Prayers go on, sometimes out of sight, in pre-season football

Surrounded by a crowd of players with their arms draped over their shoulders, West Bloomfield High School’s assistant coach Justin Ibe bowed his head and offered a Christian prayer before a recent game on Friday night.

Forty yards down the sidelines, three Muslim young men had a quiet moment to themselves.

“Ameen,” the players said softly, using the Arabic word for amen.

Crestwood High School football player Adam Berry, 19, says a Muslim prayer before a game in Melvindale, Michigan on Friday, September 23, 2022.  At Crestwood High School, where most of the football team is Muslim, before drills and games, the entire team gathers to pray on one knee.

Crestwood High School football player Adam Berry, 19, says a Muslim prayer before a game in Melvindale, Michigan on Friday, September 23, 2022. At Crestwood High School, where most of the football team is Muslim, before drills and games, the entire team gathers to pray on one knee.

Paul Sancy/AP

Across America, most high school football seasons come to an end. Thousands of games, the first since the Supreme Court ruled in June that it’s okay for a public school coach near Seattle to pray on the field. The decision sparked speculation that prayer would become an even bigger part of matchday, although it appears that this has not been the case.

Fouad Zaban, the head coach at Fordson High in Dearborn, calls the area just outside Detroit “America’s Middle East,” and it is, in fact, home to thousands of people of Arab descent. After the court ruling, Zaban said he was inundated with requests to use his platform and his constitutional right to pray in public. After giving it some thought, he opted to keep his team’s prayers behind closed doors to avoid possible anti-Islamic ridicule from fans in other communities.

“That was the concern that they would get a backlash,” Zaban said.

With the nationwide culture wars spilling over into education, having instructive moments about big news — like a precedent court ruling — is a challenge, and coaches like Zaban would rather stab than publicly pray.

“It’s harder whether you’re a coach, librarian, teacher, or consultant,” said Lara Schwartz, an American university professor whose specialty is campus language and constitutional law, when you’re having these conversations. To me, that’s a threat to people who have good constructive dialogue in classrooms or with trainers.

In Michigan, some teams that have multiple religions on their rosters have found ways for anyone to participate if they wish.

“We’re not forcing anyone to do it,” said Ibe, the defensive line coach at West Bloomfield. “We’re just taking this moment to really come together and give glory to God in this moment.”

At Crestwood High School in Dearborn Heights, where the majority of the football team is Muslim, the entire squad gathers to pray on one knee before practice and games. First, most of the players recite Al-Fatiha. Then one player says a Christian prayer to the attentive group.

“They’re pretty much the same between those two prayers,” said Adam Berry, a senior and a team captain. “Ask God for protection, ask God for forgiveness, and ask God for any way to help us through our play.”

According to a poll by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, a majority of Americans think a coach leads a team in prayer (60%), a player leads a team in prayer (64%), and a coach prays field without asking the team to participate (71%) should all be admitted to public university sports.

Still, the team plays it safe at Fordson High, where the coaches clear the locker room and let the players pray if they wish.

“Nobody can ever say that we were involved in that,” said Zaban, adding that he just wanted to train rather than attract attention.

West Bloomfield team members huddle together as defensive line coach Justin Ibe leads a team prayer prior to the game against Eisenhower on Friday, October 21, 2022 in West Bloomfield, Michigan.  Across America, most high school football seasons come to an end.  It will close the first year since the Supreme Court ruled it's okay for a public school coach near Seattle to pray on the field.

West Bloomfield team members huddle together as defensive line coach Justin Ibe leads a team prayer prior to the game against Eisenhower on Friday, October 21, 2022 in West Bloomfield, Michigan. Across America, most high school football seasons come to an end. It will close the first year since the Supreme Court ruled it’s okay for a public school coach near Seattle to pray on the field.

Carlos Osorio/AP

Hassan Shinawah, a senior and team captain at Fordson, said players supported keeping their prayers in the locker room and out of the public eye. The only exception this season was when Seniors’ Day celebrations and pre-game messages from coaches were long and players quickly gathered on the field to pray before kick-off.

“We don’t know if people are comfortable,” he said. “We don’t know what they think about it. We just don’t want any conflict with others.”

In the South, at least three high schools, two in Alabama and one in North Carolina, have received letters from the Freedom From Religion Foundation in recent months. The nonprofit, which campaigns for atheists and agnostics, said it has filed complaints about the promotion of religion in connection with football matches. Jefferson County (Ala.) officials have been asked to “ensure that schools no longer schedule prayers at school-sponsored events, including football games.”

The Associated Press left several messages for athletic directors and principals at the North Carolina and Alabama schools that have not been returned.

Outside of Detroit, coaches gave their players time and space to pray and showed the teenagers that different beliefs can be honored but also the right to refuse.

At West Bloomfield High, an assistant football coach once walked miles with a Jewish player – whose faith would not allow him to ride in a car on any given day – to make sure he got to his hotel after an away game. The uniqueness of having Christians, Muslims and Jews on the same team was not lost on any player who attended a pre-game Islamic prayer.

“Some other teams probably don’t have the same thing,” said Mohamed Menisy, a 16-year-old junior offensive tackle. “We are a team, a family. We just respect each other.”

The Associated Press’s religion coverage is supported by AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, funded by Lilly Endowment Inc. AP is solely responsible for this content.

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