The Swinney Switch: Clemson University Football Coach Declines To Attend Fundraiser For Anti-LGBT Group

Swinney’s activities landed him in a no-win situation. Regardless of his employer, he does have the right to attend an award ceremony hosted by the Palmetto Family Council – or anyone else. But his status as a state employee complicates such situations.

South Carolina’s second-highest paid employee was in a bit of a predicament last week. He has been accused in the past of using taxpayer money to proselytize, and now he finds himself under fire thanks to an award from an organization with a history of attacking LGBT rights.

Clemson University, which is public, pays its head football coach, Dabo Swinney, more than $3 million annually. (Only one state employee, University of South Carolina head football coach Steve Spurrier, makes more.) In return, Swinney has won a lot of games for the school: 61 over seven seasons, to be exact.

Unfortunately, Swinney has a history of alleged church-state violations. The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) filed a complaint about Swinney last year accusing him of bombarding his players with religious activities including official team prayers and Bible study, as well as arranging to have players bussed to local churches for Sunday services.

There also seems to be some dispute over whether or not the football team has an official chaplain. FFRF said Clemson’s chaplain, a former player named James Trapp, is a state employee who is proselytizing in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

But a Clemson official told The State (based in Columbia, S.C.) in 2014 that Trapp is not an employee. Instead, he is listed as campus director of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and the team media guide calls him a “Volunteer Team Advisor.”

Swinney’s mixing of faith and football attracted the attention of a local Religious Right group called the Palmetto Family Council. The Palmetto Family Council says on its website that it works with both Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council. Its stated mission is to “transform the culture in South Carolina by promoting the values and virtues of marriage, the traditional family model, and sexual purity.”

The group planned to present Swinney and other “South Carolina defenders of religious liberty” with awards at a fundraiser to be held tomorrow. Apparently the Palmetto Family Council believes that a state employee using taxpayer dollars to proselytize at a public school is an example of “religious liberty” being exercised. They are quite mistaken.

Given the group’s far-right leanings, when word got out that Swinney was to accept the award he received considerable backlash. South Carolina House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford (D-Richland) told The State that it was “highly inappropriate that Coach Swinney would appear at a fundraiser for an organization that is so openly discriminatory and politically motivated.”

Beyond that criticism, a Clemson student started a change.org petition asking Swinney not to accept the award, and GLAAD vice president of programs Zeke Stokes, a South Carolina native, called on Swinney to decline attendance at the ceremony.

“The Palmetto Family Council's values are out of line with the values of love and acceptance for all people, and I hope the coach will reconsider the message that his alignment with them sends,” Stokes said.

Swinney initially said he would attend the fundraiser on behalf of his foundation only. But bowing to pressure, he changed his mind the following day. The matter seemed resolved last week – until Religious Right allies expressed their displeasure with that decision. State Rep. William Chumley (R-Spartanburg) and six other members of the South Carolina House of Representatives wrote Swinney a letter in which they attacked the football coach for not going to the ceremony.   

Swinney’s activities landed him in a no-win situation. Regardless of his employer, he does have the right to attend an award ceremony hosted by the Palmetto Family Council – or anyone else. But his status as a state employee complicates such situations. His alliance (real or perceived) with a Religious Right group sends the message that he doesn’t want gay or non-Christian players on his team. A public school should never give that impression, and this controversy shows why it is best for public officials to remain neutral on religious matters.

Swinney rightly decided not to attend the fundraiser. Let’s hope that going forward, he focuses on football and not proselytizing.