March madness: Atheists sue to remove 'character' coaches from major basketball programs

by Gregory Tomlin |

MADISON, Wisc. (Christian Examiner) – The Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF), an organization with a long history of filing lawsuits against perceived violations of separation of church and state, now has its eye on college sports.

The group filed a complaint with Wichita State University President John Bardo March 24 over the presence of "character coach" Steve Dickie on the team's bench at the NCAA Basketball Tournament. Dickie, who attends WSU basketball team meetings and travels with the team, is a staff member with Nations of Coaches.

SPIRITUALLY-BASED CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT

Nations of Coaches provides character coaches who serve "at the pleasure of the head coach," according to the organization's website.

"The overall objective is to help build the complete player (heart, body and mind of the student athlete). A Character Coach strives to help coaches and players not only win on the court but also in life," the website says.

In a video produced by Nations of Coaches, Dickie said he loved being around basketball players and helping them "learn how to love God." According to FFRF, that sentiment makes Dickie's presence with the team unconstitutional because his role, whether paid or volunteer, is a state endorsement of religion.

"While student athletes may choose to gather in prayer, a public university has no business encouraging or endorsing religious rituals, much less organizing them.

"Whether to pray, whether to believe in a deity who answers prayer, are intensely personal decisions protected under our First Amendment as paramount matters of conscience. Sermons and sectarian practices demonstrate the university's apparent endorsement not only of religion over nonreligion but also of Christianity over other faiths," the humanist group said in its letter to Bardo.

WSU responded to FFRF and indicated there would be an investigation into Dickie's role on the team.

Within days of the letter to Bardo, FFRF also sent letters to five more high-profile state universities over the presence of character coaches or chaplains who serve the teams. According to the group, Louisville University and the Universities of Maryland, Virginia, Oklahoma and Kansas have staff members listed in one of the two roles.

The letter from FFRF's staff attorney Andrew Siedel to the universities said "public school athletic teams cannot appoint or employ a chaplain, seek out a spiritual leader for the team, or agree to have a volunteer team chaplain because public schools may not advance or promote religion."

NO PLAYER COMPLAINTS

Importantly, no player or coach with the teams threatened by FFRF has claimed to have been coerced by the activities of the men serving the teams or publicly voiced concern over the role of the character coaches on the basketball coaching staff.

Threats from FFRF are now not uncommon in the world of collegiate sports. In April 2014, the group targeted Clemson University's head football coach Dabo Swinney because, in their assessment, Christianity seemed "interwoven into Clemson's football program."

Team devotionals, chaplain-led prayer and Bible studies at Clemson are a key part of character development for the players, but no player is coerced or forced to attend any event related to religion, Swinney said. The university also issued a statement claiming the practices of the football coaches were constitutionally compliant and allowed room for other religious views.

SUPREME COURT APPROVAL

"Participation in religious activities is purely voluntary, and there are no repercussions for students who decline to do so," the statement from Clemson read in 2014. "The Supreme Court has expressly upheld the right of public bodies to employ chaplains and has noted that the use of prayer is not in conflict with the principles of disestablishment and religious freedom."

FREE THOUGHT?

FFRF claims it exists to promote "free thought" and humanist, agnostic and atheist causes. While the group will likely continue to target public university sports chaplains who are from a Christian background, it has yet to file a complaint against the University of Southern California for employing a "humanist chaplain."

In a February 2015 Associated Press story, humanist chaplains were said to be serving at schools such as Stanford, Harvard and Yale. Those schools are private, but the USC is not. USC is now the workplace of one-time minister Bart Campolo, son of noted Baptist minister Tony Campolo. Bart Campolo left the church and now serves as the university's humanist chaplain.

USC has more than 50 chaplains of various religious backgrounds on its staff. According to FFRF, the presence of any chaplain at a university, whether paid or volunteer, is unconstitutional. It is unclear if the group feels such a prohibition covers a humanist chaplain advocating "non-religion."