Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - Dabo Swinney was under the microscope a few weeks ago when a story came to light that the Clemson football coach was reportedly pushing his religious faith on both players and other staff members at the South Carolina state school.
Earlier this month, the Freedom From Religion Foundation - a watchdog organization based in Madison, Wis. - sent a letter to Clemson University's Senior Associate General Counsel saying Swinney stepped over the line when it came to promoting his faith (Swinney is very openly Christian) among his players and staff. The FFRF expressed Constitutional concern with the culture Swinney has reportedly created, saying the football program is "entangled with religion."
Swinney responded to the complaints lodged against him last week, saying anyone is welcome in the Clemson program who can play football.
"I have recruited and coached players of many different faiths," Swinney said. "Players of any faith or no faith at all are welcome in our program. All we require in the recruitment of any player is that he must be a great player at his position, meet the academic requirements and have good character."
Specific allegations were made against Swinney by the FFRF, which sent a letter to the university through the organization's attorney, Patrick Elliott. According to the letter, Swinney brought in James Trapp as the team's chaplain, and provided him with an office in the athletic building and was given access to the football team between drills for the purpose of Bible study.
According to the organization, bringing in a chaplain goes against the "Guidelines for Athletic Team Chaplains," which states students must select their own chaplain and seek approval from the coach. Trapp also was given an office in an on-campus athletic building, though not as an employee of the university.
Other allegations included asking the entire Clemson team to attend a Fellowship of Christian Athletes breakfast in 2011, and taking the team and staff to church services and other organized religious activities.
While football is a sport known for its heavy indulgence in religion, if the Freedom From Religion Foundation's accusations are correct, Swinney's decisions and actions have no place at Clemson.
Considering Clemson is a state school, the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment stipulates the separation of church and state. No player or staff member on Clemson's roster should feel obligated, or be pressured into, participating in an activity that makes he (or she) feel uncomfortable, or one that goes against another belief.
That being said, the university itself hasn't shown much concern for the situation, which could have been played up by the Wisconsin-based group. Cathy Sams, Clemson's chief public affairs officer, told The Greenville News everything Swinney organizes in relation to his religious beliefs is strictly voluntary.
"No one is required to participate in any religious activities related to the football program," Sams said. "It's purely voluntary. Religion and faith is a big part of coach Swinney's personal beliefs, but it is in no way required. There is no mandatory participation."
Swinney himself said when he goes on recruiting trips, he likes the athletes to know exactly who he is and what he believes in because that's how he builds relationships.
"Recruits and their families want, and deserve, to know who you are as a person, not just what kind of coach you are," Swinney said. "I try to be a good example to others, and I work hard to live my life according to my faith."
The subject of pushing religion in football isn't specific to just this instance. A perfect example is former Florida quarterback and NFL player Tim Tebow, who won many people over with his in-your-face Christian lifestyle, and turned an equal number of people away for the same reason. It seemed for Tebow (football aside) there was no in-between when it came to his outward religious messages. Some loved his style, some did not like it. But very, very few shoved it aside and labeled it part of the business.
Since the reports came out of Swinney's alleged forcing of religion on his players, there hasn't been a shift of players asking to transfer out of the program. In fact, one of the Tigers' best defensive players, Vic Beasley, decided to forego entering the NFL Draft (where he was projected as one of the top defensive end/outside linebacker prospects). Instead, Beasley decided to return for his senior season at Clemson, despite the heavy amount of talent from the university that did enter the draft (including quarterback Tajh Boyd and star wide receiver Sammy Watkins).
A secondary concern for the FFRF, even if all of Swinney's organized religious events for the team were in fact voluntary, is the example he sets as someone with large influence on his players.
"Coaches should be aware of the tremendous influence they have on their athletes," the FFRF said in its letter to Clemson. "These young men spend a great deal of time in their coach's charge, and the coaches, through their own example, must be sure that athletes are not only treated fairly but also imbued with a sense of community and camaraderie."
Regardless of any potential outcome, it seems that's exactly what Swinney was trying to create based on the accusations against him - a sense of community and camaraderie.
Accurate or not, the accusations against Swinney are serious enough to at least be examined. There is no ill intention here on Swinney's part, but whatever he is trying to instill (likely a sense of unity and camaraderie), he's going about it the wrong way by attempting, perhaps subconsciously, to use his faith to bring his team together.
At colleges known for their heavily Christian faiths - such as Notre Dame, Boston College and Creighton - his actions wouldn't be seen as anything overly extreme. But at a religiously indifferent institution like Clemson, which is funded by the state, Swinney was bound to suffer some backlash.
Which he did, but there will be no repercussions, and nor should there be. But with a subject as polarizing as religion, Swinney should exercise more caution.