Apr 18, 2014 fbook icon twitter icon rss icon

Why Does Nebraska's Ron Brown Need to Turn the Football Field into a Church?

Ron Brown, an assistant football coach at the University of Nebraska, has been on the public hot seat since he spoke against a proposed Omaha city ordinance banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.  In his testimony, Brown listed his address as Memorial Stadium and lectured the city council about their lack of adherence to Biblical principles and the dangers of protecting people that he believes God says are an abomination.  Brown has received lots of media criticism for his public rant and has prompted several LGBT sports advocates and mainstream sports commentators to call for his firing. In response to criticism, Brown self-righteously proclaimed that it would be an honor to be fired for his religious principles. 

First, is there any question in anyone’s mind whether anyone would give a rat’s patoot what Ron Brown thinks if he were not a University of Nebraska football coach?  Is there anyone who seriously believes that Ron Brown is not using his position as a football coach as a platform to publicly express his personal beliefs?

The question is not whether Ron Brown has a right hold and to express his personal religious and political views. Of course he does. Ron Brown and others who try to turn this into an issue of religious discrimination are completely missing the point here.  The issues at the heart of this controversy are twofold:  One, where do we draw the line when a public employee, such as a football coach at a state university, holds personal views that are in conflict with the policies of the public institution where he is employed. Two, what are the expectations with regard to a public employee’s expression of personal religious beliefs in her or his professional role.

The University of Nebraska has a non-discrimination policy that includes sexual orientation.  Public school employees, which Ron Brown is as a coach at a public university, are subject to the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the US Constitution meaning that as a public employee he is required to be neutral with regard to religion in the carrying out of his professional duties.  The university President has publicly distanced himself and the university from Brown’s statements while acknowledging Brown’s right as a private citizen to express his views as he chooses. Fair enough, but that is not what is going on here.

It seems there is some confusion at Nebraska about what “religious neutrality” means: Ron Brown’s outgoing voice message on his university office phone includes a liberal dose of his religious beliefs. He listed the university football stadium as his home address when he spoke before the Omaha city council.  His bio on the Huskers football web site includes the following:

“Off the field, Brown and former Husker Stan Parker are co-founders and co-directors of a statewide Christian ministry called Mission Nebraska. This ministry stewards MY BRIDGE RADIO, which consists of numerous Christian radio stations and translators across Nebraska. Mission Nebraska also facilitates a statewide Christian endeavor called FreedMen, which challenges and inspires men and boys to take a strong courageous Christian stand in the public square. The 54-year-old Brown spent the four years prior to his return to coaching serving as the Nebraska State Director of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. While he relinquished that duty to return to the Cornhuskers, he continues as a regular columnist for FCA's National Magazine "Sharing the Victory." Through Mission Nebraska, Brown also hosts a weekly statewide cable TV show called "Truth Vision", along with daily radio spots…He has authored several books on Christian character and growth. He is an outspoken advocate on many issues, including adoption, abstinence and drug and alcohol education, race relations and anti-pornography, to name a few.”

Brown freely acknowledges that he routinely sprinkles in Biblical references in his coaching and conversations with his players. He claims that his religious talk does not bother his athletes. Really?  How would he know? What does he expect them to say to their coach, someone who has power over their access to playing time?  What about the Jews or Muslims or atheists on his team, how do they feel about his open promotion of Christianity on the football field?  How free do they feel to challenge the coach?

Brown is also now vowing that he would not discriminate against a gay player on the football team despite his opposition to homosexuality and laws that protect them from discrimination.  Am I missing something? He publicly condemns anti-discrimination laws, yet he expects us to believe he would have no problem coaching a gay player?

This is not the first time Ron Brown has been accused of violating his position as a prominent public employee.  He has also come under fire in the past from the American Civil Liberties Union for promoting Christianity in speeches at public schools. Ron Brown is not the first and certainly won’t be the last coach to be so public about his private religious views.  Coaches mixing religion and sports in public educational institutions is a common practice despite the constitutional principle of separation of church and state. Athletes have long tolerated coach-led team prayers; team prayer breakfasts; coaches urging athletes to attend Bible studies; coaches using Biblical quotes mixed in with the motivational speeches; unlimited access of sports ministries, like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, to athletes on school teams; as well as outright discrimination against or condemnation of lesbian and gay coaches and athletes – all in the guise of “saving” souls.

Ron Brown is a fervent Christian who believes he and others who believe exactly what he does have a direct line to God.  He has somehow confused the football field with a church and his position as a coach with that of a pastor.  The problem is that we are wasting too much outrage on Ron Brown for this.  We should be spending a lot more attention focused on the head football coach and the university president at the University of Nebraska.  The head coach’s silence and the university president’s bland assurances that Ron Brown has a right to his personal views even if the university does not agree with them ignore the blatant disregard for federally mandated expectations that Ron Brown’s actions exemplify. 

Brown was mixing Cornhusker football and Christianity in clear violation of his obligations as a public employee before he decided to testify against city ordinances protecting LGBT people from discrimination.  The evidence is there on his office phone voice message, in this coaching bio, in his own acknowledgment of his use of Biblical quotes in coaching.  What more do Nebraska officials need?  What does it take for them to demand that their employees, including assistant football coaches, adhere to the requirements and expectations of religious neutrality?   Clearly, if the rights of students of all religious and all sexual orientations are to be protected in public schools, administrators need to make clear what is expected and take action if any employee violates the principle that every student, athlete or not, has the right to attend a public school free of religious influence from their professors and their coaches.

Other Christian coaches may believe homosexuality is a sin, but also believe that everyone on their team should be treated with respect.  They live their faith, but they do not shove it in the faces of their athletes. They do not advocate against legal protection for those they see as sinners or use their position as coaches as a pulpit from which to preach their religious beliefs. They live their faith, especially the part about treating others with love and respect, without proselytizing. 

Ron Brown does not understand this distinction and his employers have failed to insist that, in order to abide by the law, he must.

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