Free Speech Sports Supreme Court

A Football Coach’s Prayer is Not About Freedom. It’s About Coercion.

In a decision riddled with lies, the Supreme Court rules that a football coach can, should they choose, become a dictator-priest.
Demonstrators gather outside the US Supreme Court Building as the case of former Bremerton High School assistant football coach Joe Kennedy is argued before the court April 25, 2022, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Win McNamee / Getty Images)

By Dave Zirin / The Nation

‘Tis the season of coercion for the illegitimate majority of the US Supreme Court. While forcing pregnant people to either die on the operating table, engage in illegal abortions, or give birth has rightly garnered most of the coverage, our ruling clerics issued another celebration of coercion on Monday. In a 6-3 ruling—the only vote that seems to matter any longer—they ruled that a football coach could lead his team in prayer at a public school. The case, Kennedy vs. Bremerton, involved Coach Joseph Kennedy’s “right” to pray in the Bremerton High School locker room before kickoff and on the field at the end of games.

The majority decision is more than a dismissive wave of the hand at the right of children to be free from religion. It is also filled with falsehoods. Writing for the majority, Neil Gorsuch (the one in the stolen seat) said Kennedy “offered his prayers quietly while his students were otherwise occupied.” This is a lie, and makes it sound like Coach Kennedy was seeking to pray alone in some corner, but was being hounded by an evil secular school district, pitchforks and torches in hand. The opposite is true. In the dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor took the unusual but welcome step of exposing this lie by including photos of big groups of players surrounding the coach as he led the team in prayer. The students, far from being “otherwise occupied,” were part of the prayer circle. In addition, the school district bent over backward to accommodate Coach Kennedy so he could pray on his own, but he insisted on taking it to midfield, about as public a place as possible. He was seemingly daring the district to do something. (Expect Coach Kennedy to appear soon on the right-wing gravy-train lecture circuit along with those idiots who waved guns at the Black Lives Matter protesters.) Even the first line in the majority’s decision is false. It reads, “Joseph Kennedy lost his job as a high school football coach in the Bremerton School District after he knelt at midfield after games to offer a quiet personal prayer.” No one was fired for praying. He was put on paid leave after repeated refusal to listen to the school’s administration and then declined to reapply for his job. But when you are a talk radio hack in a black robe, you write what your audience wants to hear.

There is a greater issue that the majority, in their zeal, chose to ignore: the freedom of the students to not pray. I’m sure they would say that this freedom remains, and no one has to pray if they choose not to. But such a perspective is risible. Anyone who has ever played high school sports knows that if your coach is doing something, particularly something religious, and expects you to join, then you had better do it. To stand out and say, “I am Jewish” or “I am Muslim” or “I am an atheist”—or even simply “I don’t want to do that”—is to be labeled a distraction, a locker-room cancer, or worse. The coach—particularly if they are a malignant narcissist (and make no mistake, we are living in the salad days for malignant narcissists) will often make you pay a price with the greatest power they have over you: playing time. But it’s not just about limiting your time on the field. It’s also about making you an outcast among your teammates, a prospect in your teen years about as painful and harmful as not being able to play a sport you love. It’s easier to just take a knee for a minute rather than reap the whirlwind of anger from your coach. That is why this is not about freedom but coercion.

Last year, I published a book called The Kaepernick Effect, detailing case after case of high school athletes who were harassed and hounded by their coaches for taking a knee during the national anthem in protest of racial inequity and police violence. In this country, taking a knee is currently a separate but unequal enterprise. If you are a white Christian and do it in the name of freedom of religion, you are a hero to powerful people who rush to your defense and gleefully shred settled law in the process. If you are a 16-year-old kid tired of seeing dead bodies in the streets and the police getting away with murder, your only right is to shut up and play or bear the consequences.

Dave Zirin
Dave Zirin

Dave Zirin is the sports editor of The Nation and the author of The Kaepernick Effect: Taking a Knee, Changing the World.

12 comments

  1. It’s not coercion when its by agreement. Leftist crap is far more sublime.

  2. Praying to win a football game seems especially stupid.
    If praying rewards the winners, then why even bother to try to win?
    God will see that you win.

    What if the other team who does not pray wins the game?

    If praying to God works-It does not matter who has practiced the most.
    Or who played the best game.

    God will see to it that the most devout team wins.

    1. It’s numbskull primitivism, and the world headquarters for that is the good old USA. No surprise that one of the rightwing hacks (Gorsuch) on the Court lied about the matter at hand. What else does a judge who has no interest in the law do?

      1. @TimN
        I would guess that praying is some sort of perversion of meditating, combining it with wishing.

        If there is anything like the god that the fanatic monotheists imagine, it would be akin to The Force in Star Wars, and would be so far evolved beyond us that there would be no way to communicate with it or vice versa.

  3. Dave, your column/article comports precisely with Chris Hedges’ yesterday, “Fascists in our Midst”.

    In your conclusion, you rightly write:

    “If you are a white Christian and do it in the name of freedom of religion, you are a hero to powerful people who rush to your defense and gleefully shred settled law in the process. If you are a 16-year-old kid tired of seeing dead bodies in the streets and the police getting away with murder, your only right is to shut up and play or bear the consequences.”

    With regard to ‘taking a knee’, I would suggest that the most significant, true, and effective reason for ‘taking a knee’ should symbolize and honor LOVE v. EMPIRE.

    While the symbolism of power is EMPIRE, the meaning of LOVE is to overcome this Disguised Global Crony Capitalist Racist Propagandist Criminal Ecocidal Children-Killing & War-Starting EMPIRE, controlled by the ‘Ruling-Elite’, UHNWI, <0.003%ers, TCCers, arrogantly self-appointed "Masters of the Universe", and "Evil (not-so) Geniuses" [Kurt Andersen] — which hides Empire behind their totally corrupted dual-party Vichy-facade of faux-democracy.

    IMHO, Only Mass ‘Peaceful' Protest Against EMPIRE can win in destroying the fascist ‘Pro-Empire’ Republican Party in 2022 — which should lead easily to destroying this faux-Democratic corporate 'Pro-Empire' Party in 2024.

    Then, instead of having TWO ‘Pro-Empire’ Parties we can progress to a seriously progressive and one United ‘Anti-Empire’ democratic socialist party — which was within sight, nearing a century ago, in 1944, with FDR’s brilliant socialist VP, Henry Wallace, who was torpedoed in America’s first coup, orchestrated by the OSS & DNC, and which even Albert Einstein’s 1949 letter, “Why Socialism?” sent to the little gutless haberdasher and captive un-Truman corporate faux-President — in the fabulously revealing book “Double Government” [Michael Glennon] which he exposed in his book of the same name.

    Today, we're way beyond the 1960's era/error of just 'Anti-War' actions to have any chance of saving 'our world' — only a visionary 'Anti-Empire' movement powered by: "bending the long arc of history toward" survival and away from Empire.

  4. In reaching this conclusion, the conservatives on the court resorted to a style of reasoning now becoming commonplace.
    When facts don’t support their conclusion, they simply ignore them.
    When precedent points in another direction, they decline to follow it.
    And we have been reminded, in this term, that the original meaning of the constitution is locked in a historical vault and only the conservatives have the key.

    The dissent referred to this as relying on “an assortment of pluralities, concurrences, and dissents by Members of the current majority to effect fundamental changes in this Court’s Religion Clauses jurisprudence.”

    Next, they will try and legalize prayer in public school classrooms. But don’t be fooled. The only prayer they will recognize is one they agree with and seek to impose on others. Little by little, our rights are being stripped away.

  5. This should corruption and un-just Thomas’s push for a Supreme Court case as a doorway for a decision to protect Trump-afflicted Ginny, Thomas’s wife, from charges stemming from her efforts to strangle the People’s presidential choice – both – should be front page news.

  6. Can everyone hear my loud applause for this article? This is the kind of bu!!..hockey that Betsy DeVos and her clan push to privatize all forms of education (to further God’s Kingdom) and completely shut down all funding of public schools.

  7. Even Jesus said that only hypocrites pray in public. Being a monotheistic fanatic religion, christianity was never all that great, but perverting or turning away from what Jesus taught makes it as evil as it gets.

  8. Matthew 6:5-6 ESV
    “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

    Its in the Bible so it is God’s word!

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