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Saturday, Sep 20, 2014
Tom Jackson Columns

Jackson: Saying a (nonsectarian) prayer over high school football

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What is widely acknowledged about atheists and foxholes probably applies equally to every line of scrimmage from Pop Warner to the Super Bowl. When it comes to delivering the 110 percent demanded by coaches, it is hard to imagine anyone strapped into football armor willfully rejecting divine assistance.

It’s Pascal’s Wager in a Riddell helmet.

This applies, especially, when you suspect, reasonably, the guy across from you is actively seeking his creator’s favor.

Just so we’re perfectly clear, as it is with students and final exams, as long as there are misdirection plays and blitz packages, there will be prayer in football. Even high school football. If that bruises the prickly sensibilities of the miniscule minority of nonbelievers among us, tough.

Prayer on the gridiron is much on our minds this Friday, the first since Pasco’s other non-weekly publication announced it had detected multiple apparent violations of the First Amendment involving several county prep football teams.

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The report uncovered a tradition of Pasco County teams kneeling together in the center of the field at the end of games to share a prayer. Also that Pasco High occasionally ends its practices with a team prayer — a tactic, given the Pirates’ two recent appearances in the state semifinals, other coaches may decide to copy. And that Zephyrhills High Coach Reggie Roberts exposes his Bulldogs to a variety of Christian-based influences.

Well. A combination of U.S. Supreme Court rulings and Pasco School Board policy (reiterated this week by Superintendent Kurt Browning) make abundantly clear that such religious activities must not be led by coaches, whose status as public employees subjects them to the church-state separation interpretation that currently informs court decisions.

That said, the piece carried a headline – “Faith and football a controversial pairing” – that describes a condition unfamiliar in the South, if not throughout the known gridiron world. Indeed, several pivotal players at some of the nation’s top programs in Southern California are Jews playing at Catholic high schools.

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Quoted last year in the Los Angeles Times, St. John Bosco Coach Jason Negro said no one is singled out by religion and everybody goes to Mass. “They’re welcomed and they fit right in,” he said. “We’re not trying to convert anybody.”

Similarly, the Pasco Times piece acknowledges that no one has lodged a complaint, according to Pasco Athletic Director Phil Bell, leaving the reader to draw his own conclusions about the importance and timing of the expose.

Of course, there never is a wrong moment to uphold constitutional principles, especially those principles designed to preserve the rights of minorities against majorities that range from rambunctious to clueless. The fact that no one has fussed is beside the point, the sad history of bullied students who kept their torment silent to the end providing all the evidence necessary to appreciate why, given scenarios of unbalanced power, the powerful must be vigilant.

This, too, must be acknowledged: Pasco County has a perfectly dreadful record acknowledging non-Christians within its borders. Devotionals opening public events routinely end, “In Jesus’ name we pray.” County calendars, including the one freshly published for 2014, list only federal and Christian holidays, which helps explain how Pasco County Day during this year’s legislative session fell on the first day of Passover (it had to be rescheduled), and the Pasco Economic Development Council’s awards banquet was set for Rosh Hashanah.

In other words, let’s be nondenominational out there. We know players ask the Almighty to help them give their best effort (praying to win is tacky), and some may be calling in from different spiritual area codes. So what?

Besides, if we let high school football get messed up by coaches with sectarian axes to grind, what will God watch on Friday nights?

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