Freedom From Religion Advocates Challenge Connection Between HS Football and Religion
To some Americans, high school football represents a form of religion, and increasingly it has come under fire from atheist groups such as the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF).
What relationship does football have to religion? The obvious connection can be seen in the ritual of dedicated practice, the zeal exhibited at pep rallies, and the pageantry surrounding the game itself. But at its heart, football carries a fundamental connection with religious audiences that atheist organizations are working hard to dismantle.
A comparison of the political makeup of football-devoted states makes for an interesting study. This can best be seen by looking at where the sport of football is losing ground. Amid revelations of the lasting damage caused by concussions, participation has dropped off by 4%-15% in the past six years with Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Colorado topping the list of states. This fall, numerous high schools in these states plus Massachusetts, Maryland, New York and California had to cancel part of the football season because declining interest combined with injuries left the rosters with too few players to muster a team.
Interestingly, most of the states experiencing this trend voted Democratic in both of the last two presidential elections. These states are also home to some of the highest percentages of bachelor degrees in the nation, demonstrating their level of education. In fact, the RAND Corporation learned in a recent study that where football is concerned, political affiliation is a predictor of support for the sport.
And hand in hand with the connection between liberals and higher levels of education comes the additional connection to lower levels of religious involvement. In the 2012 election, more than 70% of Democratic voters claimed to be atheist or otherwise unaffiliated with religion. So it would seem that liberal, educated, non-religious states are moving away from football, while conservative, religious states are holding strongly to it. The organized “secular religion” of football appeals strongly to the otherwise religious, even in the face of safety concerns.
But for atheists, dedication, zeal and pageantry are not the objectionable elements of the sport. Neither are the safety concerns. Rather, they use the Constitution as their tool to upset the balance of America’s most deeply religious communities. Recent targets include the team chaplains that serve as spiritual guides for players; the prayers that open the sporting events, and the public school teachers and coaches that lead those prayers.
Separating Church and State
Outside groups tend to cite the Constitution’s requirement for separation of church and state. In Florida, the FFRF pressured administration at Apopka High School, one of the 10 largest in the country, to curtail its use of religious iconography in its athletics program. In addition to allowing staff to lead public prayers, the school also printed Bible verses on team tees and school banners, and used religious music in highlight videos. Although these were all culturally accepted practices within in the school district, school officials ultimately had to remove all of them for constitutional reasons.
When the school was investigated further, it was found that a local church had contributed a significant amount of funding to the school as an effort to support disadvantaged youth. This demographic describes about half the students in the district, so the funding was sorely needed. But the team chaplains that were also permitted to accompany sports teams, provided by the church, had to go due to the policy changes.
Although freedom is a deeply prized asset to all Americans, the frustrating aspect of the objections is that often they don’t represent the community. The objections come from outsiders who focus their efforts in areas where religion deeply pervades the culture. In Tennessee, the FFRF and the ACLU persuaded the Oneida School District of their constitutional obligation to forbid clergy or employees such as coaches, administrators or teachers to pray over the intercom before games. Instead they called for a moment of silence. But a group of students, the home team cheerleaders, took matters into their own hands and used the silence to recite the Lord’s Prayer together. By the end of the minute, both the opposing team’s cheerleaders, the sidelines, and a large portion of the stands were on their feet reciting the prayer along with the cheerleaders.
Yet even for those who enjoy the culture of incorporating religious moments into sporting events, this change toward constitutional correctness can be positive. Without administrative involvement, the spectators in that stadium found the freedom to bring their religious culture to the football game with them. Rather than perfunctory observance through a single speaker, the spontaneous act included a larger number of active participants. And perhaps, at least on that night, the commonality found in a thousand voices reciting a prayer together made it that much more meaningful and sincere.
The connection football has with its religious fan base is certainly experiencing a bit of editing and refining. But the response of the fans at Oneida High in Tennessee shows that limiting the public school’s involvement with religious expression opens the door for more genuine expressions of faith.