Team Building or Coercion?
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Three former football players at New Mexico State University have sued the institution and its head coach, charging that they were driven from the team because they were Muslim. University officials say the accusations were disproved by an internal investigation last fall and that the players were kicked off the squad because they performed poorly and behaved badly.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing the former players, argues that the case shows what happens when coaches "try to turn a football team into a religious brotherhood," as Peter G. Simonson, executive director of the ACLU of New Mexico, described it. The lawsuit asserts that when Hal Mumme was hired to coach the Aggie football team in spring 2005, he arranged for players to lead the team in the Lord's Prayer after practices and before games.
The practice made three Muslim players -- Mu'ammar Ali and Anthony and Vincent Thompson, twin brothers -- "feel like outcasts," the former athletes allege in the complaint in their lawsuit. The players "chose to pray separately and in accordance with their Islamic faith," the complaint says, and that led Mumme to change his behavior toward them. The players charge that Mumme asked Ali repeatedly what he thought of al-Qaeda, and last September, Mumme dropped the Thompson brothers from the team, saying that they were "troublemakers," and demoted Ali before ultimately discharged him from the squad in October. (The three players are all now enrolled at Portland State University, in Oregon, where the Thompson twins have changed their names to Mika'il and Salah Ali.)
The ACLU filed a complaint through New Mexico State's internal process last fall, and the university hired an outside law firm to investigate. It found that "there was no inappropriate conduct" by Mumme or other coaches, Bruce R. Kite, the university's general counsel, said in an interview Tuesday.
Kite, to whom questions for Mumme and other university officials were directed, said that the charges made in the lawsuit filed Monday are largely identical to those "fully investigated" last November, and that the university's conclusion now is the same it was then: The accusations about religious discrimination are "just a pretext" and a "smokescreen" for the fact that the players were dropped from the team because they weren't good enough, Kite said. "This is a simple matter of someone not performing, being demoted, then looking for excuses other than that they didn't perform."
Kite insisted that the prayers were "a strictly voluntary thing among the student-athletes themselves," and that "no one was coerced into saying a prayer they didn't want to say."
Simonson, the ACLU lawyer, said the question, from a Constitutional standpoint, is not whether Mumme or other coaches led the prayers or even mandated that the players engage in them. At a public university, "the standard is not that somebody was forced to say a prayer," he said. "If coaches are endorsing the prayers, by setting up the opportunity and the expectation for it, even if they don't lead it, that's a problem. In that instance, coaches are using their roles as coaches to officially endorse the practice of prayer, violating the Constitution and our plaintiffs' religious freedom."
Peter P. Roby, director of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society, said he was unfamiliar with the New Mexico State case and therefore could not comment on it. But he said that in general, coaches and others in positions of authority "have to be thoughtful about what sorts of things they're doing under umbrella of a team activity." Numerous other college coaches, including high-profile ones like Bill McCartney, the former University of Colorado coach who was active in the Promise Keepers spiritual movement, have been criticized for imposing their religious views on players.
"Our whole approach is to promote the value of sport because we see the way sport can be a common denominator, bringing people together," Roby said. "It's disturbing when there are issues in sport that might act as a wedge, and people in authority have to be careful that they're not injecting anything -- not just religion, but politics, personal views -- that may impact your athletes in a way that may make them feel uncomfortable."
He added: "It's one thing to find yourself in house of worship with others on your team, but quite another when you're expecting things, demanding things, that may not be consistent with their beliefs. In that case it almost becomes coercion, and you have to be careful."