Dabo Swinney and the Politics of Faith in College Football

NOTE: The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of other Gamecock Central or Gamecock Cereal employees.


By Rixon Lane

Clemson head football coach Dabo Swinney has made plenty of headlines during his time with the Tigers. 

From emotional post-game interviews to a string of double-digit win seasons, the 45-year old has put Clemson in the national spotlight multiple times since he took over for Tommy Bowden in 2008. 

This week, it happened again. 

Swinney was set to be honored on June 2nd as the "South Carolina Family Champion of 2015" for the Palmetto Family Council. The event, entitled "Celebrating Family 2015" is billed on the council's website as "honoring South Carolina defenders of religious liberty." 

The decision by Swinney to attend was questioned by many people,including South Carolina House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford and students at Clemson, who petitioned for Swinney to skip the event. The petition received over 1,500 signatures. 

Yesterday, Swinney announced he would not be attending the event and put out a full statement regarding his decision. While Swinney says he was not aware that his presence would spark any sort of political controversy, Palmetto Family Council president Oran Smith says Swinney was aware of the type of event it would be. 

Ultimately, Dabo Swinney's decision has been widely discussed throughout the state of South Carolina and the country, with some supporting his decision to skip the event and others criticizing it. 

When I first read the details of the Palmetto Family Council and the news that Swinney would be attending the fundraiser, I was surprised. 

While not everything a person does has to affect his or her job, there was no denying that this would create issues for both Swinney and Clemson. 

The Palmetto Family Council has made no secret of the fact that it is against same-sex equality, as its founder, G. Steven Suits, helped author South Carolina's ban on gay marriage. The council's website states that it opposes "The Workplace Fairness Act," a 2013 bill currently in the state's House Judiciary Committee that would prohibit discrimination by employers based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The council's website also featured an archived article that claims homosexuality "can be physically, spiritually, or emotionally damaging."

So, what does this have to do with football?

Dabo Swinney has been outspoken about his Christian faith, saying that he promises to help athletes grow spiritually during his recruiting visits. His faith has gotten him into hot water at times, but there is no denying what Swinney believes in. 

I believe that Dabo Swinney is a true, sincere Christian. In many ways, I envy him. I sometimes find myself wondering if I am doing enough as a believer during my time in this world. I wonder if I am capable of wearing my faith on my sleeve the way that Swinney does. I'd like to think I know the answer to that question, but I'm not always certain that I do. 

As a Christian, I'm glad that there are people like Dabo Swinney in leadership roles in this country. I'm glad that someone who has such a tremendous impact on young men and women isn't shy about expressing his faith. I'm glad that Swinney believes that winning football games is not the be-all and end-all of his existence. 

However, that doesn't mean I necessarily agree with everything he says and does. 

I personally did not think that having DeAndre Hopkins baptized on Clemson's practice field was a good idea. Although Hopkins was the one who asked to have it done, I believe that the event, which Swinney certainly could have moved or postponed, blurred the line of separation between church and state. That does not mean I am any less happy for Hopkins and the decision he made. 

Dabo Swinney clearly has many people look up to him. He, like all coaches, has the ability to shape the lives of many individuals. This ability is why I believe backing out of the Palmetto Family Council's event was the correct decision.

Whether or not people want to admit it, Swinney's presence would have been viewed as agreeing with the council's principles and beliefs. I don't personally know Dabo Swinney, so I don't know what his feelings are regarding gay marriage. Swinney has said in the past that he had gay teammates during his playing career at the University of Alabama and that no issues emerged during his time with the Crimson Tide. He has also said he would be accepting of a gay player on his team now. 

I'm willing to bet that Dabo Swinney has already recruited or coached a gay player, even if that player never came out to Swinney or his teammates. I'm also fairly certain that he will, at some point in the future and probably unknowingly, sit down in the living room of a gay high school football player and promise to help him grow spiritually if he comes to play at Clemson. An appearance with a group determined to keep gay people from having the same rights as heterosexuals is simply not a good look for Swinney. 

Some have tried to make this issue into South Carolina vs. Clemson. Folks have pointed out that South Carolina's former baseball coach and current athletic director Ray Tanner has appeared with the Palmetto Family Council. In fact, Tanner's photo is the second picture shown on the home page of the council's website.

Just like Swinney, Tanner says he was unaware of the group's political ties when he was honored by the council. According to the council's Facebook page, Tanner was honored in 2013 for his "Ray Tanner Foundation," just as Swinney is going to be honored for his "All In Team Foundation." 

This is not a rivalry issue or a South Carolina-Clemson issue. This is an issue of rights. The Palmetto Family Council works to prevent certain members of society from having the same rights that others do. 

I may be in the minority on this issue, may be one of few who feel that Swinney made the correct decision. Polls in the state of South Carolina say that I probably am. 

But, as Swinney has so often stood up for his beliefs, I will also stand up for mine. And I do not believe that limiting rights to gay people is what God calls us to do. 

I have sat quietly and listened as preachers condemned my friends and family members because they were born differently than I was. I have watched people I care about be afraid to acknowledge who they really are. I have heard the phrase "love the sinner, but hate the sin" used to explain how I should interact with gay people, even though that phrase has never been told to me when dealing with heterosexuals. 

I don't believe that being gay is a sin. Ultimately, we are all sinners. We've all lied, stolen, cheated, and coveted at some point or another. 

The difficulty in being Christian and a supporting LGBT rights is something that I struggle with almost every day of my life.

But I am certain about one thing. 

None of this should have any impact on college football. 

Whether it's Tim Tebow, Michael Sam, or anyone else on the field, I don't believe that God cares one bit about the outcomes of our football games. I believe He cares about how the game is played and about those who are participating. 

Every time I cover a college football game, in the moments before kickoff, I thank God for the blessing of being able to do something I love. I imagine Dabo Swinney does the same.

And I'd like to think that's what really matters.