By Matt Crossman
GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Imagine Dabo Swinney, Clemson's Christian football coach. He shows up at a recruit's house and looks a pensive mother in the eye. She's worried about sending her baby far away. Swinney tells her he's a Christian, because he's always up front about it. He tells her The Good Lord has blessed her son with incredible ability. He won't force anything on her son, but by God he promises to give the young man access to religious mentors, Bible studies and chapel if he is interested. Either way that young man is going to strap on the full armor of Clemson and woop Steve Spurrier four times.
Now imagine Dabo Swinney, Clemson's atheist college football coach. He shows up at a recruit's house and looks a pensive mother in the eye. She's worried about sending her baby far away. Swinney tells her he's an atheist, because he's always up front about it. He tells her that her son's incredible ability is nothing more than a lucky combination of evolution, timing and genes. But by Nobody if that young man comes to Clemson, Swinney will make sure he helps woop Spurrier four times, which will ultimately prove meaningless because the earth will disintegrate as the sun explodes, which will suck and all but whatever.
This (somewhat ridiculous) thought experiment comes courtesy (sort of) of Swinney himself, who on Monday at ACC media day defended himself against criticisms levied by the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, which complained earlier this year that Swinney and his staff were violating the Constitution by forcing religion on players.
He said he has done no such thing.
Yes, he's a Christian.
No, he doesn't require any religious commitment from his players.
"I can't come to work and not be a Christian. It's just the reality of it," Swinney says. "It's just like if I was an atheist head coach. Everybody who would have come to play for me would've known that on the front end."
Pause here to note that even if Swinney were an atheist coach, he would never, ever admit it because heathens never score recruits. Not even in the North.
Back to Swinney: "I have great respect for other people's faiths and beliefs and all that. It's not my job to judge people. I just am who I am."
It's fitting that Swinney (coincidentally) quoted Exodus 3:14 almost exactly in that last sentence. Religion and football have long been marbled together in ways subtle and profound. Athletes and coaches pray to God before games, point to Him during them and credit Him after. Fans beseech Him just as fervently, and Alabama's absence from last year's national championship game shows He's been listening.
Sportswriters would be lost without religious themes. The Hail Mary was a prayer for centuries before Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach named a pass after it. We are all witnesses to the Immaculate Reception, the Miracle on Ice and the Music City Miracle. We file into Saturday shrines, where we anoint saviors, baptize them by fire and then crucify them.
Which is not to say we apply all of our religious metaphors correctly. David didn't just beat Goliath, he killed him and cut off his head, which makes running up the score seem like not so big of a deal after all. I might get smote for saying this, but you can trace, "you're not worthy to carry my jock" to John 1:27. Just to be on the safe side, I will not reference the nickname that misspells Nick Saban's last name.
Swinney said Clemson hasn't changed anything in the wake of FFRF's complaint. Nor did he give any reason to believe anything would change. But the debate remains about where to draw the line between public and private faith when it comes to college football. Swinney giving altar calls during team meetings would be wrong. But to tell Swinney to stop talking about being a Christian is to tell him to stop being Dabo Swinney. In between is a whole lot of gray.
Swinney was annoyed at how FFRF characterized his program as some sort of pray to play team. He defended his right to be outspoken about his beliefs but said that's as far as he takes it. He says he doesn't make decisions of any sort based on participation in religious activities or compel players to do anything they don't want to do. He joked that if he did, the team would be 4-22 over the last two years instead of 22-4.
"I've never been bashful about telling people I'm a Christian. That's just who I am. That's my choice," he says. "It's a free country here. I can live my life the way I want to."
Swinney is far from unique in allowing his faith to bleed into his coaching. North Carolina coach Larry Fedora says he considers it his responsibility to help players grow "academically, socially and spiritually."
Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher leads the team in the Lord's Prayer after every practice. Duke prays after every practice and before every game. When Wake Forest head coach Dave Clawson coached at Fordham, a Catholic school, he wanted all of his players to attend mass before games, but he excused players who objected. He said is uncomfortable with the idea of a collective team prayer at a state school.
None of which is not to make a judgment one way or another or to say FFRF or Swinney is right or wrong. It is to say if the FFRF wants to get God out of college football, it will need a miracle.
* * *