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Deion Sanders Faces Backlash for Praying with His Team

March 5, 2023

After two and a half successful years of coaching at Jackson State University (JSU), Deion Sanders says he felt a call from the Lord to take on the head coach position at University of Colorado, starting in December of 2022. Not even a few months into his new position within the program, Sanders provoked a reaction from an atheist nonprofit for implementing his faith into his coaching.

The two-time Super Bowl champion has made it abundantly clear over his career that he is a man of faith, and his Christian lifestyle was famously evident on the sideline throughout his time at JSU. After taking the position as the Buffalos’ head coach, Sanders continued to show his religious commitment to the Lord. On January 16, 2023, he reportedly opened a team meeting with a word of prayer:

“Lord, we thank You for this day, Father, for this opportunity as a group. Father, we thank You for the movement that God has put us in place to be in charge of. We thank You for each player here, each coach, each family. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) caught wind of his actions and was quick to write a letter to Chancellor Phil DiStefano, raising “constitutional concerns with new football coach Deion Sanders’ promotion of religion and potential religious coercion through the football program.” FFRF consists of 39,000 members across the country, with 1,200 members and two local chapters in Colorado. Their stated purpose is to “protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church” as well as “educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.”

To that end, FFRF took issue with Sanders “infusing his program with Christianity and engaging in religious exercises with players and staff members.” Although FFRF did not identify any direct members of the football program who voiced opposition of Sanders’s actions, they stated that “multiple concerned Colorado residents had reached out” to the organization and reported Sanders’s behavior. They claimed that leading his team in prayer was an egregious act and informed DiStefano of Sanders’s “history of pushing religion onto his players.” FFRF strongly suggested the University of Colorado take action to ensure Sanders becomes “educated as to his constitutional duties under the Establishment Clause.”

“This is just the latest in an attempt to … quelch or silence religious expression in this country,” former NFL player Ben Watson said in response to FFRF’s letter.

Family Research Council's Joseph Backhom also pushed back on the censorship, telling The Washington Stand, "This story illustrates the absurdity of pretending secularism is not religion. If he had required his players to provide their preferred pronouns, or required them to affirm their commitment to equity and LGBT equality, the Freedom from Religion Foundation would hold him up as an example. But praying to God is coercive?  If you remove Christian values, that void is filled with different values. We need to stop pretending its different because one involves the worship of God and the other involves the worship of self."

The letter concluded with a request that the University of Colorado share written documentation of the actions they are taking to resolve the issue, to which they complied a few days later. Executive Vice Chancellor and Chief Operating Officer Patrick O’Rourke responded in a gracious letter, writing on behalf of the college:

“As a public institution, University of Colorado recognizes its obligations under the First Amendment to avoid state-sponsored endorsement of religion under the Establishment Clause, while at the same time recognizing that members of our community who hold religious beliefs are free to express them within the boundaries that the United States Supreme Court recently clarified in Kennedy v. Bremerton Sch. Dist., 142 S. Ct. 2407 (2022).”

O’Rouke then ensured that the Office of Institutional Equity and Compliance met with Sanders “to provide guidance on the non-discrimination policies.” According to O’Rouke, Sanders was “very receptive” to what they had to share and “came away from it with a better understanding of the University of Colorado’s policies and the requirements of the Establishment Clause.”

Sanders, the only athlete to play in both a Super Bowl and a World Series, has been around the block when it comes to professional sports, yet he insists his faith in the Lord has not wavered despite FFRF’s effort to silence it. After his resignation from JSU to take the position in Colorado, Sanders was criticized for walking away from a dream. ESPN host Bomani Jones went as far to say, “He sold a dream and then walked out on the dream. People have the right to be critical of that.” Despite the backlash, Sanders pointed back to God.

“Of all the persons of the world, God chose me,” he said. “For that I thank [him]. For that I love him. For that I magnify him. For that I glorify him. For that I praise him. For that I owe him. Each and every day.”