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Sid Salter: A Different Kind of Athletic ‘Misconduct’ Alleged in Newton

Just this week, the University of Louisville confirmed that the National Collegiate Athletic Association had formally charged staff members in its men’s basketball program, including head coach Rick Pitino, with major violations related to a scandal in which a university employee provided prostitutes who performed sexual acts with players and recruits. The infractions may well rise to criminal charges as well.

It happens a long way from the sleepy environs of Mississippi – and it happens all too frequently here, too.

The national headlines are filled with lurid tales of alleged misconduct on the parts of coaches, players and others associated with professional, college, and in some cases, high school or even junior high athletic programs. That misconduct runs the gamut from wide-ranging sexual misconduct to the abuse of women and from illegal gambling to physical or psychological abuse by players by coaches.

Into that disturbing realm comes another allegation of misconduct on the part of a coach. This one comes from Newton, Mississippi, where a national organization has accused the coach and the school system of breaking violating constitutional law in terms of the separation of church and state.

What is Coach Ryan Smith accused of doing? Baptizing one of his football players in front of the rest of the team on September 21. The baptism took place off school grounds, after school, on private property, and no students were compelled to attend. A Facebook video of the event was posted.

The national organization leveling the allegation of misconduct is the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a group that has made media noise in Mississippi and across the rest of the country before.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wisconsin, claims to be an entity formed in 1978 to promote the constitutional principle of separation of state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism and likewise claims a membership of “approximately 23,000 freethinkers: atheists, agnostics and skeptics of any pedigree.”

For their part, the Newton Municipal School District appears to be sticking by their coach and issued a statement regarding the student baptism from Superintendent Virginia Young:

“The baptism of a Newton Municipal School District student did not occur on school property and did not occur during school hours or during any organized school activity, thus the district feels this is a private matter of choice for that student. Any additional Newton Municipal School District students that attended the baptism did so as their own voluntary act and decision.”

I could not help but read about this event and the predictable reaction from FFRF and think how strange indeed it is – in an era in which so much of athletics at every level is consumed by drugs, sex, greed, cheating, and “win-at-all-costs” values – that this coach and this school district is being threatened with federal lawsuit over a coach sharing his faith with a student.

The question is one of power. Do coaches have power over athletes? Certainly. But that power is no stronger than the respect that players feel for their coaches. There appears no evidence here that anything that transpired in this episode involved an abuse of the player-coach or teacher-student relationship.

Strange that we lionize coaches who teach young people to cheat to win, to harm or maim opponents to win, to take performance-enhancing drugs, to risk injury to their bodies chasing wins, but some will demonize this coach for suggesting to young people that there exists more lasting victory in faith, obedience, and service to a higher power.

Pray for Coach Ryan Smith and for the young people he teaches in Newton. But only if you want to, mind you. Your choice.

Sid Salter--studio headshot

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him sidsalter@sidsalter.com.

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