Magazine article The Christian Century

Shall We Gather in the End Zone?

Magazine article The Christian Century

Shall We Gather in the End Zone?

Article excerpt

The National Collegiate Athletic Association first called for a rule change: no praying in the end zone. The defense countered with a lawsuit: on August 31 Liberty University, founded by Jerry Falwell, accused the NCAA of trying to take away football players, First Amendment rights to religious expression. Then the NCAA resorted to the quick-kick: on September 1 it "clarified" its rule. Public piety in the end zone is permitted after all. Liberty signaled a fair catch and dropped its suit, which was pending in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia.

The original NCAA policy was aimed at bringing consistency of enforcement to rules against "any delayed, excessive or prolonged act by which a player attempts to focus attention upon himself"--better known as "showboating." A first infraction would result in a 15-yard penalty; a second infraction could lead to ejection of a player from the game. Plaintiffs in the suit were Liberty's football coach, Sam Rutigliano, who once coached the Cleveland Browns, and four members of the Liberty team. They claimed the policy would prohibit them from carrying out 1 heir religious obligations on the playing field. "A college football player whose religious beliefs and practices form an integral part of his life has a right not to be penalized . . . on grounds of his religion," the suit maintained.

Vincent Dooley, University of Georgia athletic director and chairman of the NCAA's rules committee, and Grant Teaff, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association and a former president of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, defended the new procedures. Dooley and Teaff said the unsportsmanlike-conduct rule has been on the books for some time but has not been uniformly or consistently enforced. After a two-day "summit meeting" of NCAA officials, coaches, athletic directors and others, the rules committee produced and distributed a video to all member schools demonstrating how the rule is to be enforced. One segment of the video deals with the endzone prayer.

"There was quite a bit of discussion about that," Dooley said of the endzone prayer practice. "We decided that in the final analysis it would fall into the `delayed, excessive, category. …

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