First Amendment question from tmatt: What happens if Dallas Cowboys offer visible prayers?

We will open this religion-beat NFL update with a confession, a comment and then a question.

The confession: I grew up in Texas in the 1960s and '70s as a loyal Dallas Cowboys fan, in the era of Coach Tom Landry and the great Roger Staubach. I now cheer against the Cowboys and consider the current owner to be the younger brother of the Antichrist. So there.

A comment: I understand that NFL owners consider their stadiums to be professional "workplace" environments. Thus, they argue that they have the right to create rules governing the behavior of their employees. However, some of us First Amendment liberals would like to note that significant chunks of the funds used to build many, maybe most, of these structures came from local and state governments. Are we talking about public or private buildings?

The question: I realize that many NFL big shots, and the journalists who cover them, have a problem with demonstrations of religious faith. However, shouldn't reporters be including the word "pray" in their reports about the national anthem wars, as well as the word "protest"?

What happens if, during the upcoming season, one or more players: (a) Kneel and bow their heads in prayer? (b) Prostrate, face down, assuming a prayer position common in many Eastern faiths? (c) Stand, but raise their hands in a "charismatic" prayer gesture, with their lips moving in silent speech? (d) What if players make the sign of the cross and combine this with (a), (b) or (c)?

Protest or prayer? Maybe reporters need to ask if the correct answer is "both"?

The spark for this GetReligion meditation is, of course, the back-and-forth shots by Donald Trump and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. Here is the top of the latest report from The New York Times.

The Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, no stranger to speaking his mind and creating controversy, on Wednesday added fuel to an already confusing and rancorous debate about how the N.F.L. plans to handle players who demonstrate during the playing of the national anthem this season.
At the opening of the Cowboys’ training camp in Oxnard, Calif., Jones said that all his team’s players would be required to stand on the field for the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” They would not be able to stay in the team’s locker room, something allowed under the league’s revised policy on the anthem.
“Our policy is you stand during the anthem, toe the line,” Jones told reporters.
Jones added that President Trump’s tweets criticizing the league’s handling of the players who protest had been “problematic” for the N.F.L.

 

 

The story then notes that NFL leaders and the players association are still debating ways to clarify -- once again -- a national anthem policy in the age of #blacklivesmatter.

The point that I am trying to make is that there are multiple ways to kneel and/or assume similar positions of prayer. I think it would be interesting for journalists to ask about the religion "ghost" in this story.

The bottom line: Are the NFL owners, in part, trying to ban visible forms of prayer? This would a very interesting issue in Texas, where people have been known to pray from time to time.

I realize that The Dallas Morning News no longer has a religion-beat pro. However, there are major news organizations that might want to take a look at this angle.

Meanwhile, the Times story perfectly demonstrates the faith-free approach to covering this showdown:

In May, the owners unilaterally said that players would be obligated to stand on the field for the national anthem but would have the option of staying indoors. The league reserved the right to fine teams whose players protest on the field during the anthem, while the teams, in turn, can penalize those players.
Previously, players were obligated to be on the field during the anthem, but only encouraged, not forced, to stand while the song was being played.
The new rules effectively allow each team to treat the anthem policy as it sees fit.

 

 

You can see a similar approach over at ESPN. Here is a sample:

When the anthem issue reached a fervor last season, Jones spoke with Trump on multiple occasions. The president has raised the issue multiple times this offseason and even recently, saying players should be suspended if they choose to take a knee.
At the spring owners' meetings, the NFL announced a new policy that would require players on the sideline to stand for the anthem. Players who do not want to stand could remain in the locker room. In the past, the policy stated that players should stand, but it was not required.
When asked if he would support a player who chose to remain in the locker room, Jones said: "Our policy is that you stand at the anthem, toe on the line."

This is really interesting. What is the difference between "taking a knee" and "kneeling," other than the fact that the second term sounds religious?

Stay tuned. You know that, whatever the NFL owners decide, someone is going to test the compromise language. I am willing to bet that prayer will be part of the equation.

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