High-profile college football coaches are known to be able to get away with just about anything they want. Occasionally they get in trouble for crossing the line. But most of the time, as long as they’re successful, they’re allowed to run their programs as they see fit.
That’s a serious problem at Clemson University, where head coach Dabo Swinney, the highest paid coach in college history and the winner of two national championships, has run his team like a Christian church. That’s not a metaphor. The way he pushes his religion onto his team — i.e. students at a public university — is blatantly illegal and would be unacceptable if he were Muslim or atheist or just about anything else in between. But because he’s promoting Christianity, everything goes.
This isn’t new information. In 2011, Swinney added a chaplain to his coaching staff to hold Bible studies for the team between drills. Swinney said the entire team would attend a Fellowship of Christian Athletes breakfast in 2011, where three players would “testify.” In August of 2011, three coach buses were booked to take the team and staff to a local Baptist Church for worship. The next year, athletes were baptized on the football field.
In 2014, Swinney responded to those allegations from the Freedom From Religion Foundation by simply saying no one on his team was required to be a Christian. “Players of any faith or no faith at all are welcome in our program,” he said, completely ignoring the fact that players would obviously feel some pressure to adopt his faith to stay on his good side — and get the sort of playing time that might lead to a future lucrative NFL career.
Swinney was no better on his own. In 2015, he planned to appear at a fundraiser for the Palmetto Family Council — an anti-LGBTQ, anti-abortion Christian group. The problem was that he planned to go there, not as a private citizen, but as the head coach at Clemson. (The group even used the word “coach” in their marketing material.) He only refused the invitation after serious public backlash.
All of that happened before his two national championships in 2016 and 2018. His profile is higher today than ever before. That comes with more scrutiny, too.
Now, Tim Rohan of Sports Illustrated has written a lengthy piece about the Christian culture in Swinney’s program.
… Swinney has built Clemson into a one of the premier college football programs in the country, while keeping religion front and center. 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. Steeped in religion, Clemson has won two of the last three national championships, and is ranked No. 1 again this season.
The Christians who defend him make all the points you’d expect: The church stuff if voluntary, no student has been punished (at least not explicitly) for not participating, the kids who choose to attend Clemson are aware of Swinney’s program and they buy into it… but the issues we’re talking about are more intangible. There’s coercion (whether or not Swinney admits it). There’s the fact that students who might dissent wouldn’t dream of crossing paths with him.
There’s also the overt Christianity at a public school. But for all of the documented instances of proselytizing, the school hasn’t done a thing. Why would they? Swinney is their cash cow.
… In 2015, Dan Radakovich, Clemson’s current athletic director, told the AP that, after the FFRF reached out, the school reviewed the situation internally and found the football program had been compliant with the law.
What did that review look like? Who knows. But the bottom line is that unless Swinney crosses the line in some way that’s obvious to laypeople as much as lawyers, nothing’s going to change.
(Screenshot via YouTube)