Commentary

Ron Brown confusing faith with rights

Originally Published: April 27, 2012
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

Let's say there is a gay running back on the Nebraska roster. And Ron Brown is his position coach.

[+] EnlargeRon Brown
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesRon Brown's public anti-gay stance has implications for Nebraska football.

Now what?

Think about that for a moment. And then think about Brown's very public stance against homosexuality.

The Cornhuskers assistant coach recently testified in front of the Omaha (Neb.) City Council that gays, lesbians and transgender people shouldn't receive anti-discrimination protection under a proposed ordinance. He is considering testifying on May 7 in front of the Lincoln City Council, which will conduct a public hearing on proposed legislation that would prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

None of this would matter if Brown were an ordinary citizen with an extraordinary belief in his interpretation of the Bible's position on homosexuality. That belief led him to compare the sponsors of the Omaha ordinance to Pontius Pilate and to tell The Associated Press "that based on the Bible, homosexuality, the lifestyle of homosexuality, is a sin."

But Brown isn't an ordinary citizen. He is a coach at a public university and for a revered football program whose reach stretches from Omaha to Scottsbluff. When he speaks, his words carry more power because of his association with Nebraska football.

It was no accident that when Brown spoke to the Omaha City Council he listed his address as Nebraska's Memorial Stadium. And there is no separation of church and state on Brown's Nebraska football office voice message:

"I praise the Lord Jesus Christ for today. I hope you're having a blessed day. Not able to answer my phone right now. Give me a try back and Lord willing, I'll get back to you as soon as possible. Have a great day."

Brown, as well as Nebraska athletic director Tom Osborne, has said that Brown's city council testimony reflected only the assistant coach's personal views. But those views were made by an employee of a public university that receives 42 percent of its funding from the federal government and state appropriations.

It is also a university that prides itself on inclusion, whose Office of Equity, Access and Diversity Programs features the school's non-discrimination statement. And there in that statement, in boldface type, by the way, is this: "It is the policy of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln not to discriminate based upon age, race, ethnicity, color, national origin, gender, sex, pregnancy, disability, sexual orientation, genetic information, veteran's status, marital status, religion or political affiliation."

Brown clearly doesn't support policies that provide anti-discrimination protection to gays and lesbians. And yet he represents that university as a football coach in one of the nation's most recognized programs?

Nebraska's Office of Equity, Access and Diversity Programs referred me to the Chancellor's Office. Chancellor Harvey Perlman is out of the country for another week, but a university official did forward Perlman's initial responses to Brown's comments.

In a March 30 statement, Perlman said he was "personally offended" by Brown's stance relative to gays and lesbians. "Whether intended to do so or not, they reflect poorly on the university, on our athletic programs, and I am certain they cause pain and discomfort among a valued and productive segment of our community."

But Perlman added: "Unless and until I have evidence that Coach Brown has engaged in conduct beyond speech that many of us find offensive, I do not intend to do more than seek to assure that he speaks only for himself and to disassociate myself and this university from his position."

In other words, Brown can continue to call gays and lesbians "sinners," and then report to work the next morning.

[+] EnlargeNebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Harvey Perlman
AP Photo/Nati HarnikNebraska Chancellor Harvey Perlman has said he was "personally offended" by Brown's stance.

Meanwhile, Osborne declined any further comment. Multiple interview requests were made to Brown, who is on the road recruiting. An athletic department spokesperson said Brown wasn't likely to respond to those requests. Brown has said he speaks for himself and for those who believe the Bible has a non-negotiable stance on homosexuality. He has said that if those views result in his dismissal as a Cornhuskers coach, then so be it.

"To be fired for my faith would be a greater honor than to be fired because we didn't win enough games," he told the AP.

So Brown would be a willing martyr. And if he continues to confuse faith with a person's fundamental right not to be discriminated against, then Perlman and Osborne should fire him. Because while his religious beliefs are his own -- and his opinions protected under the First Amendment -- Brown remains a representative of a university whose core values stress the "diversity of ideas and people."

Brown has the absolute right to express his views. But at what point do those views bleed into the workplace? It's a small thing, but Brown's office voice message is proudly nonsecular. And Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini has said that Brown discusses religion with his players, but, according to the AP, no team member has complained.

But what does that mean exactly? That the players want Brown to continue mixing religion with football, or that they're reluctant to say anything, in fear that it could affect their standing with a coach who controls their place on the depth chart?

And what if there were a gay player on the Nebraska roster? Or what if one of the players Brown is trying to recruit this week is gay, or has a family member or friend who is gay?

These are not unreasonable scenarios. Would you want to play for a coach who thinks God loves gays less than women or African-Americans? Would you want to play for a coach who preaches compassion and love, but is willing to turn his back on a fellow human being because of that person's sexual orientation?

Discrimination is discrimination. It isn't a buffet line where Brown can pick and choose who can be protected from it. It is repugnant in all forms.

Whether he realizes it or not, Brown's supposed private stance has public -- and Nebraska football -- implications. His beliefs find their way back to his players and the message is this: I've got your back -- as long as you're not gay.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter

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