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Football coach, team shouldn’t have a prayer?

There are still winks and nods among colleges and their coaches. Recruiting a high school all-American running back is great, thank you very much, and if he is unable to read a text book or have trouble writing a coherent sentence, well, we’ll deal with that later.

And what about those players who, from one season to the next, put on 30 pounds of rock-hard muscle? Any player can spend hours in the weight room, but c’mon. There’s been speculation that between 1 and 3 percent of NCAA football players have dipped into those hormone-charged magic beans, but, well, we’ll deal with that later.

Getting a bowl bid or perhaps increasing their draft status surely surpasses the need for players – or their coaches -- to care about their long-term health. Colleges also are reluctant to spend money on expensive steroid testing when cheaper ones for drugs like marijuana allow them to say they're doing everything they can to keep drugs out of football.

Then there's Clemson and its coach, Dabo Swinney. No word on the literacy rate of his players or how many of them are suspected drug users. And if there is any grass-roots movement to rid the Tigers of any such miscreants, well, there’s been no such talk. But Swinney is promoting a program that has clearly raised some national ire.

Swinney is a Christian who promotes religious belief among his players. Players aren’t required to change – or even adopt – any religious beliefs. The Tigers’ depth chart hasn’t been altered by who believes in what. And while they are ranked in the top 10 among college teams, they are now playing strictly defense.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF), a Wisconsin-based atheist organization, has called Swinney’s practices "endorsement of religion over nonreligion.”

The group pointed to Swinney's personal invitation in 2011 to bring Minister James Trapp on board as the team chaplain. This, the FFRF says, goes against the school's "Guidelines For Athletic Team Chaplains," which states that students must select their own chaplains and seek approval from the coach.

The organization objected to what it sees as an overt inclusion of religion in the athletic program, allegedly including the reciting of Scriptural passages, distribution of Bibles and coercion to attend church. Clemson does have a chapter in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes with a website that offers information about campus pastoral care, church services, missionary trips and more.

The university's chief public affairs officer, Cathy Sams, told the Greenville News she wasn't concerned about the religious nature of the program.

"No one is required to participate in any religious activities related to the football program," she said. "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."

Swinney added that his team includes Muslims, Catholics and Mormons. In fact, there are 46 websites that explain and promote Islamic belief and teachings at Clemson. Apparently, the FFRF has not expressed any public concern.

"When we get out on the football field, it's not about if you're a Christian, it's about who's the best player," Swinney said.
The FFRF is not convinced, however, and urged the university to ensure that Swinney and Trapp discontinue any practices that may be deemed as proselytizing.

"Coaches should be aware of the tremendous influence they have on their athletes," FFRF said in its letter. "These young men spend a great deal of time in their coach's charge, and the coaches through their own example must be sure that athletes are not only treated fairly but also imbued with a sense of community and camaraderie."

Community and camaraderie. Hmmm. There’s not likely any specific references to either in any religious manifest, but it surely seems to get to the point of most faiths. And if Swinney is leaning on his players to, perhaps, discover a different perspective on life – and beyond – that hardly seems a reason to condemn him. But the FFRF, well, prays, for the likes of Swinney. As difficult a job as crime fighting is for police, they’d never want it completely crime free. If so, they’d be out of a job.

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