From the Sidelines: Borden’s battle dictates Demopolis’ direction

Published 6:34 pm Friday, November 14, 2008

The Tigers may soon have another fight on their hands, one that challenges them to the core of the values head coach Tom Causey and his staff have worked to instill during its two years in Demopolis.

This fight has little to do with the game in between the lines and everything to do with the ongoing battle for well-being of the hearts and minds of the young men who play it.

In the fall of 2005, East Brunswick High School football coach Marcus Borden was told by the school board that he was no longer allowed to take a knee or bow his head while his team prayed.

Email newsletter signup

As likely any man of faith would have reacted, Borden was upset by the decision. He turned in his resignation. Then, after contemplating his next move, he rescinded it and pressed forward with a lawsuit against the school board.

To be clear, Borden is a successful and well-respected coach who has tasted state championship glory in New Jersey. But since his arrival at the school in 1983, he has sought to help his players experience a different kind of glory. That was until the school board decided that Borden was not looking out for the best interests of his players.

Borden received a reprieve in July of 2006 when U.S. District Court Judge Dennis Cavanaugh ruled that the school board was out of its right to restrict Borden from kneeling or bowing his head while his team prayed. In Cavanaugh’s opinion, the long-time coach was merely respecting the students’ right to religion by kneeling and bowing his head. Cavanaugh said Borden could not lead the prayer, as that would be a direct endorsement of religion. Borden viewed the ruling as a victory.

Then, the school board appealed the ruling.

In April of this year, the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia vindicated the school board’s initial mandate. Borden was again stripped of his right to kneel or bow his head in reverence as his players spoke to God.

The three-judge panel unanimously said that Borden’s act of kneeling and bowing his head during the prayer looked too much like an endorsement of religion. And, his position as a public employee excluded him from being able to endorse religion.

“The district pursued this case to protect children who could not protest pressure to participate in religious activities at school events,” Superintendent of East Brunswick Public Schools Jo Ann Magistro said following the 2006 circuit court ruling. “Today’s ruling accomplished that goal. Every student is a valued member of our community and their religious beliefs, or lack there of, can never be used to separate them from their peers and teammates.”

However, the court ruled, Borden did not have to turn his back to the team as it prayed, nor was he forced to keep his head erect. Those actions, the court said. would look too much like hostility toward religion.

So, perplexed but not defeated, Borden has appealed the ruling to the highest court according to an Oct. 14 report. Now, Borden and football coaches nationwide await the ruling of the United States Supreme Court as to what is and is not acceptable conduct for a high school football coach who bears the responsibility of educating and shaping young men.

It seems a no-win situation in which coaches are placed in this era. The ability to win football games is still measured with tremendous weight, as is the ability to develop the character of the athletes who play the game. Throughout the history of the sport, some of the greatest names to walk the sidelines have utilized faith in finding success on the field. Tom Landry was well known for his faith. Bear Bryant did not shy away from his. But they were men of a different time.

As our culture has changed, so too has our perception of the religion’s role in it. And now we potentially sit on the cusp of a pivotal ruling from the Supreme Court that will direct how coaches coach and how players pray.

The demands on athletes seem paradoxical in nature. Society demands they be upstanding citizens ready to accept their assumed status as role models. And if the perception is that they fall short in anyway, they are cast into an unflattering light as a stereotyping majority washes its hands of them. Yet, they are supposed to achieve this level of moral development with which so many non-athletes never even brush without any spiritual guidance and only moderate moral guidance from the men who have the most experience walking in their shoes.

What if the Supreme Court rules that Borden is not allowed to pray? What then? What effect does that bear nationwide? What does it mean for Causey and a staff of coaches whose program sits on the cornerstone of faith? How does it translate to a 7,500-member community that values football behind only faith and family?

All that is for certain is that how Demopolis as a community responds to the impending decision will direct its future for decades to come.