Most high school and college coaches will make reasonable accommodations for their athletes if there’s a conflict between the game and something else. Have a wedding to attend? No problem. You can leave practice early in order to catch a plane. Celebrating your bar mitzvah on game day? Okay, you can skip the one game.
But those accommodations have to go both ways. The athletes know the practice schedule and competition days in advance. They need to work around those obligations.
In Oregon, Portland State University football player Vincent Johnson hasn’t figured that out. He wants to skip several practices in order to attend church. His coach, Nigel Burton, was willing to let him do that a couple of times, but no more. Now, Johnson is complaining that the coach is forcing him to choose between two things he loves:
“He asked me to choose between church and football,” Portland State University student Vincent Johnson said. “I said, ‘Coach, you can’t ask me to do that. It’s like asking me to choose between God and football.’”
Johnson said it’s a decision he didn’t want to, and shouldn’t have to, make.
“I just really want to play,” he said.
But he hasn’t played since spring when he said he went to his coach with a problem. Four services at his Milwaukie church, World Mission Society Church of God, fell at the same time as football practice.
Johnson claims his coach would only allow some of the absences.
“There’s a lot of people that miss practice due to if they have academics, or anything like that, so it could have been arranged,” he said.
He’s filed a complaint, which is still under investigation, with the university.
It’s a ridiculous complaint for several reasons.
- Johnson knew the practice schedule in advance. He should be able to schedule personal things around that, just like other players do all the time.
- Going to church, as many Christians will tell you, isn’t necessary to practice your faith. Many churches even have multiple services in order to accommodate people who can’t make it a particular time. Why not attend a different service? If that’s not an option, why not ask the pastor to meet with you separately? Since when does God only care about you if you attend services at set times?
- The coach was willing to allow a couple of absences. But when you’re a scholarship athlete on a college team, that has to become a top priority. By skipping practice multiple times, you’re letting down your teammates and making it that much harder for coaches and the other players to see the full team in action.
- If all the players made similar requests as Johnson, there would be chaos. It’s not the coach’s responsibility to schedule practices around everyone’s personal preferences. It’s the players’ responsibility to schedule their religious and personal lives around the team. You may not agree with that being their priority, but the players knew it in advance, well before they accepted their scholarships.
- Professional football players — many of whom are Christian — have no problem practicing their faith despite being a little busy on Sundays. Same with other professional athletes. Sure, college is different, but the principle remains: When you commit to a team, you can’t also commit to another time-consuming activity that goes on at the same time.
- Johnson is upset he’s not getting playing time, but if he’s skipping multiple practices (for any reason), that’s not surprising. He hasn’t run the routes. He won’t know what the plays look like in real time. He’d be a liability on the field. The coach isn’t punishing him for his faith; the coach is punishing him for not being there when the plays were being drawn up and practiced.
There’s no evidence of religious discrimination at play. What you have is a scholarship player who is putting another activity before his obligations to the team. Johnson claims students who struggle academically get time off, so he’s being treated unfairly, but I doubt players who miss multiple practices for academic reasons get more time on the field.
Remember: The coach was willing to make some accommodations. What Johnson is requesting, though, is beyond reasonable.
University officials say they’ll finish their investigation within two weeks.
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