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Dabo Swinney, Clemson need to use common sense following religion-related complaint

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports
NCAA Football: Orange Bowl-Ohio State vs Clemson
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Jan 3, 2014; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; Clemson Tigers quarterback Tajh Boyd (10) talks with head coach Dabo Swinney during the fourth quarter of the 2014 Orange Bowl college football game against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Sun Life Stadium. Tigers won 40-35. (Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports)

Dabo Swinney is a man of faith. Dabo Swinney proudly, and often, proclaims that faith. Dabo Swinney is the head football coach for Clemson University, a public school in South Carolina.

These are not unrelated items, certainly not to Swinney, who credits Christianity for driving his inspirational life story – overcoming a troubled family to rise to the upper tiers of college coaching where he's turned the Tigers into a big winner.

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Sammy Watkins and Dabo Swinney throw oranges into the crowd after Clemson defeated Ohio State. (AP)

You spend anytime around the 44-year-old and you are going to hear about Jesus, Scripture, and the power of it all. It isn't necessarily, or at least not always, done to proselytize. It's part of how he talks, how he lives. Faith, Family, Football – that's about it with him.

There is no delineation.

For the people at the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a non-profit out of Madison, Wis., there needs to be or he shouldn't have his job.

In what is, if nothing else, an absolutely fascinating subject, the FFRF sent a letter of complaint to Clemson this week about "several serious constitutional concerns" over how "Christian worship seems interwoven into the Clemson football program."

Responding to what it says was a complaint sent to it by a member of the public, the FFRF had one of its five staff attorneys investigate the program via open records requests over the constitutionally protected separation between church and state.

It uncovered a host of issues, from Swinney directly hiring the team chaplain (even Clemson policy says the players should choose), to coaches participating in testimonials and bible studies, to buses being organized to transport the entire team to "Church Day" at a local Baptist Church.

The letter, in great detail, cites various university policies and case law that are violated by these actions. It's a thorough letter. And it goes after Swinney, who it claims as a public employee is barred from participating in any official capacity in the religious activities of his players or underlings.

"Fire the coach, stop praying and start playing," Annie Laurie Gaylor, the co-founder and co-president of FFRF told Yahoo Sports. "I think this coach has really crossed the line."

The FFRF claims Swinney clearly shows favor to one religion – by hiring a chaplain of that religion, for instance. Thus, it says, the environment is coercive because players of different faith or no faith feel pressure to conform to the wishes of the guy who holds playing time and advancement over them.

Clemson denies that Swinney or the athletic department has done anything wrong and has announced no further investigation into the situation.

"We believe the practices of the football staff regarding religion are compliant with the Constitution and appropriately accommodate differing religious views," the school wrote in a statement, declining further comment. "Participation in religious activities is purely voluntary, and there are no repercussions for students who decline to do so."

Clemson isn't bothering to defend each item of complaint at this point. Regardless, there are some simple and common sense solutions that quite frankly someone at Clemson should have enacted a long time ago. You didn't need to be a constitutional scholar to realize it might be best to let the players choose their chaplain (or, better yet, not have one at all), or steer clear of "Church Days" and certainly don't organize group busing options, even if privately paid for, to faith-based events.

The issue is not new. Although the FFRF says it mainly deals with complaints about public high schools, two decades ago it did take on some coaches at the University of Wisconsin. And just last year, Oakland University, a public school in Michigan, dismissed its women's basketball coach for undisclosed reasons, although it came following player complaints that included discussions of faith and invitations to attend the coach's church.

Swinney is just one of a number of football coaches who are extremely outspoken about their faith and run programs at public schools that seem closely aligned with Christianity. If Swinney is, at the very least, walking a Constitutional line, then he sure isn't the only one.

"They are mixing their athletic mission and their religious mission and pushing prayer and Bible study on a captive audience," Gaylor said. "It's an abuse of power and an abuse of conscious."

As a thumbnail, the FFRF says a coach should never discuss religion with a player, let alone stop practice for prayer sessions or sponsor after-hour testimonials. Should a player come to him seeking religious guidance, he should encourage him to seek out the innumerable faith-based groups on a major college campus. Clemson boasts 41 of them, ranging from the Fellowship of Christian Athletes to groups and congregations for Catholics, Mormons, Muslims, Jews and others. There is even the Secular Student Alliance of Clemson for atheists, agnostics and others.

"The religious counseling should be outside the athletic department," Gaylor said.

This is not only the law, but seems reasonable in a vacuum. The thing is, college football doesn't exist in a vacuum. Football players are often extremely devout, perhaps because of the randomness in which success, failure and injury can occur.

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Dabo Swinney chats with QB Tajh Boyd prior to the Orange Bowl. (AP)

Likewise, players and their parents often seek college coaches who will help develop them not just athletically, but with academics, maturity, leadership and, indeed, spiritually. They want this. It's part of the deal with sports, so ingrained – rightly or not – in the culture that few even blink at it anymore.

And since only a few religious-based schools play major college football – BYU (Mormon); SMU (Methodist); TCU and Baylor (Christian); Notre Dame and Boston College (Catholic) – this takes root in public schools that traditionally field the best teams.

Moreover, Swinney, who Clemson declined to make available for comment, is not hiding his faith. He openly discusses it with fans, the media and recruits. He's preached at mega-churches across the South.

If you agree to play for him, you know his religion is part of the equation. Some players, no doubt, come because of his intense devotion. Others are willing to go along because they either find him agreeable in other ways, think he'd be a terrific coach or just want to attend Clemson.

The university itself noted, "we are not aware of any complaints from current or former student­athletes about feeling pressured or forced to participate in religious activities."

Gaylor responds by just pointing, again, to the First Amendment. She finds bringing religion up in the recruiting process for a public school particularly troublesome and the lack of internal complaint irrelevant or even potential evidence that players fear speaking up.

"He may be self-selecting a pious bunch in recruiting," she notes. "If so, that's an even worse violation. Public universities are paid by our tax dollars. They are not to be exclusionary Christian clubs."

Swinney would take a great player from any religion. The first order is to win. He is mostly an uplifting speaker, big on self-accountability and realizing what it takes to succeed in life.

That isn't the issue though. The courts are consistent that an individual should be protected from ever being put in that position where they have to ignore or complain about a religious message. Also, people's views change, especially during the formative years of ages 17-23 on a college campus, so what they were once receptive to (or vice versa) could shift dramatically. This is why the burden is on the government employee turned would-be messenger to keep the message to his or herself.

The FFRF says it isn't currently pursuing a legal case against Clemson and isn't starting a broad based push against the inclusion of religion in college football programs at public universities, although it could probably do both. It says it just responds to public complaints. Of course, this may cause more complaints about other teams.

Her advice to Swinney or anyone else is simple: get out of coaching or go work for a religious-based school.

"He missed his calling," Gaylor said. "Why doesn't he become a minister and leave the football team alone? ... These coaches need to separate their religion from their job."

For Dabo Swinney, where religion is at the core of his life, his family, his work, his everything, that may be a challenge. If he wants to coach at a big public school, though, it may be one he needs to attempt.

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