The Role of Religion at Clemson

ORLANDO, FL - DECEMBER 29: Members of the Clemson Tigers football team pray on the field prior to the start of the NCAA Russell Athletic Bowl between the Clemson Tigers and the Oklahoma Sooners on December 29, 2014 in Orlando, Florida. Clemson won the game by a score of 40-6. (Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images)

The Role of Religion at Clemson

Post-game interviews with Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney vary in size, shape, and color, and there’s plenty to choose from with the Tigers winning 68 of their last 81 games. From acronym-crafting to southern charm, the style of the Tiger’s head coach is unpredictable and hard not to love. But despite the vibrancy among the Tiger’s football program, two things are consistent: God and faith.

At Clemson, football and faith blend together seemingly effortless. On Saturdays, before Swinney pats Howard’s Rock and leads his team down the hill into the deafening roar of Memorial Stadium, the crowd of 70,000 falls silent as a prayer is read over the PA system.

But religion does not surface just in the moments before Swinney and his take the field. The team regularly participates in group prayer, Bible studies, and other spiritual activities. The program also provides its players transportation to local churches for Sunday mass services.

Freedom from Religion Foundation

In 2013, Clemson University received complaints of entangling religion in its football program. According to the 2013 complaints made by the Freedom from Religion Foundation, Swinney approved 87 devotionals that were organized by the team’s chaplain and led by members of the Tiger’s coaching staff. The FFRF claims that the state-funded school’s football program is “entangled” in Christianity, which can be coercive got an impressionable young man trying to impress coaches and earn time on the field.

“I mean, that’s a lot of praying going on,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the FFRF, a nonprofit atheist and agnostic group. “And it’s all orchestrated by the authority figures. And that is abusive.”

Football and Religion

In a 2015 interview with the Associated Press, Dabo Swinney explained that the faith shared among his team is a large part of their success.

“As a Christian, I hope a light shines through me,” said Swinney. “I don’t want to be persecuted for that and I don’t try to persecute somebody else because they have different beliefs.”

Swinney dismissed the idea that he and his staff are breaking the boundary between church and state. After a review by the school in 2014, Clemson Athletic Director Dan Radakovich supported this idea, explaining that the team follows crafted guidelines and that pregame prayer is always submitted to officials prior to it being read before any game.

“People who are doing this, they live in today’s world and they know and understand that this is a unique, special honor for them to be able to do that and they understand what the audience is and what the law of the state is,” said Radakovich.

With a cross on the chain he wears around his neck, two-time Heisman candidate quarterback Deshaun Watson says faith played a small, but important, role in his decision to attend Clemson.

“But it was a part of it, of course, knowing that my coach is a man of God,” said Watson.

“I try to be who I am. I try to be transparent. I try to live my life in a way that I hope is pleasing to my maker,” said Swinney. “As a program, we try to challenge these guys to be the best that they can be every day.”

Aaron Kelly, a former Clemson receiver, played for the Tigers when Dabo Swinney was the receivers coach as well as in 2008 when he was made head coach.  Kelly, a Jehovah’s Witness, said he never had a problem with going to church or taking part in prayer with his teammates.

“You just knew that that’s something that was important to him,” said Kelly. “It wasn’t something he hid or shied away from. You knew it up front, but it was nothing that he ever forced on us and made us feel like we had to do that.”

Constitutional Questions

The Constitution’s “religious clause” establishes rules about how religion and government interact.  One clause explicitly grants citizens the right to freely exercise their faith. The other prohibits facets of government, including publicly-funded schools, from establishing religion or giving favorable treatment.

With that in mind, two questions are still yet to be answered: How far can students and staff members go in expressing religious views?  And at what point is a school responsible for allowing religion to rule?  While the discussion continues of whether or not the words “under God” in the pledge of allegiance are unconstitutional, it’s clear there much still debated.

Unlike private schools and universities, public institutions are regulated by the First Amendment. School administrators and staff are required to allow acts of religious faith while preventing religion from granting special status.

Faith-based Coaching

When Swinney walks into the homes of his recruits, he promises parents that at Clemson, their sons will have the opportunity grow academically, athletically, and spiritually; but only the first two are required.

“Only thing mandatory in our program is you’re going to go to class, you’re going to give effort and you’re going to be a good citizen. You’ll be held accountable for that,” Swinney said. “But spirituality is a personal decision for everybody… It’s a free country here, and I can live my life the way I want to. I can’t come to work and not be a Christian.”

While the program has received criticism for its faith-based approach to the game, is Dabo Swinney committing any wrongdoing? Many argue it’s clear that Clemson’s religious conviction is the foundation their success. From below .500 seasons to 6 10-win seasons, 12-straight bowl appearances, repeat National Championship appearances, a two-time Heisman candidate, and 45 former Tigers on NFL rosters; maybe there is a God?

The Tigers head back to the National Championship for a rematch against the Alabama Crimson Tide this Monday, January 9, 7:00 in ESPN.

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