(Delaware Online) Within the last month, officials at Sayreville War Memorial High in New Jersey and Central Bucks West in Pennsylvania have canceled the remainder of their football teams’ seasons after humiliating hazing incidents were discovered.
So it’s a bit of a sigh of relief to know that in Delaware, the biggest controversy in high school football so far this season has been coaches participating in postgame prayers.
As Brandywine coach Tom Wood said on Friday, “If that’s all people have to complain about me, I’m doing a good job.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) – a Madison, Wisconsin-based group that promotes the constitutional principle of separation of state and church – would probably disagree with Wood. On Oct. 8, FFRF sent a letter to Cape Henlopen School District superintendent Robert S. Fulton to alert him to “a serious constitutional violation occurring at Cape Henlopen High School.”
The Cape Gazette published photos taken by sports editor Dave Frederick following Cape Henlopen’s game at Cambridge-South Dorchester (Maryland) on Oct. 3. One photo appears to show head coach Bill Collick participating in a postgame prayer with his team, and at least two people brought it to the attention of the FFRF.
“He’s got his hands on players and he’s bowing his head and he’s participating in a prayer circle with students,” said Elizabeth Cavell, an FFRF staff attorney who drafted the letter to Fulton. “Our objection to that is it violates the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, which has been interpreted to say that public school districts and their employees cannot advance or endorse religion while acting in their official capacity.”
Cavell’s letter detailed several court cases that have established the law in this area. Fulton responded to Cavell with a much shorter letter on Oct. 17, summing it up by saying, “I can assure you that our employees, including coaches, will be reminded of laws involving the Separation of Church and State and will respond accordingly so that an objective/reasonable observer will not perceive their actions as endorsing religion in the future.”
In other words, when it’s time to pray, the coaches will be a few steps away. That was the case Friday night, as the Vikings gathered following their home game against Sussex Tech. Collick and his assistants were close to the group, but they weren’t part of the group. And that makes all the difference.
“We’re satisfied with that,” Cavell said. “We’re expecting that staff, including coaches, are not going to be participating in prayers with the students in the future.”
Fulton’s quick, yielding response to Cavell disappointed and even outraged some Cape Henlopen football fans, who felt the superintendent just backed down and let some group from Wisconsin tell him what to do. But really, there was no choice. Those fights have already been fought by others around the country, and they have lost.
“We’ve taken lawsuits in the public-school context, but I don’t think we’ve taken a lawsuit on coach-led prayer,” Cavell said. “The law is pretty well established, so it doesn’t lead to much litigation. The case law is quite clear.”
Collick told me he has prayed with his players throughout his 40 years in coaching, including during his entire run at Delaware State from 1985-96. He appeared to be taken aback by all of the controversy, but vowed to continue imparting his wisdom on his players. Even if that means taking a couple of steps back.
“We will continue to move forward and be about respect and do the things we know that good citizens and good people need to do,” he said.
But Cape Henlopen football is far from the only Delaware public-school athletic team that prays before or after games. I travel the state covering high school sports for The News Journal, and I have seen dozens of teams in many sports gathering for prayers. Most of the time, at least one coach is involved.
Over the last two weeks, I alerted our photographers to cover the postgame prayers at two football games. On Oct. 11, we photographed Wood participating in a prayer with his Brandywine team following a game at Mount Pleasant. On Oct. 18, we photographed Lake Forest coach Freddie Johnson participating in a prayer with his team following a home win over Laurel.
We didn’t do it to single out Wood or Johnson, or Brandywine or Lake Forest. We won’t be sending this to the FFRF for immediate action, but I’m pretty sure the Internet has reached Wisconsin. Don’t be surprised if these school districts receive letters from Cavell soon.
I have never seen any evidence of a player being pressured or required to participate, and I have seen some players choose not to participate. As much as anything else, the postgame prayer appears to just be a tradition, like standing for the national anthem before every game.
“Before the first time we do it, I throw it out there that this is strictly voluntary,” Wood said. “You do not have to participate if it goes against your religious beliefs. I’m not pushing my religion on anybody.
“This is just something that has always been done in football, from the time I was a Little League player, from the Brandywine Warriors, up through my playing days in high school. And everywhere I’ve been as a coach, it’s been the same way.”
Cavell wasn’t surprised to hear that prayers are being held at public-school athletic events throughout Delaware.
“The case law is quite settled, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a very, very, very common violation,” the attorney said. “It’s reported to us every single week from every part of the country. It is a really, really common legal violation. Religion in public-school sports is a big problem, and we hear about it all the time.”
That’s where we differ. I wouldn’t call it a problem. I would just call it part of the fabric of high school sports.
Fights breaking out after a game would be a problem. On Sept. 20, the Lake Forest at Brandywine game went into overtime. The Bulldogs appeared to score the winning touchdown on fourth-and-goal, and Brandywine’s students rushed onto the field to celebrate.
But the officials blew their whistles, held a conference and determined that the Brandywine runner had fumbled before reaching the end zone and Lake Forest had recovered to preserve a 13-12 win. News Journal photographer William Bretzger had a photo showing it was the right call, but emotions were still running high.
Anything could have happened when the teams met at midfield. But you know what happened? Both teams took a knee and prayed together.
“We don’t lead prayer,” Johnson said. “Our kids lead all of our prayers. Our kids know that if they don’t want to participate, they don’t have to participate.
“Our coaches don’t have any part of it. We just stand on the outskirts and touch them when they do it. But our prayer is player-led, and it’s voluntary. They don’t have to do it.”
But everybody did it. I have been paying close attention to these postgame prayers the last couple of weeks, and it’s easy to see that while almost everyone is participating, many of the players aren’t engaged. They are taking a knee, they are holding a teammate’s shoulder pad, they are bowing their head. But some of them are thinking about their girlfriend or their next math test or which postgame sandwich they will order at Wawa.
No matter how many letters the Freedom From Religion Foundation writes, I expect to continue to see postgame prayers at public-school athletic events throughout Delaware. The coaches may have to back up a step or two, but the players will know they are still being supported.
“One of the most noble things that men and women do is entrust you with their kids,” Collick said. “You better believe that. And we owe it to their parents to send those kids back to them better than they were before.”