Jesus playing football, via The Biblical WorldNote: This post has been updated to mention comments made by UConn women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma.

My alma mater‘s train-wreck of a football team just got its second total shake-up in 3 years, when Bob Diaco was hired as the new head coach (WebCite cached article), and the rest of the coaching staff was replaced. Among Diaco’s new staff is running backs coach Ernest Jones, who in a Hartford Courant profile on Sunday, explained that he’ll make Jesus the team’s focus (cached):

Many of the players on the team have a spiritual base.

“Just because you come to the University of Connecticut doesn’t mean you won’t have the opportunity to pursue your faith,” Jones said. “No, you’re going to be able to come here and love the God that you love. So we provide opportunities for them to grow spiritually in our community. So I’ll get out and meet some people in the community so when this young man, for example, says, ‘I’m a Seventh Day Adventist or I’m a Catholic or I’m a Baptist or I’m a Jehovah’s Witness,’ well, OK, here you go. And we’re going to do things in our building, fellowship, non-denominational type things, players, coaches. We’re going to make sure they understand that Jesus Christ should be in the center of our huddle, that that’s something that is important. If you want to be successful and you want to win, get championships then you better understand that this didn’t happen because of you. This happened because of our Lord and Savior. That’s going to be something said by Bob Diaco. That’s something that’s going to be said by Ernest Jones. That’s who we are.”

I really love how this guy concedes that members of his team can be Catholic, Baptist, or Jehovah’s Witnesses … any kind of Christian who acknowledges Jesus as “our Lord and Savior.” This pretty much leaves out Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, etc. and non-believers too. Those guys, I guess, can’t sign up for UConn football — not with Jones on the coaching staff, anyway.

This caused a little bit of an uproar, I guess, because today, the Courant published a blog post “clarifying” what Jones said (locally-cached article):

In the end Jones just wants the players on the team to have a good sense of morals in addition to being solid football players.

We need to be clear on this though and here’s a clarification, what Jones meant: if a player has a need to be in touch spiritually, whichever direction that is, the player will be able to reach out to Jones and he will be able to point him — or them — in the right direction; that you don’t have to disconnect from your faith — if you’re faith-based — because you’re away from home.

That sounds all well and good, I suppose … except for three tiny little problems: First, this “clarification” doesn’t mesh with Jones’s original words. As reported, he specifically and explicitly mentioned that Jesus Christ, not some other deity, was required to “be in the center of [UConn’s] huddle.” He didn’t say “Jesus Christ, or whoever or whatever the players worship, should be in the center of our huddle.” Second, Jones’s statement wasn’t predicated on whether or not a player has a wish for spirituality; he clearly said that the entire team had to focus on Jesus. That obviously means every player, not just those who are Christian, or even just those with a spiritual inclination. Third, this clarification didn’t come from Jones himself; beat writer Desmond Conner wrote it for him. The clarification is Conner’s, not Jones’s, so we have no idea whether or not Jones actually thought better of what he’d said during the interview, or for that matter whether or not Jones is even aware of the controversy he kicked up. It’s possible Jones has taken the cowardly route, hiding behind Conner, unwilling to go on the record as admitting he said anything inappropriate, and hoping a reporter can make this go away for him.

I note that the Courant also released UConn president Susan Herbst’s comments — this time, quoting her directly rather than writing for her (locally-cached):

But it should go without saying that our employees cannot appear to endorse or advocate for a particular religion or spiritual philosophy as part of their work at the university, or in their interactions with our students. This applies to work-related activity anywhere on or off campus, including on the football field. Our Athletic Director and Coach Diaco agree wholeheartedly with me, and have made this clear to their staff.

What a mess. It’s been made even more of a mess than it needed to be, by virtue of the total silence of Jones himself. Where has the Christianist weasel been, the last couple days? No one, aside maybe from Desmond Conner, knows.

Photo credit: The Biblical World.

P.S. The typos in some of the Courant articles linked above, such as an extraneous semicolon in one headline, are as published. Editing is given short shrift at the nation’s oldest continuously-published newspaper.

Update: The incredibly successful — not to mention sometimes-brutally-frank — Geno Auriemma, UConn’s women’s basketball coach, had a little to say about this controversy (cached):

“I don’t give a [expletive] about religion when it comes to sports,” Auriemma said. “In fact, I think it’s stupid [to involve it]. I get a kick out of those who go on national television and thank God [for giving them the strength to perform]. Like God gives a [expletive] that you made 18 jumpers. I have always had a problem with that [thinking]. I don’t think people should show their religious belief in public. I have a real problem with it. And I don’t care what religion it is.

The Courant provides video of his comments, which for some reason I can’t embed here (even though the site offers embed code … WTF?).

Auriemma makes an excellent point about whether God cares if “you made 18 jumpers.” Think about this for a moment: Why would the Almighty give a shit about a basketball game, or football game … or any other kind of athletic contest? Why would s/he/it care if a player scored 8 points, or 10, or 12? What could that possibly mean to an omnipotent, omniscient, eternal and infinite being? Wouldn’t s/he/it have better things with which to concern him/her/itself?

If you ask me, if Geno Auriemma — who’s arguably the most successful coach currently working in American college sports — doesn’t think religion should be linked to athletics and doesn’t care about his players’ religion(s), that ought to be tell you something. It might not prove anything all by itself, but it is a meaningful perspective by someone who truly knows the issue.

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