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Broadcaster explores the role of religion in football

In ‘003, doing research for his second book, "Every Week a Season," sports broadcaster Brian Curtis spent several months behind the scenes at nine big-time college football programs. From that experience, said the author, he learned a great deal about the inner workings of NCAA Division 1 football.


Brian Curtis

Among other things, said Curtis, he found out "how great a role religion plays in so many schools," a situation he continues to monitor. A member of the United Synagogue of Hoboken, Curtis will speak this evening at the shul’s Shabbat service, sharing personal stories that illustrate "the expanding role of religion in sports."

An Emmy-nominated sports broadcaster and New York Times bestselling author of four books, Curtis is a host and reporter for CBS Sports/College Sports Television and a contributor to Fox Sports Radio.

Speaking with The Jewish Standard, Curtis recalled several incidents that occurred during his nine-week voyage into the heart of college football. At one college, players gathered in the shower area after warm-ups, where lights were turned off and one player began a prayer, subsequently joined by the others, all kneeling: "If God is with us," they said, "then who can be against us?"

At other colleges, he said, coaches attend pre-game prayer sessions or study groups, to which all players are invited. "It doesn’t matter if the prayers are Christian or Muslim," said Curtis. "The problem is religion of any type playing a role in sports in public forums."

"Everything is voluntary," he pointed out, but he noted that if a coach leads or participates in services, say, two hours before game time, players may feel pressured to show up.

Even so, he said, in his time with the football clubs, "I didn’t sense any discomfort. Even Jewish players [whom, he acknowledged, constituted only a small minority] said they had no problems with it, that it didn’t infringe on their rights. They just didn’t say some of the words."

Curtis noted that the problem exists even at the high school level, which has provided the impetus for a growing number of court cases.

He cited an ongoing case in East Brunswick centering on a high school coach who for many years participated in prayers with his players. He also noted that in ‘000, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Texas high school’s practice of allowing Christian prayer to be recited over the school’s public address system before football games.

According to Americans United for Separation of Church and State, in that ruling, "Justice John Paul Stevens, citing precedent, concluded that school-sanctioned religious activity runs afoul of the First Amendment."

Curtis said the role of religion in sports goes back many decades, "to the beginning." It’s only recently, he said, with challenges appearing in the courts, that the situation has found its way into the spotlight.

"It stems from individuals — such as coaches with strong beliefs or players with strong beliefs who bring them to the table — or outside groups, like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, who want to spread their teachings," he said, pointing out that other groups, such as the ACLU, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and some school administrators, are trying to "keep it in check."

Curtis said he is "somewhat conflicted" over the issue, although he agrees that religion should not play a role in public institutions. "But there’s a flip side," he said. "I’ve seen the benefit players get" from being directed by religious coaches or team chaplains. "I’ve seen how important it is."

He noted that the coach at the University of Virginia, a born-again Christian and "strong proponent of faith … doesn’t show up at religious services so players won’t feel pressured to attend. He recuses himself," said Curtis. Nevertheless, he said, that same coach prays before games and before media interviews.

The synagogue will hold Shabbat evening services at 7 p.m., followed by Curtis’ talk and an oneg reception. For additional information call (’01) 659-4000.

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