Freedom From Religion Foundation files complaint to Clemson against head football coach

By: Katy Ricalde

To truly understand college football in the South you have to experience it. To so many across the region it is their pride and joy and for even more it ranks right up there with religion... Saturdays in the fall being designated as yet another 'holy day.' 

Clemson University is one such school, and many fans were surprised to learn the Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a letter of complaint to Clemson against football coach Dabo Swinney. The letter cites concerns about the religious influence coaches have on football players, and states that Swinney has not fostered a culture adhering to the separation of church and state. 

The foundation says it does not want to infringe on Swinney's religious freedom, but it does want to ensure that Clemson players are protected, and they say they want to make sure coach Dabo's position does not pressure athletes to become more religious. 

"What we'd like to see is the end of this chaplaincy position and end to Bible distributions by coaches, an end to devotionals scheduled and put on by coaches and staff. The coaches need to step back and just coach (football) and not coach in religious matters."

Swinney is open about his faith, and under his direction the team holds weekly Bible studies for coaches and a voluntary chapel services for players the night before each game.

Clemson officials say they do not force religion on players and Swinney says he welcomes students of all faith on his field. 

The university and the town have rallied around their coach. A small town nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Clemson is surrounded by beautiful lakes and the residents consist primarily of college students, university employees, retirees, and local business owners. Football is not just a sport, but a way of life that starts before a 'lil' Tiger' is even born--you can't pass a shop in Clemson without seeing a 'Future Tiger' onesie or a 'Clemson Born and Bred' baby bib. 

A group of Clemson fans tailgate before a gameClemson falls into the Atlantic Coast Conference and the fans are one of a kind. "Death Valley" Memorial Stadium was named #8 in the Bleacher Report '50 Loudest College Stadiums" and holds an impressive 80,000 of the largest campus stadiums in the United States.  On game day a sea of orange and white fills not only the stands, but the entire town. Fans drive from all over to tailgate across the Clemson University campus--and they arrive to start setting up before the sun comes up.  

Clemson's Dabo Swinney joined the football staff in 2003 and worked as the wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator before he took over for Tommy Bowden in 2008 as head coach. Swinney was humbled and surprised when he was offered the promotion--he had been working as a real estate developer just a few years before. The town was a little unsure at first as well, but Swinney proved a powerful force, breaking Clemson's six-game losing streak and going on to coach Clemson to a 31-14 victory over the University of South Carolina in the annual rivalry game in 2008.

On December 1, 2008 an emotional Swinney took to the microphone during a press conference announcing his hire as the university's 25th head football coach. He spoke openly about his Christian faith saying, "There's really only one reason that an old boy from Pelham, Alabama, is sitting here in front of you today, and that's the grace of God." 

Around town, Swinney is known as a devout Christian and a family man with a big personality. He always stops to say hello to the fans, posing for photos, signing autographs, and even offering advice to young, aspiring future players.

Stacie Payne, whose son Bryce loves the Clemson Tigers, had nothing but positive things to say about the coach. 

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney poses for a photo with young fan Bryce Payne

"My son has attended Dabo's football camp for the past two years and he always takes time to interact with all of the kids. He has the most positive attitude that puts you at ease. We ran into him at a recreational youth football game and he took time from watching his own kids play to talk to my son and even give him a few pointers on the game," Payne said.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation's staff attorney Patrick Elliott told The Greenville News that the foundation does aim to avoid additional litigation.

"That doesn't serve anyone's interests. I'd rather see government fix these problems," Elliot said.

What do you think? Share your thoughts with me here on the blog or via Twitter @KatyRicalde.


Photos: Clemson fans tailgate before a big game and Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney poses for a photo with young fan Bryce Payne