How a can of worms just exploded in youth sports

The Supreme Court came to a decision this week. Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images.

Since the Astros seem to be doing fine without my help and a decision on Deshaun Watson’s future is still a few days away, I’m going to touch on a different subject from a different point of view on sports.

Earlier this week the U.S. Supreme court ruled that a public school district in Washington State deprived a high school football coach of his First Amendment rights of free speech and religious expression by suspending him after he refused to stop leading prayer sessions with his players on the field after games.

The ruling determined that the school board overstepped its authority, even though the coach is a government employee and the football field was public property.

I’m not going to get into separation of church and state, First Amendment rights or constitutional debate, conservative vs. liberal, secular vs. religion-affiliated, or the coach’s dedication to his faith.

I’m saying it’s not a good idea for a coach at a public school to lead players in prayers connected to one denomination of the U.S. religious community. Here’s why:

Several years ago, I was a manager in a youth baseball league. The age group for the kids was 12-13 years old. League officials discovered that one of the managers was instructing his players to kneel in the dugout while he recited a Christian prayer.

The league asked the coach to stop leading his young players in prayer. He did. After the season, the coach and I discussed the matter. He explained that his faith was so strong, he wanted to spread the comfort it brought him.

I offered my view that parents, those who wish to, send their kids to churches and temples and mosques, where qualified religion instructors guide the children spiritually. These leaders often get to know the families in their congregation and understand their needs. I didn’t believe that parents who register their kids for youth baseball expect the coach to offer religious guidance. You’re a kids’ baseball coach. You’re out of your league. We're still good. We say hello at local burger joints.

A couple of years later, I was covering the Little League World Series in South Williamsport. I attended a press conference with one of the coaches. He said he was disappointed that his team didn’t win the championship, but he was pleased that he got the chance to instill some religion in his players through prayer.

That was Little League, the most public and American of institutions. I think a Little League coach should teach kids how to catch fly balls, hit a baseball and never slide into a base head-first. And that’s pretty much it. Oh, and never tell a child “just don’t strike out” because that guarantees he’ll be back in the dugout in three pitches.

A youth sports coach is a pretty powerful person in a neighborhood. They’re volunteering their time, so thanks for that. If a player feels uncomfortable praying to an entity that isn’t part of his family’s faith, that’s unfair to the player, who may not want to upset or alienate his coach. The idea is to find commonality among a team, not divide the players.

There are few people more influential in a town than the high school football coach. Players and their parents often do not want to upset the coach or create a problem that has nothing to do with skill level. Or give the coach reason to think the kid is not a “team player,” not one of the guys. At least not one of the coach’s guys.

The Washington State public school coach did not force his players to join him on the field for prayer after games. But some parents of players on that team said their kids felt compelled to join the prayer session. At least do it in private, so fans can't see who's on the field and who's not.

It creates a situation where if a player doesn’t go on the field for prayers, and the coach later benches him – for whatever reason – it could be a problem. You know how competitive high school football can be. College scholarships are riding on a player’s on-field performance. Parents could say to the coach, you benched my kid because he didn’t pray with you and you’re a bigot.

It just creates problems that aren’t necessary.

I know, this is America and the Supreme Court is the final word on what is constitutional and what isn’t. So now public school coaches can lead their players in public prayer on public property.

Doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

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