(Nearly) Unanimous Team Prayers and the US Air Force Academy

From: Senior Active Duty Air Force Officer and Air Force Academy Graduate’s E-Mail Address Withheld
Subject: (Nearly) Unanimous Team Prayers and the US Air Force Academy
Date: December 14, 2015 at 8:36:55 AM MST
To: “Weinstein, Mikey” <[email protected]>

Let’s try a little thought exercise about the meaning of “mandatory” and “optional” in the environment of Service Academy practices, the messages sent and received to service members and the public, and how we might better explain the current battle concerning the USAF Academy (USAFA) football team…

Attendance at our service academies’ football games is mandatory for all cadets and midshipmen that don’t have some other duty at that time (e.g., like participating in another athletic event in another sport).  Therefore, at the Air Force Academy, an overwhelming majority of the cadet wing is in the stands, wearing the same uniform, in the same section of the stadium, cheering for the Falcons or just warming a seat.  From this spectacle, that includes a march onto the field as part of the pre-game activities, the game-attending or TV-viewing audience might come to the conclusion that the cadet wing overwhelmingly supports their team.  This looks good to most of the American public who has pride in our military and views our service academies as models of teamwork, leadership, discipline, and achievement.  

If they knew that attendance by cadets is, in fact, mandatory they might come to a different conclusion.  One possibility is that football is strongly endorsed by Academy leadership and they value the “show” of having neatly dressed cadets in the stands looking good and cheering loudly.  What many don’t appreciate is that if the games were not mandatory for all cadets, very few would attend.  In fact, in a recent newspaper interview about cadet attendance at USAFA men’s basketball games, one starter on the basketball team said that if attendance at football games wasn’t mandatory, he estimates no more than 500 cadets would be found in USAFA’s Falcon Stadium. 

 The fact that the games ARE mandatory for cadets gives the impression of institutional endorsement of football and game attendance and anyone applying to USAFA could and should conclude that they, too, will be required to attend the games.

 How does this manipulation of perceptions relate to the end-zone pre-game prayer ritual that seems to have taken root over the last few years with the USAFA football team and has just recently spurred worldwide media and external scrutiny?  Video and eye-witness accounts tell us that virtually every cadet on the team that runs out of the tunnel at home and away games goes straight to the opposite end zone in nearly a straight line and, all wearing the same uniform, pose in the same way–a particular Christian style of genuflection that can’t be interpreted by any informed citizen as typical of any other religion.  They do this at home and away games.

While USAFA cadets clearly have the right to pray and the right to opt out of attending religious services or to not participate in group religious practices, is there more at work here than just the statistical coincidence of having a football team that believes in public displays of religion (counter to Gospel guidance found in Matthew 6:5-15, by the way) at a rate of 90% or more?  Given the near unanimity of this action, what logical conclusion might the viewing public make from these prayers?  As in the case of cadet attendance at the home games, they might logically conclude that almost the entire team is made up of practicing, public-praying Christians.  That might warm the hearts of some or it may raise questions about the team’s composition and recruiting priorities since far fewer than 90% of the American public identifies themselves as evangelical Christians–or even as practicing Christians (see link to recent Pew report).  

If they’re almost all practicing Christians–much more than the national rate–then one might suppose that the Academy (or football team) gives preference to Christians, pressures non-Christians on the team to convert to Christianity, or makes the prayer action mandatory, regardless of whether the kneeling players are Christian or not.  They might also make it quasi-mandatory by tacitly allowing coaches or player team and position leaders to “encourage” their teammates and subordinates to join them in praying as a show of team unity–a powerful argument for a team that values cohesion and shared experience.

 During this ritual, the public sees a nearly unanimous expression of religious faith executed by an on-duty group of military members in uniform at a publicly attended event.  The Academy and its leadership can claim that it’s optional, they can promise that there will be no retribution for those that do not choose to participate, and all of this may even be true, but the public still sees a near-unanimous, public display of Christian faith.  The message we’re sending to recruits (football and in general) and those considering applying to USAFA is clear:  Only Christians are welcome or, if you come here, you’ll be expected to pray publicly like a Christian, or convert outright, to be considered “part of the team.”

Today’s Air Force emphasizes diversity in recruiting (race, ethnicity, gender, etc)—something made clear by leaders such as our current Secretary of the Air Force, Deborah Lee James.  But, this practice of public prayer seems to send the message that USAFA (or at least the football program) is “for Christians only.”  How would a USAFA recruit view his chances of playing or being part of the team, or even being accepted as a cadet in good standing at the Academy, if he saw these pre-game prayers week in and week out, if his family tradition and personal beliefs were Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Atheist or something other than Evangelical Christian?  He’d probably look elsewhere to find a more accepting environment.

The final question is “What should Academy leadership do in response?”  I’m not one to say that they should prohibit cadets from praying on the sideline or when they feel a personal need, because of their beliefs, to ask for the intervention or blessing of a higher power—I know even die-hard Atheists who call last play deep passes a “Hail Mary.”  But, there should be some considered guidance and instruction provided to the coaches and team to remind them that, as Air Force football players in uniform, they represent the Academy, the Air Force, and the US government.  In so doing, they accept certain restrictions on their rights to freedom of speech and religion in the name of good order and discipline.  Military members can’t support political candidates or causes while in uniform or representing their service.  Air Force Instruction 1-1 prohibits leaders from imposing or promoting their religious views on subordinates.  Government endorsement (actual or perceived) of one particular religious perspective or another is forbidden, as are religious tests to hold any office or commission.  Therefore, the players should be reminded of those responsibilities and asked politely to keep their prayers private (e.g., in the locker room or solo on the sideline) and that any encouragement or elicitation of a group prayer is counter to our discipline and values.

Many Air Force football players (and fans) will continue to pray—they have that right.  But, as guardians of our fellow citizens’ freedoms and values, those players, teams, and cadets that do choose to pray should exercise good judgment and discretion when choosing when, where, and with whom they do so.

(Senior Active Duty Air Force Officer and Air Force Academy Graduates name, rank, AFSC and assigned military installation withheld)

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4 Comments

  1. Connie

    Thank you for writing. Your letter explains the situation and provides needed behind the scene details.

  2. G

    Personally, if cadets don’t want to attend football games or any other sports, that is their choice considering the fact that they have a heavy school load.

  3. BirdManBlue

    G, actually, that’s not true. It’s the military. They CAN and DO actually order the cadets to attend all of the football games and they actually dock their pay a certain amount each year to “pay” for the tickets to attend this mandatory event. So, no, it’s NOT their choice.

  4. G

    BirdManBlue.

    The cadets SHOULD HAVE the choice of not having to attend the game like civilians do. Some cadets like civilians DON’T LIKE OR EVEN CARE about football, basketball, or other sporting events at the Academy so they should not be forced to attend and as the anonymous writer pointed out it gives the impression of institutional endorsement of football and game attendance

    If it is the military, then let’s shut down all military activities around the world including in the USA and make everyone watch an Army, Navy, Air Force sporting event every time one comes up. See how well that goes with the military recruitment and retention.

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