- Andrea Adelson, ESPN Staff Writer
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We have heard one complaint about Dabo Swinney and the way religion is “entangled” with the football program.
One singular complaint. Not from a current player or a former player. Not from a current coach or a former coach.
Just one, which came from a separation of church and state watchdog group based in Wisconsin, some 880 miles from Clemson. The Freedom From Religion Foundation leveled charges against Swinney based not on eyewitness accounts of “unconstitutional behavior” but on public records requests that detailed Bible days, Fellowship of Christian Athletes breakfasts, team devotionals and the hiring of the team chaplain.
Had any of these religious activities been mandatory, had any player lost his scholarship because he failed to attend them, then Swinney would be guilty of unconstitutional behavior at a public university -- where separation of church and state is guaranteed in the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
But nobody -- not even the FFRF -- has claimed that Swinney penalized a player based on his religious beliefs. So what is Swinney guilty of, then? Being a little overzealous in bringing his religious beliefs into the program? Does it say anything about the situation that not one player has lodged a complaint?
According to public records, Swinney is the highest-paid employee at Clemson, a public institution. That means there is a finer line between being a man of faith and being a man who preaches his faith. Swinney cannot deny who he is, nor can he deny how he became who he is. He tells all prospective recruits exactly what they will get when they play for him.
There is a flip side to that. Swinney might not be actively proselyting, but when you take the lead in organizing bus trips to churches, or ask players to attend FCA breakfasts, there could very well be unintentional pressure to conform.
The FFRF has its concerns, accusing Swinney of alienating those players who do not believe as he does. But we have not heard any player complain he felt discriminated against or alienated while playing for Swinney. Aaron Kelly, a Jehovah’s Witness who played for Swinney from 2005 to 2008, came closest -- telling the Chronicle of Higher Education he felt “a little left out” as he watched teammates do their own religious activities.
But he also said he had no problem playing for Swinney despite their religious differences. Kelly left Clemson as the ACC’s all-time leading receiver. At the time, Swinney was his position coach and Tommy Bowden was the head coach, operating the program with a similar religious foundation.
“It was never forced on me or anything like that,” Kelly told Tigernet.com. “If I was uncomfortable with anything, I just explained myself and they were okay with it.”
In defending himself Wednesday, Swinney also used Kelly as an example.
“I’ve never had a problem ever in coaching him,” Swinney said. “He was never a guy who went to church with us, he didn’t pray with the team if the team ever prayed together. It was never a problem. The all-time leading receiver at Clemson and the ACC. ... It’s not about who the best Christian is, it’s about who the best player is. Always has been, always will be.”
Clemson is not the only school to have a highly devout Christian as its head coach. Georgia coach Mark Richt, for example, has been outspoken about his faith. Many teams across the country have team chaplains and player-organized FCA meetings. But there are lines that can be crossed at public schools, and Swinney should understand that.
Organizing bus trips to churches is not such a great idea. Baptisms on campus should be stopped. Swinney is adamant that he will not change how he runs the program, saying, “We do things the right way and always have. We’ll continue to run the program the way we always have.”
Until a player starts complaining, all we can do is take his word for it.