Coaches must balance faith, work in public-school system
Nearly the entire Clermont East Ridge High School football team filed into the weight room for another day of lifting, some wearing gray T-shirts, others tank tops. Coach Bud O’Hara asked them to sit for a moment and share why they decided to join the team.
“It helps keep me out of trouble,” one player said.
“This is a second family to rely on,” another added.
Several others chimed in, describing accountability, teamwork, perseverance, dedication. O’Hara replied “Amen” after each one.
“Anyone else?” O’Hara asked. He scanned the room and saw no hands.
“OK, let’s bow our heads for a moment of silence.”
Everyone in the room, including O’Hara and his assistant coaches, closed their eyes and bent their heads. Until a month ago, O’Hara might have recited a prayer or read a devotional. A Christian man, O’Hara believes religion has a firm place in his program because of the good it can do for his kids.
But after The Sentinel inquired to the Lake County School Board about whether O’Hara and other coaches were allowed to lead prayer, O’Hara said he was asked to stop because he was violating federal policy.
It serves as another example of the tension that exists between religion and sports. As the evangelical Christian movement has taken hold in the United States, it has raised questions about how much preaching should be allowed given the constitutional mandate of a separation of church and state.
The divide can best be illustrated on the public high school level. There are coaches like O’Hara who believe God belongs. The government says no.
What the law says
The Supreme Court has ruled that “teachers and other public-school officials may not lead their classes in prayer, devotional readings from the Bible, or other religious activities. Nor may school officials attempt to persuade or compel students to participate in prayer or other religious activities.” Students are allowed to pray independent of their coach or teacher.
Though there are no records that keep track of coaches getting into trouble for leading prayer, there have been several recent cases. Last year, Jacksonville Bartram Trail Coach Darrell Sutherland had a group threaten to file a lawsuit against him because he led postgame prayers. Coaches in New Jersey, Connecticut, Ohio and Texas have also been told to stop leading prayers in recent years.
East Ridge’s O’Hara is not the only public-school coach in Central Florida who is open about his religion. Apopka Coach Rick Darlington also talks about his faith and has led prayer with his team. O’Hara has discussed his religion for his entire time at East Ridge and he says no one has ever complained.
So why, until recently, were O’Hara, Darlington and other coaches allowed to lead prayers without anyone questioning them? That answer is a bit more complicated and explains why some coaches in the Central Florida area have instilled religion in their programs without so much as an eyebrow being raised.
It seems no one was asking any questions.
Even though federal policy clearly states coaches aren’t allowed to lead prayers, Lake County Athletic Director Vann Brackin said coaches have never been told by the school district what they were permitted to do when it came to using religion in their programs.
The Orange County School Board said it never had any complaints about Darlington.
So if the principal, school board, parents and students never raise this issue, then the behavior continues.
“The way these practices come to an end is for a very courageous parent to come forward or principal or superintendent to say stop this,” said Judith Schaeffer, legal director for People For The American Way, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group that describes itself as working to defend democracy.
“It’s hard for parents to do it or for someone on a team to come forward, particularly in communities that are religiously homogenous because there is a huge risk for those families in terms of harassment and ostracism.”
O’Hara was warned once before about praying with his players, when he was a coach in Leesburg eight years ago. But that didn’t stop him from doing it at East Ridge the last six years.
If he knew there might be a problem, why did he even mention his religion in the first place? O’Hara says he strongly believes the only way to love these boys is to show them the love he has for God.
He wants to help build character and morals, and thinks the best way to do this is through the example of Christianity. Though he has led East Ridge to five playoff appearances, the success of the program comes second.
“I feel so strongly about my faith and about these kids’ future,” O’Hara said before he was told to stop leading his team in prayer. “It’s not about me, it’s about what our kids have inside of them. It doesn’t have anything to do with me. It’s about loving others. It’s about loving the person that’s hard to get along with. Love [God] first and love others second.”
Darlington, who helped Apopka win the 2001 6A football title and has made four playoff appearances at the school, believes he has to be himself around his team. That means discussing his faith.
“I’m a Christian, and those are the things that are important to me,” Darlington said. “Whereas some coach would quote a president or something that happened in history, I might use an example from the Bible, or an example of what God did in my life.”
Darlington illustrates an interesting point, and one that explains why many coaches feel the need to introduce religion. Jeff Duke, a UCF sports and fitness professor, has helped set up a program that helps students on the road to becoming coaches.
Duke teaches holistic coaching, or coaching from the heart, as the third part of a three-tiered pyramid on how to be a successful coach. The first two dimensions deal with building good players through strength, technique, speed, power, intensity and motivation.
Coaching from the heart is the toughest part to teach, and the most nebulous. But Duke believes coaches can get through to players better if they use holistic coaching. He has found that coaching from the heart shows athletes learn skills more quickly, are in better shape and have deeper relationships with their coaches.
So for many, coaching from the heart means exactly that. What do they have in their heart, and how can they connect with their players? For many, the answer is Christianity.
“There’s a greater need for kids to be loved,” Duke says. “You have this coach who has this great influence over them. If he really wants to love his kids, and he loves God, then he wants to share it with them — not because he wants them to become Christians but because this is the way he knows how to love.
“The hard part is this: What can you do from the heart to reach the kids but honor our governing authorities? The line is a moving line, and it’s very hard to separate. We need to be man or woman enough to help set frameworks where they can coach holistically and not violate the law.”
Drawing a line
The burden falls to school districts and administrators to make it clear what coaches should and should not share with their players. But there is even confusion there.
When contacted about what Darlington was saying to his players, Orange County Public Schools sent out an e-mail to coaches and athletic directors reiterating that coaches were not allowed to lead their teams in prayer.
As for Darlington admitting to leading prayer himself, school board spokeswoman Kathy Marsh said, “We do not believe Coach Darlington has led prayer.” When asked how school board officials knew that to be true, she said, “It is by somebody from the district asking him.”
“I don’t feel I need to apologize,” Darlington said before the e-mail from Orange County went out. “You see coaches and teachers get in trouble for all kinds of stuff, pornography, trying to have sex with students, you see so much bad out there.
“If I’m going to lose my job over something good, what a great reason to lose your job. I’m going to do what God wants me to do. If I do get in trouble, get fired over who I am, then I’ll find somewhere else to coach.”
Apopka Principal William Floyd seemed unaware of what Darlington was saying, offering, “I know he has a high moral standard, and these kids need good moral role models.
“But beyond that, I’m not aware of a lot of what you’re telling me.”
Religion is not the only way to teach character. Boone Coach Phil Ziglar, who led his team to the 6A state championship game this past year, says he has stayed away from discussing religion with his team because, “Parents are the ones that convey the message of whether they want their children in a Christian atmosphere.
“For me to sit there and say we’re going to say a Christian prayer, we might have other faiths in my huddle. I don’t think that’s fair to them.”
To what end?
Though coaches like O’Hara and Darlington believe they are not converting kids, it is hard to believe otherwise when listening to East Ridge junior linebacker Kevin Batman.
When asked what would happen if he had a Jewish teammate, Batman said, “He’d be one of our family members. He still serves our God. . . . I think he would come around to a point where he would accept Christianity. He would see through our devotions and everything we do together that there is something better than what his religion has.”
Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said it is that attitude that shows coaches are trying to proselytize their players, even though they believe their intentions to be pure.
“When you fudge the line here and you break the law and have the school arranging prayer, that’s what they are going to teach these kids, intolerance: ‘We’re the right ones,’ ” she says.
Though these coaches have been told to stop, they still believe they have good intentions and refuse to apologize for their beliefs. But they have started to change.
During the moment of silence in the weight room at East Ridge, O’Hara sat quietly. Batman spoke, thanking God for giving his teammates and coaches this moment together, praying for strength and togetherness.
This is how it will go from now on at East Ridge.
“It’s a blessing,” O’Hara said. “Because now it’s going be on these kids to keep it going. And I think they will.”