially their future career.’ If a coach were to endorse a religious activity then, Elliott says, the player might feel pressured into participating.”
Clemson and others led FFRF to investigate college athletic programs that emphasized Christianity and religion. In 2015, FFRF came out with its “Pray to Play” expose (ffrf.us/PraytoPlay) on how “Christian coaches and chaplains are converting football fields into mission fields.” The Clemson program was featured prominently in the report.