It’s commonplace for professional sports teams to have chaplains. They’re private leagues; it’s not a constitutional violation. But the NCAA is a very different story. Many of the schools in this year’s men’s basketball tournament are public universities and, therefore, have no business having someone on the team whose job it is to promote Christianity.
But that’s what’s happening with Wichita State, the school that beat the higher-ranked Kansas Jayhawks over the weekend to get to the Sweet 16:
According to a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation to the school’s President Dr. John W. Bardo, attorney Andrew Seidel and Legal Fellow Katherine Paige (a Wichita State alum herself) want to find out how much taxpayer money is being used to fund the promotion of Christianity on the team:
It is our understanding that WSU employs Steve Dickie as a team chaplain and character coach. Reports show that Dickie leads the team in prayers and performs other religious rituals, such as blessing dinners.
In a video discussing his role, Dickie said, “I am a character coach at Wichita State because I love God, I love basketball players, and I love helping basketball players learn how to love God. … I love the idea of transformation. I love helping people discover God from the inside out.” Employees and volunteers at state universities are not constitutionally permitted to convert students to their personal religious creed.
In any event, it’s clear that the media and the players view Dickie’s position as religious. ESPN labeled Dickie “Wichita St Team Chaplain,” as did Sports Illustrated. And Fred VanVleet recently said, “We work for everything we’ve got, from managers to coaches to our preacher….” FFRF is concerned that it is actually the taxpayers who are working for, and paying for, Dickie’s position as team chaplain. To that end, we include a records request made to determine the extent of public funding used for this religious position.
If Dickie is, indeed, a character coach, there’s no reason to bring his faith into it. If he were Muslim or atheist, there would be no controversy here because he never would have gotten his position. But because he’s Christian, he is given special access to the team and an opportunity to promote his faith to the players and staff.
So make no mistake: This is all about promoting Christianity. That may be fine at a private school, but not at a public school.
Keep this in mind:
… for colleges and universities around the country, younger Americans are far less religious than any other demographic: 1-in-3 Americans aged 18-29 are not religious. It is very likely Dickie is imposing his religion on students who are not religious and just want to play basketball.
Just to rebut the inevitable argument that the players want this, no student on that team is likely to speak out against Dickie, even if they opposed his presence. It’d be bad for team morale and it could jeopardize their playing time (not to mention their scholarships).
I don’t know how many other public schools have a chaplain of their own, but FFRF says they’re investigating.