Why We Fight About Football Prayers

The moral authority of high school coaches raises First Amendment questions the Supreme Court will have to consider in “Kennedy v. Bremerton.”

For nearly as long as there have been football coaches, there have been praying football coaches. And praying football coaches have frequently been at the center of the rough-and-tumble, back-and-forth debate over the place of religion in American public education.

Joseph Kennedy, a high school coach from the Seattle area, is the latest to take the field. The Supreme Court is set to hear arguments in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District on Monday. His lawyers will argue that the First Amendment protects his right as an American citizen to bend a knee and say a prayer after high school games.

The opposing counsel will also invoke the First Amendment, arguing that because Kennedy is paid by the public school, his prayers infringe on the rights of players, who shouldn’t be pressured to pray by a government employee.

But why football coaches? Why not praying principals, drama teachers, shop class instructors, or crossing guards? The football coach, it turns out, has a special place in the American struggle over the meaning of the freedom of religion.

We can trace the story back to one of the first men to turn coaching into a full-time profession, Amos Alonzo Stagg. He trained to be a minister before deciding, as he wrote in his autobiography, he “could influence others to Christian ideals more effectively on the field than in the pulpit.” From 1892 to 1932, Stagg built a college football powerhouse at the University of Chicago—and prayer was absolutely part of the program.

In Stagg’s day, American football was just developing as a sport. Key to its appeal and growing acceptance was the idea that it was more than a game, that it offered a space for young men to build character and develop the moral virtue …

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