The president of the University of Connecticut publicly rebuked an assistant football coach for telling The Hartford Courant that “Jesus Christ should be in the center of our huddle.”
“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” President Susan Herbst wrote in a letter to the newspaper. “This applies to work-related activity anywhere on or off campus, including on the football field.”
Ernest Jones, the team’s new director of player engagement, set off the religious firestorm last weekend after he explained how the coaching staff would encourage players to embrace their spiritual faith.
Jones, along with new head coach Mike Diaco, had previously worked at the University of Notre.
“Just because you come to the University of Connecticut doesn’t mean you won’t have the opportunity to pursue your faith,” Jones told the newspaper. “No, you’re going to be able to come here and love the God that you love. So we provide opportunities for them to grown spiritually in our community.”
He went on to explain how they would help players find local places to worship in accordance with their religious affiliation. He also said the team would engage in non-denominational events – involving players and coaches.
And then – he poured gasoline on the fire.
“We’re going to make sure they understand that Jesus Christ should be in the center of our huddle, that that’s something that is important,” he said. “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 of our Lord and Savior.”
Had Coach Jones been at a school in the South or Midwest, the community would’ve nodded their heads approvingly, shouted “Amen” and taken up a love offering. But the University of Connecticut is not the University of Notre Dame.
Rena Epstein, a local resident, took issue with the coach’s religious fervor and fired off a letter to the newspaper.
“I feel alienated,” she wrote. “It sounds like football players who are not Christian might not be welcome at UConn, and would not feel a part of that huddle.”
Epstein reminded the coach that unlike Notre Dame, UConn does not have a religious affiliation.
“It is a public, nonsectarian institution where students of all faiths or no faith belong,” she wrote.
University President Herbst read the letter and concurred.
“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,” she wrote. “Every student, including student-athletes, must know they are accepted and welcomed at UConn.”
Every student, that is, unless they happen to be a Christian. Based on the experience of Coach Jones, it seems to me that the administration of the University of Connecticut disrespects people of faith – specifically followers of Christ.
The Hartford Courant’s editorial team weighed in – siding against Jesus in the huddle.
“Mr. Diaco and Mr. Jones come to UConn from the University of Notre Dame, one of the country’s premier Catholic institutions of higher learning,” they wrote. ‘But they have left the cathedral for the public square.”
And as well all know too well, heaven forbid a Christian share his or her beliefs in the “public square.”
“It is fine to impart good spiritual values – as Mr. Jones wants to do – but they must be values common to all,” the newspaper wrote. ‘A secular humanist should be as welcome in the defensive backfield as a fundamentalist Christian, a Muslim, a Jew an agnostic. Right, coach?”
In recent years, secularists have tried to sever the bond between God and the Gridiron. Lawsuits have been filed challenging pre-game prayers. A group of Texas cheerleaders have faced litigation for game banners adorned with Bible verses. In Georgia, atheists objected to local churches providing meals to high school players.
And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Tim Tebow.
“Should Tim Tebow be so flamboyant about his faith?” The Scripps Howard News Service asked.
CBS columnist Dan Bernstein called Tebow an “affable simpleton.”
“It’s the creepy true believers lapping up every last morsel of Tebow’s cheap, bumper-sticker televangelism, and conflating all of it with football,” he wrote.
You would think that the University of Connecticut would welcome a coaching staff well-versed in values – especially considering the team’s recent brushes with the wild side. (I won't go into it here but you can look it up on Google.)
You would think they would welcome a coaching staff that taught young men to be a part of the bigger community, to build a tradition of excellence, to be men of character. But because these values are rooted in the traditions of the Judeo-Christian faith, does UConn think they are somehow tainted?
A university spokesperson told me Coach Jones was not punished for his statements. But it’s been made clear that Touchdown Jesus is not welcomed at the University of Connecticut.
I’m reminded of an old Southern Gospel song:
Dropkick me, Jesus, through the goal posts of life
End over end, neither left nor to right.
Straight through the heart of them, righteous up rights
Dropkick me, Jesus, through the goal posts of life.
Unfortunately, in this hypersensitive era of tolerance and diversity, educators are more interested in dropkicking Jesus – straight through the front doors of their public schools and universities.
Todd Starnes is host of Fox News & Commentary, heard on hundreds of radio stations. His latest book is "God Less America: Real Stories From the Front Lines of the Attack on Traditional Values." Follow Todd on Twitter@ToddStarnes and find him on Facebook.