Sports Illustrated reports on Freedom From Religion Foundation's complaints about Clemson football

Hey, guess what? It really is possible for a journalist to report on the Freedom From Religion Foundation in a fair, insightful way.

In a post earlier this month, I made the case that “regurgitating the anti-religion group’s talking points as if they’re the gospel truth is not great journalism.”

Leave it to a sports writer, of all people, to show a better way of handling a story involving the FFRF.

I missed the following Sports Illustrated piece when it came out a few weeks ago, but it’s a terrific read — both for college football fans and those who follow religion news. I’m talking about Tim Rohan’s deep dive into “Faith, Football and the Fervent Religious Culture at Dabo Swinney's Clemson.”

GetReligion readers may recall that we noted in January, “Yes, there's a Jesus angle — and a Chick-fil-A one — in Clemson's football national title.”

In his SI feature, Rohan sets the scene this way:

On a hot, muggy day in August 2012, as Clemson football practice came to an end, coach Dabo Swinney gathered everyone for his closing remarks. Some players noticed a few Rubbermaid troughs stationed about and figured they were heading for the cold tubs. Instead, Swinney announced that one of their teammates, star receiver DeAndre Hopkins, would be getting baptized on the field. Everyone was invited to stay and watch.

Few players or coaches left, if any. They gathered around one of the tubs, which was filled with water, and Hopkins climbed in, still dressed in his jersey and pads. Jesus is the most important thing in my life, Hopkins said, and I want you guys to know I’m living for him. A pastor from NewSpring, a local Baptist church, baptized him, and the crowd cheered.

One assistant coach was so moved by the scene, he snapped a photo of Hopkins in the tub and tweeted it out. The photo caught the media’s attention and made national headlines. After that, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), a nonprofit organization that promotes the separation of church and state, received at least three complaints about the Clemson football program. The following year, in the fall of 2013, The Chronicle of Higher Education wrote a story examining Clemson’s religious culture, highlighting Hopkins’s baptism again, and the FFRF received two more complaints. They were coming from alumni and people in the Clemson community.

At that point, Patrick Elliott, an FFRF attorney, opened an investigation and, in April 2014, sent Clemson a letter noting that the First Amendment prohibited the school, as a public institution, from supporting, promoting or endorsing religion. The letter asked Clemson to stop its team prayers, Bible studies and organized church trips.

Charles Haynes, the founding director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Freedom Forum Institute, a nonpartisan organization that educates the public on First Amendment issues, recently reviewed the FFRF’s claims against Clemson. “I don’t think this is a close case,” he says. “Clemson University is clearly violating the First Amendment.”

From there, SI offers much more detail and context on the faith-infused nature of Swinney’s football program.

Here’s what I like: The writer does so in a way that readers can make their own judgments about whether what is happening is good or bad. This reader senses no sneering or eyebrow-raising on the part of the journalist, as sometimes happens in pieces such as these.

I also appreciate that amid the details that help paint a picture of Clemson’s approach to religion, the writer eventually gets back to more of the nitty-gritty of the constitutional questions.

This is a big chunk of text, but it’s crucial in highlighting the reporter’s willingness to talk to a wide variety of sources, including the FFRF, for important perspectives:

After receiving upward of five complaints about the Clemson football program, the Freedom From Religion Foundation opened an investigation around early 2014. Elliott, the FFRF attorney, obtained a trove of internal e-mails between Swinney and his religious advisors, and sent Clemson a letter of complaint in April 2014. The FFRF accused Clemson of creating a culture that pushed Christianity on its players and violated the First Amendment.

Elliott uses DeAndre Hopkins’s public baptism as an example. As an individual citizen, Hopkins has the right to express his faith, Elliott says, but the issue arises when Swinney—a public school employee—appears to openly endorse Hopkins’s religion, in full view of the team. For one, Swinney gave Hopkins a platform, allowing him to get baptized after practice. Then Jeff Scott, Hopkins’s position coach, tweeted a photo of the ceremony along with the caption, “highlight of my week.” “They’re putting out there: ‘Hey, we want people to do this. We want people to be baptized and commit their lives to Jesus,’” Elliott says.

Andrew Whitehead, an associate professor of sociology at Clemson, thinks Swinney should consider the optics of these group activities, and how they might affect his non-Christian players. “You see DeAndre Hopkins get baptized and all the Christians are like, ‘That’s amazing. That’s wonderful,’” Whitehead says. “But what if you’re not [Christian]? How would that make you feel? It’s raising those questions and thinking about the implications, I think.”

Paul Putz, the assistant director of Baylor’s graduate-level Sports Ministry Program, fears that non-Christians might feel excluded, or worse, feel some need to conform and join in the group ritual. “Are there players who feel ostracized?” Putz asks. “Are there ways in which they feel they need to become one of us? They need to become one of us to be fully accepted?”

The FFRF argues the First Amendment should protect players in such situations. The Supreme Court has long upheld that it’s unconstitutional to proselytize in public schools at the K–12 level, ruling against practices as common as praying at football games and graduation ceremonies. In these cases, Richard Garnett, a Notre Dame law professor and another First Amendment expert, says the courts have essentially ruled that “kids are impressionable, they might feel like they’re being coerced, and the government is supposed to be neutral [on religion].”

The courts don’t often rule on these cases at the college level, because, Garnett says, college students are considered adults and can discern between what is state-sponsored prayer and not. “We’re talking about adults here,” Garnett says, referring to the Tigers, “there’s not a danger of coercion.”

Go ahead and read it all.

It’s a nice example of high-quality sports and religion journalism.

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