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Michael Parker: Football coach pressured us into prayer

Michael Parker

This article first appeared in the Houston Chronicle on July 8 and is reprinted with permission.

By Michael Parker

Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a public high school football coach could pray at the 50-yard line of the field after football games. In the majority opinion, the court focused on a claim that there were no high school football players who complained that they were coerced into praying with the coach. The court also stated that firing the coach for prayer “would undermine a long constitutional tradition under which learning how to tolerate diverse expressive activities has always been part of learning how to live in a pluralistic society.”

I was a high school football player in Katy, Texas, from 2001-2003 and what I experienced with prayer during football games and activities was far from the Supreme Court’s out-of-touch decision. That few players complained speaks to the pressure they face, and the need to protect them from having religious beliefs imposed on them.

I played varsity football at Katy High School and served as the co-captain of the 2003 team that won the state football championship. Playing in that environment demanded discipline. Everyone knew that we had to fall in line, do what the coaches asked of us and never question the system that was leading us to championships. I was — and am still — incredibly grateful for the opportunity to compete and succeed at the highest level, and I felt rewarded for my efforts. That is only to say that, despite my leadership position and success in the program, I never knew or thought that I could speak out when religion was incorporated into our games and activities.

There are three separate religious practices that I remember participating in with the football team during this time. 

Before Saturday games, we would go to Luby’s restaurant as a football team for breakfast. All the coaches and players were there. I assumed that if anyone missed the breakfast, the coach would make an example of that person in some way because people were punished for other misbehaviors with physical exercise or missing game time. I never tested that assumption and attended the team breakfasts each Saturday. 

During the breakfast, a person who I assume was affiliated with a church would come into the Luby’s dining room, give a short sermon, and end the breakfast with a prayer. It was uncomfortable. Although I casually participated in religious activities to fit in socially, I was privately ambivalent with a growing skepticism. I never believed the prayers would have an impact on the team’s performance later in the day. But I did not know why it was wrong. I only knew that I had to fall in line.

Before each football game, the players most vocal about their religious convictions would lead the team in prayer in an area near the locker room. Players would sweep through the fieldhouse calling for those not already in the room to join them in the prayer room. Coaches would encourage those who were unaware the player-led prayer was about to begin to join the prayer room. It did not matter whether a player was getting his ankles taped or just relaxing by his locker, there was always an urgency to gather in this room and hold hands in prayer. I never felt I had a choice, I just knew to fall in line. This was especially true while I was a co-captain. I believed I had to set a good example by joining the majority of players and following the coach’s example.

After the games, the coach also would initiate The Lord’s Prayer by asking the players who wanted to lead the team in this prayer. Did the coach ever tell us we were required to pray? No. But I knew better than to question the coaches or their process. Sometimes players would volunteer to lead the prayer or if someone had a particularly good game, the coach would highlight their performance and ask him to lead it. I wouldn’t volunteer, but I did lead prayer when asked. I never thought to say no, especially if the coach had just praised the game I had.

It was not until after I graduated high school and moved out of state that I realized why the religious practices imposed by the team had made me feel so uncomfortable. I was being indoctrinated — whether intentionally or not — by a group’s beliefs. I had succeeded on the field based on my discipline and by doing what the coaches told me to do. Naturally, I thought I had to submit and conform by participating in the religious practices just as I was participating in the football practices. I do not know the exact legal nuances of what it takes to be “coerced” into religious practices, but I do know based on my experience that it should not matter that students don’t speak out when a football coach prays after a game. And because I was only exposed to prayer by one religious group, I was not taught “to tolerate diverse expressive activities” as the Supreme Court claims. For me, playing high school football was the opposite.

While these experiences were almost 19 years ago, I can understand if the Bremerton High School players didn’t speak out. Kids, including teenage football players, are easily influenced by the authority figures in their lives who they are taught to follow, no matter where they lead. As I experienced, the indoctrination of young people works because they do not know or do not feel comfortable enough to question the beliefs imposed on them, making it hard to simply break away or even speak out. I question how the U.S. Supreme Court could suggest that if players did not speak out against the prayers of a football coach, then the coach’s religion was not imposed on them.

Michael Parker was born and raised in Katy, Texas, and is currently a Houston resident.