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School Spirit: Religion, Sports Can Mix, But Don't Force It

Jeff Jacobs

8:25 PM EST, January 15, 2014

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Ernest Jones said what he said.

Susan Herbst, as president of our state's flagship university, did what she had to do.

There's no way Jones, as the new UConn running backs coach and director of player engagement, should have said he's going to make sure his players understand Jesus should be in the center of their huddle. Unless, of course, Jesus is a 6-1, 195-pound tailback out of New Jersey with 4.37 speed in the 40 ready to play next autumn at Rentschler Field.

Then, by all means, Jesus, please step right into the huddle of a public, nonsectarian institution.

Dead honest here: Running around from Foxborough, Mass., to Waco, Texas, over the weekend, I breezed over Jones' comments in Desmond Conner's introductory piece on the new assistant coach. I read how the new staff was interested in social development, life skills, community relations, and I'm nodding my head, good, good. Read how Jones talked about how going to UConn doesn't mean a player won't have the opportunity to pursue his faith, read about building fellowship and nondenominational things, all good. By that point, sitting in a distant airport, whether through fatigue or mental laziness, I breezed through, "We're going to make sure they understand that Jesus Christ should be in the center of our huddle, that's something that is important … That's going to be something said by Bob Diaco. That's something that's going to be said by Ernest Jones."

I absorbed the words as these were men of faith, that they were invested in building young men's character. I've read similar things from football coaches, at state and private schools, over the years and, like I said, it didn't hit me … until Rena Epstein, a UConn alum and sports fan, wrote in a letter to The Courant that she felt alienated and feared non-Christian players would not feel part of the huddle.

By that point, a number of people had reached out to the school with similar concerns. You have to figure that Herbst, her university already facing a Title IX complaint over the school's response to sexual assaults, would be especially vigilant regarding equal treatment of students.

"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," Herbst responded in a letter to The Courant. "It should go without saying that 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 ... Our athletic director and coach [Bob] Diaco agree wholeheartedly with me, and have made this clear to their staff."

Her words were decisive. Her words were absolutely correct. Although a Courant editorial has called for head football coach Diaco to reaffirm Herbst's position, I'm told Diaco is choosing to allow Herbst's voice, as the school's leader, to stand. So unless Jones challenges his school's president — there is zero indication of that — the controversy is over.

How about this, folks? Let's end the vitriol here, too. Let's not turn this into a straw man. Let's not take a man's comment about bringing Jesus into the huddle and make it sound as if his next step is to lead the UConn offense into burning down mosques and clothesline-tackling atheists.

I don't want to argue that this is much to do about nothing, because God, spirituality and separating church and state mean everything.

I do want to argue that there is another important issue here.

When you put nearly 100 ultra-competitive, high-testosterone young men in a compressed setting, well, we're not talking about the weekly bridge club here. There is an undeniably violent and militaristic bent to a football team. I've been around athletics all my life and the football culture is different than the other sports. When you couple that with the fact that so many arrive from difficult, under-privileged backgrounds, to say the young guys need a strong sense of direction is the understatement of all understatements.

When Diaco was explaining Jones' job and the new regime's mission recently on WTIC, he said it was about teaching players about everything from drugs and alcohol, to dealing with agents, to listening to inspirational people, to writing resumes and completing interviews, right down to the etiquette of dining.

In case you didn't notice, college football players get into trouble, plenty of trouble. Some of it is violent. Some of it is downright frightening. If we are to argue that college athletes are in sore need of building moral fiber, we must also be aware that strong moral fiber, with many athletes, involves their religious faith. The football program at Clemson, a state university in South Carolina, has held an especially religious tenor under coach Dabo Swinney. A player even was baptized at practice. For me, that's over the line.

There is a line between sport and religion at a state university that cannot be crossed, that must not be crossed. But you know what? As a parent, I'd also want a guy like Jones to inch right up to that line without crossing it. Good morals? Good. Spirituality? It's not something to be painted as wrong.

Look, UConn basketball coach Kevin Ollie has spoken many times in public about his faith. Is he to be muzzled?

Jones is not the bad guy here. Jones is the over-exuberant guy here, one who needed to be reined in after saying the wrong thing. After interviewing him, Conner told me he is convinced Jones meant to exclude no one. With everyone watching now, Jones, who held a similar position for a few years at Notre Dame, will have his chance now to include everyone.

There is nothing wrong with groups of players at a state university meeting for religious purposes. There is nothing wrong with members of a program offering spiritual guidance when a player asks. When so much time and effort is dedicated to athletic performance, there's nothing wrong with making it easier for an athlete to find what he is looking for.

Football is a violent sport. Athletes sustain injuries, sometimes the injuries are horrible. Sometimes players are left in wheelchairs for their rest of their lives. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I'm missing something. I see no harm in a prayer for safety before a game and a prayer of thanks afterward for those who want to engage in those prayers.

What's wrong is a culture of coaches evangelizing at a state university. That cannot happen and there is no evidence it did at UConn. Religion can't be pushed on players. Players must not be made to feel that they are outsiders if they don't go along. Doors can be opened. Nobody must be shoved through the threshold.

Maybe it's not an altogether bad thing that this controversy surfaced early in Diaco's reign. It's a lesson for his coaches, too, that their sense of moral direction is vital, yet their version of spirituality must not cross the line into excluding even one player.

Nothing turns me off quicker in a locker room than some player saying Jesus wanted his team to win or Jesus wanted him to score that touchdown. That stuff is superficial and misdirected. Yet at the same time, few things for me are as compelling as a young person in a heartfelt interview talking in-depth about his path in his life and his spirituality.

As it was written in Ecclesiastes, there is a time for everything.