The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why 25 public universities have been asked to drop their college football chaplains

Members of the Auburn Tigers pray at midfield in 2013. (AP Photo/Skip Martin)
Placeholder while article actions load

Christian chaplains allow “football coaches to impose their personal religion on players,” according to the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Accordingly, the organization, which describes itself as a “national state/church watchdog,” announced that it was “condemning more than 25 public universities” for failing to put an end to the situation.

The FFRF issued a report this week claiming that while “public universities and their employees cannot endorse,
promote, or favor religion,” many college football coaches ” are converting playing fields into mission fields and public universities are doing nothing to halt this breach of trust.” The report cited a statistic that 54 percent of college students identify themselves as Christian, but noted that all of the team chaplains it had investigated were Christian, often with an evangelical bent.

[Archives: Where college football is religion, and religion shapes college football]

The organization listed 15 schools, almost all in the South, to whose presidents it had alerted the existence of “the most flagrant chaplaincies.” Those schools are:

  • Auburn University
  • University of Georgia
  • University of South Carolina
  • Mississippi State University
  • University of Alabama
  • University of Tennessee
  • Louisiana State University
  • University of Missouri
  • University of Washington
  • Georgia Tech
  • University of Illinois
  • Florida State University
  • University of Mississippi
  • University of Wisconsin
  • Clemson University

“It makes no difference if the chaplain is unofficial, not school-sponsored, or a volunteer, because chaplains are given access to the team as a means for coaches to impose religion, usually Christianity, on their players,” the FFRF wrote in letters to the presidents of Auburn and Georgia. “Under the circumstances, the chaplain’s actions are attributable to the university and those actions are unconstitutional.”

The FFRF singled out Georgia as “one of the major offenders.” The organization noted that Kevin “Chappy” Hynes, UGA’s chaplain, is head coach Mark Richt’s brother-in-law, and cited Hynes as saying, “Our message at Georgia doesn’t change, and that’s to preach Christ and Him crucified, it’s to win championships for the state of Georgia and win souls for the Kingdom of God, so we’re going to continue down that path.”

Auburn chaplain Chette Williams, a former Tigers player and teammate of athletic director Jay Jacobs, is virtually indistinguishable from offical Auburn employees, according to the report. Williams is technically employed by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, but he “typically wears AU branded clothing, organizes religious revivals for the team, is regularly referred to by official or official-sounding names, leads the team in prayer, baptizes players, randomly attends other team practices and meetings, travels with the team, and much more,” whereas “no other group, volunteer, or citizen (and no other religion) gets the access, privileges, prestige, and benefits that the chaplain does.”

The FFRF report claimed that Williams “has an office in [Auburn’s Jordan-Hare] stadium,” but according to, that office is actually in the athletics department’s student development center. Auburn released this statement Thursday:

“Chaplains are common in many public institutions, including the US Congress. The football team chaplain isn’t an Auburn employee, and participation in activities he leads are voluntary.”

The FFRF also cited a recent ESPN story in which Texans running back Arian Foster, a former Tennessee Volunteer, discussed his lack of a belief in God. From that story:

Coaches, led by head coach Phil Fulmer, scheduled trips to Sunday church services as team-building exercises. Foster asked to be excused. He was denied. (The school confirmed that these team-building exercises to churches took place.)

According to the report, this trend of heavily involved chaplains began with former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden. The FFRF cited Bowden as having told his players, “I don’t want to offend your family or your parents, but I have a relationship [with Jesus], and if I don’t tell you about it then I’d be doing wrong.”

(H/T Saturday Down South)