DeBerry out of line for proselytizing to his players
Posted: Thursday May 26, 2005 4:49PM; Updated: Thursday May 26, 2005 5:08PM
Fisher DeBerry has taken heat for imposing his faith on his players.
Mike Powell/Getty Images
Colorado State football coach Sonny Lubick is steaming mad about his team's upcoming game against Air Force, and it doesn't have anything to do with the infuriating Falcons option attack. Nope, Lubick is upset that the Mountain West Conference, in another blatant grab at TV money, moved the Rams' game with AFA from Oct. 1 to Sept. 29, the better to satisfy ESPN's need for Thursday night football programming. Lubick's squad plays the previous Saturday, just five days before its meeting with Air Force, while the Falcons have a full week to rest, thanks to a Sept. 22 date with Utah. Once again, the almighty buck triumphs.
Or could it be that the Almighty has triumphed?
The last several months have featured considerable attention on the role that Christianity plays at Air Force, a service academy funded by the nation's tax dollars. A Pentagon task force is investigating claims of religious intolerance at the academy. Reports have chronicled the pressure cadets there face to attend Bible study sessions and the sometimes-intensive efforts by students to convert peers to Christianity. During Basic Cadet Training, those who declined to attend a chapel service were organized into a "heathen flight" by upperclassmen and marched back to their dormitories. At a prayer service, an academy chaplain directed those in attendance to proselytize to their classmates or "burn in the fires of hell." As the imbroglio intensified, news broke that AFA head football coach Fisher DeBerry, himself a Christian, was proselytizing to his players. Last November, before the final game of the season DeBerry hung a banner in the Falcons locker room that displayed the "Competitor's Creed," which includes the following:
"I am a Christian first and last. ... I am a member of Team Jesus Christ."
Submit a comment or question for El Hombre.
The banner stayed up for one day before academy officials asked DeBerry to remove it.
El Hombre is glad DeBerry is a man of such strong faith. It has no doubt served him well as a coach, a husband, a father and a man. If some of his players are of the same cloth, that's great, also. A sturdy spiritual life -- no matter what flavor -- is a vital component of any existence. However, when individuals begin to foist their beliefs on others, trouble brews, especially at an institution that is neither privately funded nor established primarily for the purpose of religious propagation. If DeBerry wants to quote Lombardi, Rockne or Wilkinson, that's one thing. But to insist that his players perform within a climate that does not tolerate and accept ALL belief systems as equally viable, especially at a federally funded institution, is not only wrong but also arrogant, irresponsible and a breach of the trust that parents put in coaches to whom they send their sons to play and learn.
Last November, DeBerry was counseled by Air Force officials about his religious promotion. Yet, on Feb. 25, 2005, DeBerry said Christianity is "what we're all about." A former player, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that the team's pregame prayer "was always to Jesus Christ. [DeBerry] never acknowledged there were other belief systems." DeBerry told his team this spring that he expected to see each member at Easter services. If DeBerry coached at Southern Methodist, Notre Dame, Brigham Young or Liberty, he would not be out of line. Those are private institutions that were founded to educate students in religious environments. If they want to put crosses on their helmets, adopt "Onward Christian Soldiers" as their fight songs and preach the Gospel at halftime, they can do it.
But Air Force, like the other service academies and schools that are funded with state money, has no right to be pushing any faith on its students or football players. First, it's illegal. In 1992, the U.S. Supreme Court held that "at a minimum, the Constitution guarantees that government may not coerce anyone to support or participate in religion or its exercise, or otherwise act in a way that establishes 'a [state] religion or religious faith,' or tends to do so." (Lee vs. Weisman 505 U.S. 577, 587.) Since the term "separation of church and state" is relatively new and doesn't exist directly in the Constitution, supporters of proselytizing in publicly funded institutions often hearken back to the Founding Fathers to defend their actions. They cite the words "In God We Trust," which can be found on the back of our currency. Let's see what the Fathers had to say. In 1802, Thomas Jefferson wrote a famous letter to the Danbury Baptist Association describing a "wall of separation between church and state." Not long after, James Madison wrote, "Strongly guarded ... is the separation between religion and government in the Constitution of the United States." But enough of the civics lesson.
DeBerry's actions are dangerous because he has tremendous influence over dozens of impressionable young men, all of whom are dependent upon him for playing time. By establishing that his program will recognize but one faith as legitimate and by attempting to convert those who don't fall in line, DeBerry is overstepping his authority and creating an environment in which those of other religious beliefs are not tolerated and feel an obligation to change in order to gain access to the field and coaches' approval. Further, he works at a service academy, training tomorrow's leaders -- on the battlefield and in life. Those men and women must be taught to lead in a diverse country that has no official religion and whose earliest settlers were escaping religious persecution.
People in and out of the college football world have sprung to DeBerry's defense. During a speech to a Fellowship of Christian Athletes group last week Florida State coach Bobby Bowden said, "Fisher is fighting a heck of a battle ... [with] the U.S. government. He's fighting a heck of a battle because he happens to be a Christian." Happens to be a Christian? A 2001 survey by researchers from City University of New York found that 76.5 percent of Americans consider themselves Christian. That's one heck of a strong minority.
The tentacles of this reach beyond the coach-player relationship. A few years ago, El Hombre sat in on a staff meeting at a Division I state school that began with an assistant coach's reading a Bible verse. Participation wasn't mandatory, but it was "strongly encouraged," according to the head coach. There are coaches out there who, when interviewing candidates for assistants' jobs, ask about the applicant's faith. As a practicing Roman Catholic, El Hombre believes in the benefits of religious adherence. However, he is against those who try to coerce others into converting, especially when federal or state dollars are being used to help fund their programs and pay their salaries.
Fisher DeBerry is a man of great faith and principle -- and a heckuva football coach. But if he wants to proselytize, he should do it away from the Air Force Academy. That way, his players can be free to pursue their own religious beliefs without fear of pressure from above.
EL HOMBRE SEZ: The Phillies have decided that the best way to deal with their myriad critics is to question the critics' baseball knowledge. Players, manager Charlie Manuel and GM EdWade have all railed at fans and media, suggesting that they study the game a little more. Well, El Hombre did a little studying this morning, and he found the Phils are in last place in the NL East, 6 1/2 games back. The team's bullpen has an aggregate ERA of 6.35. The Phils have a .400 slugging percentage -- seventh worst in the league -- and have struck out more often than just three other teams. Yeah, it's definitely the fans' and media's fault. ... New Orleans owner Tom Benson reports that someone offered him $1 billion for his franchise. What's that old saying about a fool and his money?
AND ANOTHER THING: It's a lot of fun to watch the Suns blast up and down the court in their fastbreak basketball circus, but winning in the playoffs is about defense, and Phoenix isn't playing much against the Spurs. The two main culprits? MVP Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire. They're great talents and have had tremendous seasons, but until they are more complete, Phoenix won't win a championship.