This editorial defending Coach Deion Sanders’ prayers is a massive fumble

Here’s the link to this article by Hemant Mehta.

The Gazette Editorial Board published a pathetic defense of proselytizing by an NFL legend hired to coach a college football team

Hemant Mehta

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There are bad editorials. There are outright embarrassing ones. And then there’s the piece that was published today by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gazette in Colorado Springs trashing the Freedom From Religion Foundation for calling out a beloved football coach.

When I first read it, I thought it had to be the work of a misinformed columnist since there’s no shortage of those, but nope, it was an editorial without a byline, representing the authority of the newspaper’s board. While the Gazette is a conservative paper owned by the same company that runs the right-wing Washington Examiner, it still stood out for how badly it defended a practice that needs to end.

Here’s the backstory: Back in December, NFL legend Deion Sanders was named the new head coach for the University of Colorado’s football team. The two-time Super Bowl winner would be paid a minimum of $5 million per year to turn around a team that went 1-11 last season and hasn’t won a bowl game in nearly two decades. Even if he failed, though, his name alone would bring attention and (some) prestige to a program that has been unable to earn it on merit.

Sanders hasn’t coached any games just yet. He’s in the process of building his staff and recruiting players for next season. But in December, one assistant coach allegedly began a meeting with an explicitly Christian prayer. And then in January, just before a team meeting, Sanders directed another coach to lead everyone in another Christian prayer:

Lord, we thank You for this day, Father, for this opportunity as a group. Father, we thank You for the movement that God has put us in place to be in charge of. We thank You for each player here, each coach, each family. In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.

It’s one thing to praise God during your first press conference, as Sanders did when he was hired; it’s another to foist one particular religion on students at a public university. This is something Sanders has been doing for years, too, as evidenced by pre-game warmups he did at Jackson State, where he coached before this new gig.

“Repeat after me,” Sanders tells his squad. “Lord, I love you. Lord, I thank you. Lord, I magnify you. Lord, I glorify you.

“Without You, I wouldn’t be a thing! A thing! A thing!”

The message was clear even if it went unstated: If you’re part of Sanders’ teams, then you better be on board with his prayers. Leaving the huddle, or remaining silent, or suggesting Christian prayers shouldn’t be part of of the coaching process could brand you as an athlete who’s not a team player. It could lead to less playing time. It could hamper your future opportunities. Even if that hasn’t happened yet, there’s a reason courts worry about religious coercion when it comes to adults at public schools leading or joining prayers with students. It’s true in high school and it applies to public colleges and universities.

In last year’s awful decision in Bremerton, the Supreme Court said that a public high school football coach’s post-game look-at-me-look-at-me-I’m-special prayers at midfield weren’t coercive. I believe that argument is wildly flawed, but even those conservative justices said a coach praying on his own (at least in theory) was okay even if a coach leading his team in Christian-only prayer would have crossed the line. The latter, they implied, was definitely coercive.

Deion Sanders, then, is doing something clearly illegal. It’s not just bad for team morale and a sign that the guy can’t coach since he’s relying on a Higher Power to do the heavy lifting; his Christian prayers violate the law.

That’s what FFRF reminded the university about in January when these reports surfaced. In a letter to Chancellor Phil DiStefano of the University of Colorado Boulder, attorney Chris Line explained how Sanders’ actions could jeopardize the school:

… It seems that in this case, Coach Sanders has not hired a Christian chaplain to impose religion on her players, but has done so himself, creating a Christian environment within his football programs that excludes non-Christian and non-religious players.

… Players trying to please their coach surely will feel immense pressure to participate in religious activities and go along with Coach Sanders’ proselytizing.

It is no defense to call these religious messages and activities “voluntary.” Courts have summarily rejected arguments that voluntariness excuses a constitutional violation.

Coach Sanders’ team is full of young and impressionable student athletes who would not risk giving up their scholarship, giving up playing time, or losing a good recommendation from the coach by speaking out or voluntarily opting out of his unconstitutional religious activities—even if they strongly disagreed with his beliefs. Coaches exert great influence and power over student athletes and those athletes will follow the lead of their coach. Using a coaching position to promote Christianity amounts to religious coercion.

FFRF wasn’t suing the school. They were just reminding the chancellor of the law and giving him the opportunity to correct the mistake. Sanders could run his program as he saw fit, but there were legal limits. Pushing Jesus on his athletes was not an option. (The conservative legal group First Liberty Institute sent its own letter telling the school Sanders was in the clear. As usual, FLI is wrong.)

FFRF’s letter worked. The university wrote back to them the following week and said they spoke with Sanders about the problem:

“Last Friday, the Office of Institutional Equity and Compliance personally met with Coach Sanders to provide guidance on the nondiscrimination policies, including guidance on the boundaries in which players and coaches may and may not engage in religious expression,” University of Colorado Executive Vice Chancellor and Chief Operating Officer Patrick T. O’Rourke recently responded to FFRF“Coach Sanders was very receptive to this training and came away from it with a better understanding of the University of Colorado’s policies and the requirements of the Establishment Clause.”

Even if you don’t believe a word of that, the university did the right thing. They acknowledged the line had been crossed, they made clear that Sanders was also aware of it, and they assured FFRF it wouldn’t happen again.

That should’ve been the end of the story. Everyone was on the same page.

Except, that is, the editorial board of The Gazette. Their headline gives away the game: “Atheists order Deion Sanders to hide his heartfelt identity.”

We could refute the headline alone, but it’s worth going through the whole piece. Right from the beginning, things start going downhill:

Diversity must threaten the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The club’s 15-member “honorary board” consists only of white anti-religionists. These self-righteous faux legal proselytizers want everyone to live and believe as they do.

It’s bizarre that they focus on the honorary board rather than the actual board of directors which includes people of color, but the central point is still wrong: FFRF, which is unabashedly atheistic, wasn’t asking Sanders or the university to adopt a position of atheism. Sanders can talk about God all he wants in his personal life. He won’t even get much backlash for doing it during press conferences. Well-deserved eyerolls? Maybe. But no lawsuits.

That nuance, which is the basis of this whole controversy, was lost on the editorial board. But they kept going.

It is no surprise this outfit wants national treasure Deion Sanders to behave as they dictate in his new role as the University of Colorado’s football coach. They want the NFL Hall of Famer and former pro baseball player to shut up and coach. They demand he suppress something central to his being — a trait no less important than his racial identity.

This is not Laura Ingraham telling LeBron James to “shut up and dribble” rather than speak out in support of protests shortly after the murder of George Floyd. This is an atheist group reminding a public university that it is, in fact, a public university.

To pretend a reminder to follow the law is the equivalent of a racist taunt tells you the editors of this newspaper have no clue how the law works, what the law is, or how the law must be followed.

They’re either willfully ignorant or eager propagandists. Take your pick.

While you think about that, the editorial continued acting like this was all about race and a desire to impede diversity:

Boulder and the University of Colorado’s flagship have long struggled in futility to achieve diversity. Blacks comprise 1.2% of Boulder’s population. Last fall, among the 36,122 CU-Boulder students, 2.6% were black.

Boulder and CU lack the big three in diversity — race, ethnicity and religion. Nearly 60% of Boulder residents surveyed claim “no religion.” Non-denominational Christians are such an anomaly they show up as 0.0% on surveys. A Gallup poll ranks Boulder the second-least religious city in the United States.

The hiring of an iconic, universally respected Black man with a household name has ignited hope for mitigating Boulder’s diversity problem.

There are plenty of reasons sports commentators could offer for why the school shouldn’t have hired Sanders. But literally no one involved in this discussion cares about his race. If Sanders’ presence helps bring more Black students to the school, great. (I mean, if you think hiring a famous Black athlete is the solution to fixing your school’s diversity problems, you’re ignoring all kinds of larger issues, but that’s besides the point.)

But that passage actually justifies what FFRF is doing! The people in Boulder are largely non-religious! Even if most players are recruited from other places, that suggests there’s a greater likelihood that some of those athletes might not be on board with performative Christian prayers.

It wouldn’t be okay if an atheist coach did it. It’s not okay when a Christian coach does it.

Later in the piece, the editorial board attempts to law-splain the Constitution to a group of First Amendment experts:

The law is not on [FFRF’s] side. The First Amendment says the free exercise of religion may not be infringed. We have freedom of religious expression, not freedom from it. The Constitution doesn’t carve an exception for coaches at state-funded schools. The First Amendment prohibits governments from obstructing religious beliefs, meaning private entities probably have more authority than their public counterparts to regulate expressions of faith.

The 2022 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District erased any doubt about Sanders’ right to speak and pray in his public-sector job. The court ruled against the district for firing a football coach for praying in the middle of the field in view of players and the public, with players often joining him.

This is how you know you’re dealing with the dumbest people in the newspaper business. They’re rehashing right-wing talking points about the First Amendment, not realizing everything they say supports FFRF’s position.

As I mentioned earlier, the Bremerton ruling doesn’t support Sanders’ actions here because Sanders wasn’t praying privately. If Joe Kennedy led his team in Christian prayer before a game, he would’ve lost the case. His entire position was that he was praying privately… even if people saw him and joined in. Using that case to support Sanders’ actions shows a remarkable lack of understanding of what’s going on right now.

The editors continued digging their own grave:

Sanders should not and does not coerce prayer or acceptance of his faith by anyone on campus. Oh, say the Freedom From Religion bullies, religious coaches will bench players who don’t appreciate their displays of faith. That amounts to coercion, they insist. It is hard to imagine a sillier hypothesis. Coaches win or get fired. They play those who increase the odds of winning, whether they worship trees or the secular movement’s Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Sanders adds to Boulder’s racial and religious diversity, and that’s a good thing. He is, through and through, a Black man who openly worships God. That is his identity, of which he is proud, and he should not change it for anyone. The law, as ruled by the court of final appeal, has the coach’s back in this attack on who he is.

It’s almost laughable to say hiring a Christian adds to our religious diversity, as if Christianity has ever not been represented on a football team. And if racial diversity matters to the University of Colorado, you’ll never believe how many Black professors you can hire for $5 million a year! (Spoiler: It’s more than one.)

Or—I’m just spitballing here—spend just $2 million hiring professors of color and then offer $3 million in scholarships to students of color! There are all kinds of ways to increase racial diversity in Boulder that don’t involve hiring a single famous Black athlete who commands a giant salary. But the editorial board didn’t do that math because they don’t actually give a shit about diversity.

This isn’t about a Black Christian. This is about a football coach who thinks he can push his faith on his athletes. The identity of the coach is irrelevant.

What the editorial board chooses not to understand is that coercion isn’t just about benching someone who doesn’t pray. (To use language they’ll understand, you don’t have to wear a KKK hood to be a racist.) The fear, as we’ve seen in so many actual cases, is that a student who doesn’t pray could be ostracized by teammates and looked down upon by coaches in a way that’s independent of his on-field talent. Sure, star players may get great opportunities regardless of their beliefs, but every football team has dozens of players on the cusp of greatness who need as many chances as possible to prove themselves to people who can make or break their careers.

The benefit of the doubt shouldn’t go to an athlete who professes a belief in Christ.

Why is there more of a rush to defend Sanders’ public Christianity than the rights of players not to participate in those prayers? They don’t have a $5 million contract to fall back on. There’s far more pressure on them to just stay and pray.

We wouldn’t even be having this discussion if Sanders weren’t Christian. If he began promoting Islam to his team the way he’s been pushing Christianity, the Gazette’s editorial board would never just sit back and relax. You know they’d immediately demand his resignation.

To pretend FFRF’s concerns are somehow racist is a red herring. The Gazette can’t defend what Sanders is doing because, in the editors’ minds, there are always special rules carved out for Christians.

Incidentally, I asked FFRF’s co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor what she thought about this editorial. She made several of the same points I’ve mentioned above, but she added that “even if every single one of the team members claimed to be Christian… it would still be unconstitutional and inappropriate to introduce his religion into public university sports.”

FFRF’s Chris Line, who wrote the letter to the school, added this:

FFRF does not find Coach Sanders’ faith offense. We find his inability to perform his secular position at a public university without incorporating his religious beliefs into his official job duties offensive…

No one, certainly not FFRF, is asking that Coach Sanders change his identity. We are simply asking that he abide by the law, which requires him to act in a neutral manner with regard to religion in his official capacity as a public school employee.

We are not attacking who he is, we are trying to protect students from what he is trying to do. 

He’s right. This is all about protecting the students from the religious zeal of their coach, who knows every rule about boundary lines on the field yet appeared to be oblivious to where they are off of it.

The Gazette’s editorial board—Ryan McKibben (Chairman), Christian Anschutz (Vice Chairman), Chris Reen (Publisher), Wayne Laugesen (Editorial Page Editor), and Pula Davis (Newsroom Operations Director)—are lazy writers who think Christianity deserves more leeway than all other religions (and far more than no religion).

If they actually cared about the students at the university, they would tell the coaches to focus on coaching instead of using their platform to preach.

For now, at least, Sanders and the university seem to have gotten that message even if their biggest defenders still don’t get it.