Who wins football games? Coaches, players or Jesus?
Thanks to the adroit handling by the president of the University of Connecticut, a potentially explosive faux pas by new assistant football coach Ernest Jones was recently defused and laid to rest.
Coach Jones, using words that might have been appropriate at Notre Dame, the Catholic university where he worked before coming to UConn, had said in an interview with the Hartford Courant: “We’re going to make sure they [the school’s football team] understand that Jesus Christ should be in the center of our huddle, that that’s something that is important. If you want to be successful and you want to win, get championships, then you better understand that this didn’t happen because of you. This happened because of our Lord and Savior.”
Response came quickly: “It sounds like football players who are not Christian might not be welcome at UConn, and would not feel a part of that huddle,” reader Rena Epstein wrote to the newspaper.
UConn president Susan Herbst immediately replied in the Courant: “At public universities we value everyone in our community, and treat each person with the same degree of respect, regardless of who they are, what their background is, or what their beliefs may be. Every student, including student-athletes, must know they are accepted and welcomed at UConn. Always. Our staff should educate and guide students, to ensure they are well-prepared for life at UConn and beyond. But it should go without saying that our employees cannot appear to endorse or advocate for a particular religion or spiritual philosophy as part of their work at the university, or in their interactions with our students. . . .”
Gary Jones, director of the Connecticut Regional Anti-Defamation League, applauded the university’s handling of the matter. “Clearly, this was a mistake . . . , but we understand that both the president of the university and the coach have addressed the problem and corrected it and we’re very comfortable with the response.”
But even when things turn out well and the dust has settled, further discussion can be beneficial. Let’s note four points in particular.
1. Many believers in Jesus don’t buy coach Jones’ contention that championships happen “because of our Lord and Savior.” And I say this as a member of the Christian clergy, not as an unbeliever. I’ve noted that academic institutions with the best coaches, the biggest budgets and the most clout in recruiting top-grade players are the most likely to take home national championships. Of course, it could be that Jesus is just more receptive to the prayers from top-flight institutions, but I doubt it.
2. I share Ms. Epstein’s concern: If football’s outcomes are decided by Jesus, and if the players’ relationship to Jesus determines whether or not he’ll deliver the victory, any team members who aren’t Jesus followers are in an unenviable position. Do they openly acknowledge their lack of belief and risk antagonizing the coach and the team–not to mention Jesus? Do they hide their true feelings? Do they forfeit their athletic scholarship and withdraw so the team has a chance of gaining Jesus’ favor and thus winning?
3. Students who attend a state-owned university should never face the pressure of the foregoing decisions. Those who are Christians, those of other faith traditions and those who see religious belief as sheer nonsense all pay the taxes that help fund state universities. That same range of people may also give additional gifts to further bolster such institutions. Thus, in state-run universities, those not from the Christian majority should never be made to feel that they’re somehow second-class for their alternative beliefs or absence of belief.
4. When well-intentioned-but-misguided religionists are reined in because they’ve overstepped the boundaries that alone can create fairness and equality in a pluralistic society, it’s not persecution, as some may claim. When coach Jones is told that at a state university it’s not acceptable to try to indoctrinate students into the belief that “Jesus Christ should be in the center of our huddle,” Christians aren’t being denied any First Amendment rights. They’re merely being asked to respect the rights of the minority and to apply the golden rule.
After all, didn’t Jesus say something about all spiritual obligation being encapsulated in simply treating others as we would want to be treated?
The Rev. Bryan Fulwider is president of the nonprofit Building US, one of “The Three Wise Guys” on the Orlando-based public radio program “Friends Talking Faith,” and chair of the executive committee of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.