Former Pittsburgh Steelers punter and current Purdue University professor Frank Lambert believes the U.S. Supreme Court erred in its recent decision in Kennedy vs. Bremerton School District, and that coach-led prayer should not be a part of football culture.
Lambert punted for the Steelers in 1965 and 1966 after graduating from Ole Miss, leading the NFL in punting yards in 1965. After his football career, Lambert received a Ph.D. from Northwestern in 1990 and began has career at Purdue in 1991. He became a full professor at Purdue in 2000 and has been published as an author in American colonial and Revolutionary War history.
In an op-ed in USA Today on Tuesday, Lambert said that even a prayer led by a defensive captain when he was a rookie with the Steelers made him uncomfortable, because of the leadership position the player had within a team. Lambert said that some older players chose not to participate, but that rookies like him went along with the prayer for fear of angering an influential teammate.
When a coach that decides who plays and who does not and who makes the team and who gets cut asks a player to participate in his prayer, the power dichotomy makes the result less about the coach exercising his First Amendment rights and more about the players’ being infringed, argued Lambert.
“When a coach leads a prayer, his players are a captive audience who must listen to his ideas, not theirs,” Lambert wrote.
Justice Neil Gorusch wrote in his majority opinion that it was not established in the testimony that assistant football coach Joseph Kennedy was coercive in leading the post-game prayers that got him suspended by Bremerton and led to him leaving his position.
“There is no indication in the record … that anyone expressed any coercion concerns to the district about the quiet, postgame prayers that Mr. Kennedy asked to continue,” Gorsuch wrote.
Pre- and post-game prayers have been commonplace in football culture. The Steelers have a team chaplain through Athletes in Action, an Ohio nonprofit. Kent Chevalier leads team and visiting players in post-game prayers and provides support to the team, however that manifests itself.
“We minister to the needs of people within the Steelers organization,” Chevalier said to Geneva Magazine in 2021. “Much like a pastor of a church does for his congregation, in some sense the Steelers organization is the church that we get to pastor. It is a very unique calling. … I will often get a text from someone wanting to meet and talk.”
Lambert, though, believes there’s a difference between prayer that a player seeks out or chooses to express individually from one dictated by someone above him on the pecking order of the team.
“Religion is as commonplace in football as tailgating,” Lambert wrote in an editorial in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about the case this April. “I played on a lot of teams for a lot of coaches and I heard prayers before, during, and after games. I often saw punt-returners do the sign of the cross as they awaited the kick. All of those expressions are personal and voluntary.”