Iowa State University has a new men’s basketball coach, and he’s interested in winning souls as well as winning games. Steve Prohm, who arrives at Iowa State after gigs at Southeastern Louisiana University, Tulane University and Murray State University, recently told the Des Moines Register that he intends to pray with his new team.
“I'll ask them if they have prayer requests,” Prohm said. “It's not something you're beating over their head; you want to give them a foundation, so when they leave Ames, it’s not foreign to them when they raise their kids, or have a wife – that they have a strong foundation and a strong faith.”
He said he learned the practice from his former boss, Bill Kennedy, who now coaches basketball at Texas A&M. “Watching what (faith) meant to him – it kind of re-challenged me that I had to get invested in having a relationship with Jesus, and reading the Bible and taking time each day to do that,” he explained.
That’s all well and good – Prohm is, like everyone else – entitled to believe whatever he wants.
But it’s clear that he views his job as a basketball coach as a ministry, too. The Register notes that he uses Bible verses, in addition to prayer, to “motivate his players.” That would be acceptable at a private, religious university. Iowa State, however, is a publicly funded research university. And that means Prohm’s prayer practice raises serious constitutional concerns.
In a letter to the editor of the Register, retired Iowa State journalism professor Dick Haws raised concerns about the new coach, noting that players may feel pressured to participate in the prayer practice.
“Prohm’s basketball players are impressionable young men, many still teenagers. They want to keep that scholarship, they want to play that basketball, they want to get that good recommendation from the coach. So, when coach asks them about prayer, they’ll know there’s only one right answer,” he wrote.
And according to Haws, this won’t be the first time Prohm proselytized on the job. “If Prohm holds to form, he’ll pick a particular book of the Bible to highlight here at Iowa State. That’s what he did it at Murray State,” Haws wrote. “Somebody sent me an article that told of his emphasis on the Book of Nehemiah for the Murrary State Racers in 2013. The Bible verse he selected was ‘Stay on the wall. Do not be distracted. There is important work to be done.’ The team’s practice T-shirts read, ‘Stay on the wall.’”
In its effusive profile of Prohm, the Register included a photo of a brick inscribed with the words “Stay On The Wall,” which can be taken as further evidence that the coach intends to continue his sectarian tradition.
Prohm’s hardly the only coach who integrates faith with his responsibilities at a public university. After all, he proudly reports learning the practice from Kennedy. There have been additional problems at Clemson University, where football coach Dabo Swinney bused players to church, and at Delaware State University, where a former volleyball player recently filed a lawsuit claiming that her coach had required the team to attend a Pentecostal church. That player eventually lost her athletic scholarship, an event she attributes to her decision to challenge the coach on the unconstitutional requirement.
Despite what each of these coaches appear to believe, it’s not appropriate for them to proselytize to players at a public university. Taxpayers are funding athletics at these schools, not religious ministries. And while Prohm may not believe he’s pressuring players into practicing Christianity, his actions make it clear that the Christian faith is the preferred faith of the Iowa State men’s basketball team. That will unquestionably affect players who belong to minority belief traditions – and at a large school like Iowa State, which enrolls nearly 35,000 students, those players certainly exist.
Prohm should focus on basketball, not the Book of Nehemiah. If he doesn’t, he’s creating an inevitable legal headache for his new employer.