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.