ATLANTA (AP) — A football season begins, and with it comes religion on the gridiron.
Solemn prayers whispered before kickoff. Players from both teams kneeling together in the middle of the field when it's over.
Nothing wrong with any of that. Everyone is free to express their faith, no matter what they believe.
But some universities and high schools have gone too far. When a college team hires a chaplain, it sends a clear message that everyone is expected to fall in line spiritually. When a coach takes part in a mass baptism at high school stadium, which happened recently in a small Georgia community, it doesn't take a constitutional scholar to recognize the predicament.
So, before we get down to Xs and Os, let's make sure we're separating church and state.
"Football is like a religion," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation. "Then you have religion in football, and it's really combustible."
Gaylor's group recently sent letters to 15 major programs, nine of them in the Southeastern Conference, complaining that their chaplain programs are egregiously promoting religion within a public university setting.
"The coach has such immense power," she said. "If you're a player, you get in line. You want to please the coach. The last thing you want to do is stand out as rebellious."
Georgia was one of the schools that received a letter from the foundation. The Bulldogs' longtime coach, Mark Richt, has made no secret of his deep Christian faith. The team's chaplain, Kevin "Chappy" Hynes, just happens to be the coach's brother-in-law.
Richt said there's nothing nefarious about mixing football and faith.
"We're at a secular university," he said this week. "I understand that. We don't try to make anybody believe a certain way at all."
Then, Richt went on to describe a coaching philosophy that can't help but leave his players thinking their spiritual growth — whatever course that takes — is just as important as lifting weights, learning the playbook, and going to class.
"I believe we're made of our body, we're made of our mind, and we're made of spirit," Richt said. "We work hard on our body as far as getting them in shape and working on schemes and plays and lifting and running and all the things we do in nutrition and sleep. When we work on the mind, we care very much about them getting their degrees, the tutoring and academic appointments and all, the meetings. All those things are mandatory.
"But anything that has to do with growing spiritually, I encourage our guys to grow spiritually. I believe our spirit is going to live beyond our body. So I encourage them to grow spiritually, but I don't tell them what to believe."
But even that's problematic looking at today's society, in which there is a growing number of young people who describe themselves as atheist or agnostic.
At Georgia Tech, team chaplain Derrick Moore has been a visible part of the program for years, his fiery pre-game speeches even turning up on YouTube. He is employed by the Georgia Tech Athletic Association and, from all accounts, beloved by his players. It's also worth noting that videos show him capping off his inspirational words with the "Lord's Prayer."
"He's there for a lot of guys, just off-the-field stuff, just trying to lead them in the right direction," said Justin Thomas, the team's star quarterback. "Not necessarily with Christianity, but just in life. Making sure they're going down the right path, doing the right things. Nobody is forced to do anything. But if you're around him, he's an uplifting guy. He's someone you want to be around."
Clemson was another school singled out by the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Their coach, Dabo Swinney, has been a familiar target of the organization, also receiving a complaint last year that charged him with promoting religion in violation of the Constitution. Swinney has denied any wrongdoing while making it clear he's not about to shy away from his faith.
"It's not tough to balance at all," he said. "I am who I am. I don't apologize for that."
Religion in sports certainly raises some intriguing legal issues, according to Scott C. Idleman, a law professor at Marquette University.
The courts have generally held that public high schools can't conduct any sort of activity that could be construed as promoting religion, since most students are still minors and more susceptible to the pressures to conform. That raises serious questions about a video showing a football coach and 18 players being dunked in a tub during what was described as a baptism ceremony at Villa Rica High School in west Georgia..
Idleman said the law is murkier when it comes to college football players, who are legally adults but still find themselves largely at the mercy of their coaches.
"The coach stands in relation to his players almost in a parental way, like a teacher. The courts are pretty sensitive to that. They're going to hold the school accountable for that dynamic," Idleman said. But he wouldn't even venture a guess as to how the Supreme Court might rule if such a case ever reached the nine justices.
The potential for abuse is clear, however.
In 2003, a cheerleading coach at Georgia was fired after the school found she had demoted a Jewish student who complained about attending Christian Bible study sessions at the coach's home. Houston Texans running back Arian Foster recently acknowledged that he's an atheist and told of being forced by his college coach, Phillip Fulmer, to attend church services when he played at Tennessee.
Enough with the proselytizing.
Let's focus on the Xs and Os.
Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963
AP Sports Writer Charles Odum contributed to this report.