The Religious Right likes to blame church-state separation for everything from rising crime to falling church attendance. But a former member of Congress thinks separation is responsible for something else as well: football injuries.
You read that right. As far as one-time U.S. Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) is concerned, coercive school prayer used to keep high school football players free of serious injuries. (Thanks to Right Wing Watch for the audio.)
“Now, see, I remember growing up in the inner city of Atlanta, Georgia,” West told a conservative crowd in Texas earlier this month. “I went to Grady High School, and I played football and we didn’t have all this high-speed gear and everything like that. There was no such thing about ‘targeting.’ I mean, you were not a tough football player unless you did try to hit someone head-on.
“And even in high school, before every game at Grady Stadium, the pastor would come down and pray before every football game,” West continued. “I don’t remember catastrophic injuries. I don’t remember anyone getting carted off that field paralyzed.”
West, who is best known for spending 22 years in the U.S. Army before being forced to retire amid a scandal, seems to have a bit of a fuzzy memory. Maybe it’s the result of all those shots he took to the head while playing football. Let’s get him up to speed.
The U.S. Supreme Court struck down coercive public school prayer in its 1962 Engel v. Vitale decision. That means by the time West was playing football in the mid-and late 1970s, any instances of a pastor leading his team in prayer would have been unconstitutional.
West also seems unaware that Engel didn’t prohibit athletes from praying before games. While it did ban school-sponsored prayer, any student remains free to pray on his or her own or in groups provided no one is pressured to join in.
Not only is West wrong about prayer options for high school athletes, he’s way off base about the frequency of football injuries over time. We all know now that playing football is a serious health risk. That has always been the case. But that doesn’t mean equipment improvements haven’t reduced the number of injuries that result from playing the sport.
According to a report by the Centers for Disease Control, 4.36 injuries occurred for every 1,000 high school football players in 2005-2006. That number is two times lower than the observed injury rate for high school football participants from 1995-1997.
Perhaps the reason West doesn’t remember a lot of players being “carted off that field paralyzed” is because of a 1976 rules change that made it illegal for a player “to make initial contact with the head and face while blocking and tackling,” according to a report by the American Football Coaches Association on catastrophic football injuries. West himself may have violated that rule frequently, but of course following protocol has always been an issue for him.
West’s comments, which are devoid of facts and out of touch with reality, are so typical of the Religious Right. Find a problem, real or imagined, and blame it on lack of prayer. In this case, prayer is irrelevant. Football has gotten safer over time, and I doubt God had anything to do with that – unless you believe God invented shoulder pads.
The reality is, West and his allies are just looking for any excuse to inject religion into public schools. They want to see students indoctrinated in their narrow version of Christianity, and they will spin any yarn that could advance their theocratic agenda. Sorry, Allen – nobody is buying this football claim. You need to stick to, um, whatever it is you do with your career at this point and leave public schools alone.