Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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You gotta love Bobby Bowden

Via Southern Appeal, here’s a religion and big-time college sports story, starring Florida State’s Bobby Bowden and Georgia’s Mark Richt. Bowden gets the best lines:

"Most parents want their boys to go to church," he said. "I’ve had atheists, Jews, Catholics and Muslims play for me, and I’ve never not started a boy because of his faith. I’m Christian, but all religions have some kind of commandments, and if kids would obey them, the world would be a better place."

In fact, he said, when about 70 percent of his players come from single-parent homes, or are reared by an extended family, it is his right and responsibility to be candid about his faith. "You got 90 kids in a history or psychology classroom around here, and a professor can stand up and say anything he wants in creation," Mr. Bowden said recently in an interview at his office. "Why can’t I tell my boys what I believe?"

I might have to reevaluate my aversion to the Seminoles and the Bulldogs.

Discussions - 21 Comments

So, we are supposed to love this logic:

"You got 90 kids in a history or psychology classroom around here, and a professor can stand up and say anything he wants in creation," Mr. Bowden said recently in an interview at his office. "Why can’t I tell my boys what I believe?"

Frankly, I don’t gotta love this!

It is not the accepted norm for History or Psych profs to say anything they want. Their job is to teach, and to acquaint students with the perspectives and methods and facts of their discipline. Very often, that discipline relates to some facet of real life. But, it is NOT the case, that profs are expected to say "anything" about anything.

Telling "his" boys what he believes is fine. Taking them to church? if we follow his logic, then we can legitimize professors taking THEIR students to church and synagogue and temple, and mosque, and so on. Maybe I should take "my" boys to an ACLU meeting. If coaches can do it, why can’t I?


Perhaps you don’t editorialize from the podium (for which restraint, if you exercise it, you’re to be commended), but a goodly portion of the service-learning movement amounts to required activism.

I think that there’s a difference, as well, between professors and coaches, a difference that’s especially pronounced in large research universities. Coaches have to care about the character of their players in a way that professors don’t. Coaches spend more time with their players, and much more time one-on-one, than do most professors.

If there were genuine compulsion involved, I’d be chary. But there’s no evidence of that.

Sorry, Joe, but as a Gator fan, I still can’t find identity with the Dawgs or the `Noles on the football field. But coaches long have a one-to-one relationship with their players that lasts four or five years and even beyond graduation. They can more fundamentally shape their athletes than a professor. My podium tries to be reasonable - as a statistical minority on college faculties, it’s hard for conservatives to use their podium as a pulpit but their more Liberal colleagues do so on a regular basis. Just stand outside a Poli Sci or History classroom and listen for a minute or two. Most students will seek out professors that validate their ideology - conservative students routinely take my courses but liberal students learn quickly that I won’t grade them any differently or disallow their educated comments in my class. Uneducated, thoughtless, baseless and partisan comments are fair game. With a football or any sport coach, you either reconcile yourself to their belief system for four years or you stop playing. Bowden is genuine - he wants his players to have discipline on and off the field, to conduct themselves like gentlemen. If his athletes have never had that in their lives, exposure to a moral culture and code of conduct will not hurt them one bit. I think at one point, when Mike Ditka was the coach of the Saints, told his quarterback to get God and get a wife because of his atrocious behavior. Ya know, that’s not a bad idea.

Joe- I would agree that, on the one hand, there is less compulsion between coaches and their players than there is in the classroom. Players may have greater freedom to quit, or to join another club, than students do.

On the other hand, there is the danger that the "character-building" function of coaching becomes more like brainwashing. For instance, I have never heard of History students forcing each other to drink toxic quantities of beer, or to engage in homoerotic behavior in order to advance in History Class. So far, I know of no Psychology professors who have enticed new students with prostitutes or free cars, either. One of my favorite examples of "mentoring" came from Colorado coach Bill McCartney, whose daughter was pregnant with his quarterback’s child, as he led his team (in between players’ visits to jail for drugs and possession of firearms) "From Ashes to Glory," and then went on to lead the Promise-Keepers movement. THERE was some character-building! Colorado still has problems, and was not alone during the 80’s and 90’s. Nebraska, Oklahoma all had their problems, and many other programs still do.

My point is that the coach may have too much influence on the character of a young athlete with professional stars in their eyes, and the enticements may be used as leverage to engage in behaviors that are not in the best interests of the athlete: promiscuous sex, hazing, steroid use, and asking God for a victory might all bring a frown to the folks at home.

You focus on the large research universitites, where the "carrot" of success and fame is generally much larger and its attainment more probable. I think that is likely to be true, and so the abuses that occur in the context of its promise are both more likely, and more visible to the public.

Jennifer- I reject your stereotype of the Liberal abusing the podium, and the dispassionate, rational conservative abstaining from editorializing. Your evidence from accumulated moments standing outside your colleagues’ classrooms is suspect, at the very least.


I have to confess that I like the Gators even less than the Bulldogs or the Seminoles.


You’re right about the lure of professional sports (in which a tiny proportion of even good NCAA Division I athletes will succeed) and about the corrupting effect of the pressure to win, which may have a little something to do with Bowden’s not benching a player just because he doesn’t go to church. But I begin with two assumptions: everyone is a sinner, but not everyone is a hpocrite.

Fung, I think your treatment of the situation is not quite complete. There is no doubt that the pressure to win, and therefore recruit, and therefore tempt, exists in college football and the coaching world. And Coach McCartney is a perfect example of the evils such pressure can lead to (though I should add that I question whether or not he had full knowledge of what was going on. I would be willing to guess that an assistant coach/ recruiting coordinator had knowledge of what players were intiating and engaged in. Regardless, as the head coach it was his responsibility (please don’t throw any "Bush was culpable for the WMDs then" arguments because I think the nature of responsibility is different, and that’s another story) It’s also worth noting that players know what kids there age like, and most people probably enjoy being treated like a star).

However, having played college football, at a Division II school and with no aspirations for the NFL mind you, I can say the relationship between professor and student and player and coach is incredibly different. In regards to the student-professor relationship, it seems to be one of two relationships. Either indifference on one or both parties behalf, or a mentor-like relationship that develops into a type of respectful colleagueship (not a word)/friendship.

The player-coach (I should specify that as player-head coach) relationship is not the same. The type of reponsibility the player has at a position, and the responsibility the coach has as coordinating the team seems to create an unchanging category as long as the player remains on the team. Therefore, it seems the type of leadership a coach must provide for his players is fundamentally different than that of a professor. He remains for four to five years as a kind of father figure for his players. As a result, I would argue that the type of leadership Bowden is providing is very important and should be respected. Not simply b/c I’m a Christian who thinks church is good, but because what Bowden is doing is trying to model himself as a proper father figure by showing his comitment to responsibility in the form of his comitment to faith. I would say we "gotta (oughtta) love this" because it can help keep the stars of college football grounded as human beings and is preferable to perpetuating false dreams of playing in the NFL some day in order to gain a better effort from the athlete. It seems, then, that Bowden is showing his players why integrity and respect are important......OHIO STATE FOOTBALL RULES!!!

comitment = commitment

Fred - I appreciate your point of view, and I agree with a good bit of it. On a couple of points, however, I do not agree. First, I do NOT think that BB is likely to do any harm by discussing his beliefs with his players. To know the coach well, they should know that part of him.

But, your description of him (or any coach) as a "father figure" is a part that bothers me. As a father, I really don’t want a coach taking over the spiritual development of my kid, especially when it may become confounded with a heightened desire to please the coach, a heightened sense of competition among players, and the potential for alienation from the team if a player does not conform.

I don’t assume that this is the case with BB, but merely that the potential is great in the coach-player context. And I would also caution the reader that the coach’s paternalistic, caring version of the relationship is one-sided. Back in Texas, people used to say, "It’s a great place to raise kids." But, that did not make it therefore a great place to BE a kid!

My final point is about the stereotyped and loaded example that BB used to legitimize his approach in the first place. If we accept his entire statement, then we accept that "You got 90 kids in a history or psychology classroom around here, and a professor can stand up and say anything he wants in creation,"

I take exception to this, both as a valid fact, and as a way to legitimize similar behavior from coaches.

To be open about things, I have just read on another post about the issue of parents’ rights regarding sex education in the schools.

On this matter, I find myself strangely okay with accepting the school role, here, while I am suspicious of the coach teaching (or indoctrinating, but then that term can fit in both contexts, too, I suppose) a kid about religion.

I expect Dain will call this hypocrisy, and perhaps it is.

Here are some differences as I think about this: 1. Coaches are neither professional educators nor assigned spiritual leaders. (2) Teams and sports bring with them the alienating/hazing aspect, which SEEMS less likely in the classroom, and (3) Sex Ed, as it relates to biology, science, and health seems more appropriate in an academic setting than does religion in the locker room.

But, that is all quite spontaneous, and not necessarily complete.


The issue in the school case involved a questionaire. The school was gathering data about the sexual practices of young children, and the ideas about sex that they had.

This is not education for the survey takers, this is gathering data for researchers. Schools should not become areas where researchers can gather data, this takes away from educational time. Although not allowing researchers to use schools in this way would probably skew data (parents interested in allowing their kids to take sex surveys would probably have liberal views on sex, as would their children), and would increase the cost of data collection, I do not see how it can be appropriate to use school time, and resources, in order to gather data, not teach students. There is no way a questionaire could be "teaching" because the child already knows the answer.


Perhaps father-figure was the wrong term to use in so far as it may imply the type of authority a parent has in regards to his children. I was trying to make the distinction between the type of relationship that exists between a player and coach and a student and professor, and that was the first word that came to mind. It may be that "Coach" is simply the best word (It is striking that former players continue to call their old coaches "Coach___" long after their careers are over).

As far as whether or not you, as a father, wants your child’s spiritual development to be taken over by a coach in college, I would say that decision is not up to you. We are not dealing with children, but rather teenagers becoming men (substitute "adults" for "men" if you please, but I think "men" is more appropriate here, but for other reasons). It is the very sense of competition (that you fear may deprave your child’s spiritual development if the coach has authority over it) that creates the need for leadership. Though I’m going to try and not be faux poetic about the type of bond created by playing football, it is something else. There is something about the competitive environment of football that causes players, and players and coaches, to develop a relationship that you normally only see in the family or between soliders. It seems to reveal something about a person that can easily be hidden or never brought out in life in the normal world (note: I’m only 23, so this relates to my experience thus far).

Given this, the competitive spirit operates as a form of education about life and human nature, and magnifies its goods and bads. As a result, the coach should (and, if he is good, does) work as a type of spiritual leader for his players. If discussing faith works to show his players the good in commitment, reliability, and integrity, and also reminds them that they are human beings despite being great athletes, then I think it serves the purpose of a coach well.

Now there is no doubt that such authority can be used badly. But I believe (this is only at the college level) that a coach who does not at least give any attention to this aspect of college football (the responsibility of his leadership) cannot be successful because he will not gain his players’ trust.

I think the notion of "threat of alienation for not conforming" is over-emphasized and almost dogmatic. Football players are not Nazis. Conformity to the team must take place, but does so on the field and in the lockerroom. It is not as if conformity to a particular lifestyle is demanded. For example, I used to get made fun of for being a serious student all the time, but it was always good-natured. In fact, I think it garnered a higher level of respect. Also, we had a player who was twice voted as a team captain that held optional bible studies and was active in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (which I suppose is not the type of stereotypical understanding of "the cool athlete" lifestyle).

As far as the "paternalistic, caring version of the coach" being one-sided, I assume you mean that the coach only acts as a leader according to his own beliefs. I assume the fear would be that he would then not be sensitive to other beliefs. All I can say in response is that I do not know a single person whose thoughts do not motivate their actions. Does this automatically mean they then cannot be sensitive to other beliefs? I would hope not, or what then of psychology? (just a light elbow to the side)

Yikes! Thank you, Steve, for pointing this out. This IS troubling. While I support a researcher’s ability to gather data when the parents have a chance to give informed consent, or to withhold it, these parents were given a chance to provide consent, but based on misleading information. At the very least, the researcher violated professional standards by providing a misleading informed consent form.


I wonder if the parents could sue the researchers or the institution? If doctors do not get informed consent before operating on a patient they have committed medical malpractice. I am sure the damages would be minimal, but they might be large if there was a class action. Money might please the parents more than new constitutional rights.

I disagree with your assertion that it is legitimate to do these sorts of surveys in school. They are not educational, other than promoting some vague self-awareness. Sports players do not practice or play games during school, people in clubs do not do club activities during school (there is no chess club class), so why in the world it is acceptable to do something not related to academics during school? It is not, no matter how great the need for data. The most you could argue is that it would be ok to do it during lunch, or before school, or after school.

Steve- You could fit my legal knowledge in a thimble, but I know that the APA, APS, and all agencies that grant large research grants (NIMH, NIH, March of Dimes) take informed consent very seriously. I think that avenue would be worth considering.

As for data gathering during class time: I don’t know. I DO know that the only way to know if any intervention has had any effect at all, some baseline measures must be taken. Too often, educational policy is directed by emotions, and not by quality research. One reason that research is lacking is the difficulty obtaining good baseline data.

So, if a school wants to know if a new way of teaching increases confidence, or self-esteem, or critical thinking, then pre-test measures must be taken before the new method is implemented, so that post-test measure can be compared to something meaningful. I am currently engaged in this kind of thing in the context of bullying. it is not "academic," but it certainly affects the academic experience.

I will never, and would never mislead parents or children about the content of the surveys that I develop, but I will appreciate the time, whenever they provide me some!

While I am outside the public school system, I can justify this by expecting my intervention to benefit the quality (and thus the quantity) of the learning experience for a long time to come.

A sex survey for young children may well be a completely different matter, however.

Fred- I’ll get back to you in a bit. I have a great deal going on, suddenly. In the meantime, kudos to you AND your coaches AND your teachers and anyone else who might jutifiably take any credit for how you have turned out, so far. It is a pleasure disagreeing with you!

Fred- You’ve given me plenty to respond to, and I’ll do my best, here.:

I would say that decision is not up to you. We are not dealing with children...."

True. But, this began with Joe’s invitation to "love" what BB does and says. I cannot help responding to the world as a father, husband, psychologist, etc... As such, I don’t pretend to have control over the behavior of a coach, but that is true as well if I approve, as Joe does, and as you do.

In high school, I was a wrestler, and we lacked the sense of cameraderie that you describe on the football team. In retrospect, I miss it. We operated as individual contributers to an accumulated score, and not as a true team.

" As a result, the coach should (and, if he is good, does) work as a type of spiritual leader" I would reject this. Competition is one aspect of life, and spitituality is another, and religion intersects with spirituality. but, it is NOT necessarily true that engaging in one aspect means that another aspect is therefore relevant. Teaching about plants does not mean that I must teach about physical fitness, even though they are both part of life.

"a coach who does not at least give any attention to this aspect of college football (the responsibility of his leadership) cannot be successful because he will not gain his players’ trust." I would reject the universality of this, as well. I think that it reflects your religious/spiritual center. In other words, given that perspective that you have, I would acknowledge that YOU would not trust a coach who neglected the spiritual (religious?) aspect of athletics, but I do not think that is true of all of us.

I do, however, expect that you are correct, if you suggest that a good, or great coach must address and wake up the spirit of the athlete, both in an individual and in a collective way. I think that terrible coaches fail to do this, and great coaches succeed at it. But, I don’t think that the spiritual must be also religious. And, I don’t think that the religious should be coerced or indocrinated. I also don’t "read" that in your writing.

"For example, I used to get made fun of for being a serious student all the time, but it was always good-natured." My experience was different. I was in Boy Scouts and athletics, and both were venues for the utmost cruelty. I was often the victim, but not the only one. And that lasted until I grew, quite literally, big and skilled enough to hurt the bullies worse than they hurt me. When I was then considered big and mean enough to be accepted into the group of aggressors, I lost my taste for organizations altogether, and became a thorough anti-bully, anti-authoritarian. I blame my experience not only on my own diminutive stature during my early years, but also on the teachers and coaches who not only allowed the hazing, but also participated in it. So, I am perhaps biased in a way that is opposite your bias.

"All I can say in response is that I do not know a single person whose thoughts do not motivate their actions....." I was referring instead to the one-sided person whose view of coaching, parenting, or teaching is mostly or entirely subjective. To such a person, "my" intentions are of much more concern than are "their" outcomes. This occurs, for instance, when we "talk sense" to people. It makes perfect sense to us, but we rarely know how it is received! The same might be true in the context of bringing "my" religion to another. It makes perfect sense, and is good, according to me, but than does not mean that it is received the way I intended it. In a similar way, many of us think we are better spouses than our spouses think we are, better teachers than our students think we are, better leaders than our players think, and so on.

Thanks for your patience. I am tired!

Fung - I am not the thought police but I do wish all of my colleagues would take care in the classroom. We are here to educate, not indoctrinate. I tend to hear the rhetoric more frequently from my more liberal colleagues. I HEARD it myself all throughout graduate school. I had not a SINGLE conservative professor in a variety of classes throughout those two years in my master’s program. If I did, you wouldn’t have known it by their rhetoric.

My husband used to be an assistant football coach. He did have a direct impact on the behavior of his players. The players respected him for not trampling on their beliefs but he was also determined to shape these guys - playing sports requires discipline and teamwork. Teamwork is what Bowden must create to be successful. It’s just his way of creating success has a different point of view. Prayer in the locker room can be a useful team-building skill - for those few moments, players focus on something bigger than themselves, bigger than the game. It puts "the game" into perspective.

Jennifer- As practiced by a few individuals here and there, there is nothing wrong with sharing the spiritual side of a coach, and nothing wrong with sharing the political side of a professor. In both cases, I think we both need to examine the extent to which we want to demonize an entire profession for the excesses of a few. I would completely agree that political indocrination in the classroom is irresponsible, and should not happen. I expect that it DOES happen, but I would hate to see massive structural and legal shifts in order to respond to isolated incidents.

The same is true of coaches. Obviously, Bobby Bowden is a great coach, and I’m sure your husband was, as well. But, I am very skeptical about widespread faith-based coaching for reasons similar to your reasons for skepticism about liberal professors. I have personally seen too much abuse of power by coaches. While I don’t advocate widespread changes and new laws to address those abuses, I have a hard time celebrating the infusion of religion into a system that, in my view, already carries too much potential for the abuse of power.

Years ago, for instance, we had a coach/phys ed teacher who rewarded good performance in phys ed with access to the water fountain. The inevitable slow/weak/uncoordinated kids were chronically deprived of water. This, the coach/teacher thought, was to motivate the kids to do better. This practice was defended by the principal as soon as it was brought to the public’s attention. Imagine what that coach would accomplish if, instead of water, he dangled Heaven in front of those thirsty little FIRST GRADERS!

Again, this is one person, and not a controlled study. but, my son was one of those first graders, and I remember the incident vividly.

Let me interject this observation: I think the entire post is flawed because it assumes that sports have some super power that molds the characters of people. I think this is false. Crooks are crooks no matter what program they are placed in, and no matter how much they go to church or talk about God.

One need only look at college teams, and professional teams, in order to determine that sports hold no special sway over the souls of its participants. I never really cared for sports, and I haven’t murdered anyone, while a football player at the college I went to (and I suspect Fred went to) almost beat a person to death at a party (he lived on my floor, I was concerned). People are people, and people resist changing habits no matter what sort of positive influences bombard them. Sports do make people fit, but it would be silly to assume physical fitness leads to moral fitness.

Where in any post does it assume that the positive influences of sports necessarily change the character of its participants? Lots of things make people fit, and physical fitness does not create moral fitness. Sports do not create moral fitness. The challenges of athletics can be conducive to moral fitness.

I question your universal axiom of people resisting changing habits, even positive ones. Habits imply a constancy, to be sure, but they are not unchangeable per se. You equate people’s habits with the constitution of their souls. While they may offer a glimpse, they certainly do not reveal its entirety. There are athletes that act badly. In fact, there are many. Does this negate the positive aspects of sports? Or, does it perhaps indicate something about athletes in general?


I was referring to the topic post. It paints Bowden as a hero because he mixes religion with sports. In order for Bowden to be a hero he must have some influence over his athletes. I doubt if he has very much influence. Since he has little influence he is no more special than any other person with authority over others.

I believe you mentioned you were an OSU fan in previous posts. Jim Tressel seems to be a nice man, yet look at all of the creeps to come out of that program. Cooper was fired because of the poor quality of people in the program. Colorado’s players have done all sorts of things. I do not think sports makes people any worse, but it hardly can be proven to make them morally better.

You are of course right about habits. Definitionally they are not absolutely constant, if they were we would call them traits or attributes.

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