Students express views on faith in the university
"Jesus Christ should be in the center of our huddle," said new assistant football coach Ernest T. Jones in a recently published article that sparked a firestorm of responses from readers, columnists and the University of Connecticut's President Susan Herbst.
The article, published on Jan. 12 in the Hartford Courant, introduced the new running backs coach, who will also act as the director of player engagement. Jones discussed teaching his players to care for others more than themselves and introducing them to members of UConn's Christian community.
His comments about Jesus Christ received the most attention. After UConn alumna Rena Epstein wrote a letter to the Courant in which she expressed concern for UConn football players who are not Christian, Herbst stated that Epstein was "correct in her criticism."
"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 out students," Herbst wrote in a letter to the Courant. "Our athletic director and coach Bob Diaco agree wholeheartedly with me, and have made this clear to their staff."
Many UConn students have expressed strong opinions about Jones's comments.
Sebastian Correa, a 6th-semester economics and English major and Freethinkers leader, said that he agreed with basketball coach Geno Auriemma's recent comments about sports and religion: "Like God gives a crap that you made 18 jump shots." "Instead of praying, they should practice more and start winning for a change," says Correa.
Beyond disagreeing about God's role in sports, Correa says that Jones assumes to many things about his players.
"A lot of things he says just assume that (the student athletes) are not only religious but also only Christian," said Correa, referring to Jones's comments about helping students who are Seventh Day Adventists, Catholics, Baptists or Jehovah's Witnesses find spiritual communities. "What about everyone else?"
Although Correa finds Jones's statements exclusive, he doesn't think any disciplinary action should be taken by the university considering how new Jones is to UConn. "It should be made clear what he can and cannot do," said Correa. "Since he really believes all this in his heart, I'm sure he's still going to try to do things that are faith-based. At least for a little while (the administration) can keep an eye on him."
Freethinkers secretary Haakon Weyel, a 4th-semester political science major, believes that university officials should discuss the matter with Jones.
"The best course of action would be to have university officials discuss with Jones the importance of accepting the spiritual denominations of all athletes while never advocating for one over any others," says Weyel. "Any future problems would most likely require harsher discipline, but I am sure that Jones will take this matter seriously."
However, many students are excited by Jones's drive to encourage spiritual growth in student-athletes on the football team.
"As a Christian, I strongly agree that the ideas assistant coach Jones brings up about spiritual growth and knowing Christ more deeply are two of the most important things a Christian can do while working, playing and studying here at UConn," says Matt Rescsanski, a 6th-semester music education major and leader of Cru, an interdenominational Christian student organization.
However, Rescsanski believes Jones should take a less controversial approach by simply connecting interested athletes to Christian student organization. "While I applaud Jones for expressing his personal views on this matter, he at the same time must respect and abide by school policy in his professional capacities at a public and secular university."
Ian Macdonald, a 6th-semester physics and philosophy major and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship leader says that since student football players devote so much time to their teams, its necessary for them to receive some sort of spiritual guidance from a coach.
"I would want to expose them to spirituality because I think Jesus Christ was the example of how you should act," says Macdonald. However, while he respects the Jones's desire to say what he believes, he says that Jones should be careful not to say that his believes are UConn's beliefs.
Kiana Gonzalez, a 6th-semester art history major, sees the benefits of encouraging spirituality in student athletes, but disagrees with his approach. "He says that he wants the team members to grow spiritually with others of the same faiths as their own, but then wants to place Jesus Christ at the center of their huddle."
Gonazalez is a leader of the Adventist Campus Fellowship, an organization which a few students on the UConn football team are a part of. She agrees with Herbst and believes that UConn should be a place where everyone feels welcome.
"As a Christian I most definitely advocate for this, because to be a true Christian is not to judge or push your views on others, but to be kind and considerate of others' beliefs, even if you may not agree with them," says Gonzalez.
Fourth-semester mechanical engineering and German studies major Thomas Maynard says that its important for Jones to focus on his own faith without pushing it on others.
Maynard is a co-president of Tom's Leadership Council at St. Thomas Aquinas Church, where he says that students advocate for a model of "Christ-like" or "servant" leadership. "Along with preaching and teaching, Jesus acted on a lot of what he said," says Maynard. "He reached collectors, lepers and prostitutes and made them feel included and loved."
Maynard says that he is looking forward to seeing whether Jones puts this kind of action behind his words.
While many students appreciate Jones's endorsement of spiritually, not all are enthused by his endorsement of Christianity for all players. Muslim Student Association event coordinator Ammad Shaikh, a 6th-semester computer science major, says that it doesn't make sense for a coach to speak about Jesus Christ, as Jones does, if not all students on the team are Christian.
"A Muslim does not see Jesus as God. Rather, he or she sees him as a prophet who benefited his people during his lifetime, but since he is no longer here, he cannot actively help... a sports team winning a game," says Shaikh. "So naturally, this sort of speech would isolate a Muslim and perhaps any other person who is not a Christian."
However, Ted Lopatin, an eighth-semester Spanish and Judaic studies major and leader of the Jewish Student Association, says that he isn't bothered by Jones's comments. "I take my religion and identity very seriously, but I also recognize other people's right to take their faiths seriously," says Lopatin.
Although he agrees that a football coach does not have a right to force students on the team to pray and worship, he says he wouldn't mind the coach bringing Jesus into the huddle. "If I were on the football team in some alternate universe, I would simply listen to his coaching advice and tune out whenever he starts talking about Jesus," says Lopatin. "If Jones starts punishing students on the team who do not share his religious views, then the man should be fired. I see no evidence that Jones is doing that."
As a varsity swimmer and leader of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, 6th-semester environmental science and business major William Franz says that he personally thinks each member of a team can think independently about their faith not only in God but in each other, regardless of what faith the coach expresses.
"This is not a theological faith necessarily, but a faith in the game they play, their teammates, and what makes their own abilities shine through," says Franz. "If a coach wants to bring "Jesus Christ in the center of the huddle," then that is where he may derive some of his faith, but that does not take away from the faith he has in his players nor does it necessarily influence them to act in accordance to his thoughts. As 18 to 22-year-olds, we are mature enough to make our own decisions as to what motivates and drives us and our abilities. Having a more religious or devout coach does not change this in any direction."
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