WEST BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP, Michigan — Surrounded by an array of players with their arms draped over their shoulders, West Bloomfield High School assistant coach Justin Ibe bowed his head and led a Christian prayer before a recent Friday night game.
Forty yards away on the sidelines, three young Muslim men had a quiet moment to themselves.
“Ameen,” the players said softly, using the Arabic word for amen.
Across America, most high school football seasons are coming to an end. Thousands of games, the first since the Supreme Court ruled in June that it was okay for a public school coach near Seattle to pray on the field. The decision led to speculation that prayer would become an even bigger part of game day, although that didn’t appear to be the case.
Fouad Zaban, the head coach of Fordson High in Dearborn, calls the area just outside Detroit the “Middle East of America” and it is indeed home to thousands of people of Arab descent. After the court ruling, Zaban said, he was inundated with requests to use his platform and the constitutional right to pray in public. After thinking about it, he chose to hold his team’s prayers behind closed doors to avoid potential anti-Muslim ridicule from fans in other communities.
“That was a concern that they would get backlash,” Zaban said.
With the country’s culture wars spilling over into education, it’s challenging to have teachable moments about big news — like a precedent-setting court ruling — and coaches like Zaban would rather kick in public than pray.
“It’s harder whether you’re a coach, librarian, teacher, or counselor,” says Lara Schwartz, an American University professor whose specialties are campus speech and constitutional law. “There are activist groups that target books and ideas and say you could lose your license if you have these conversations. That to me is a threat to people who have good constructive dialogue in classrooms or with coaches.”
In Michigan, some teams with multiple religions represented on their rosters have found ways that anyone who wants to participate can do so if they wish.
“We’re not forcing anyone to do that,” said Ibe, the defensive line coach at West Bloomfield. “We just take that moment to really just get together and give glory to God in that moment.”
At Crestwood High School in Dearborn Heights, where most of the football team is Muslim, the entire team gathers before practices and games to pray on one knee. First, most players recite Al-Fatiha. Next, a player says a Christian prayer to the attentive group.
“Between those two prayers, they’re pretty much all the same,” said Adam Berry, a senior and team captain. “Asking God for protection, asking God for forgiveness, and asking God for a way to help us through our game.”
According to a poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, a majority of Americans believe that a coach who leads a team in prayer (60%), a player who leads a team in prayer (64%), and a coach who prays on the field without asking the team to join (71%) should all be allowed in public high school sports.
Still, the team plays it safe at Fordson High, where coaches empty the locker room and let players pray if they want to.
“No one can ever say we were involved,” said Zaban, adding that he just wants to coach rather than attract attention.
Hassan Shinawah, a senior and team captain at Fordson, said players held their prayers in the locker room and away from the crowd. The only exception this season was when the Senior Day festivities and pregame messages from coaches ran long and players quickly gathered on the field to pray before kickoff.
“We don’t know if people are comfortable,” he said. “We don’t know what their opinion is about it. We just don’t want a conflict with anyone else.”
In the South, at least three high schools, two in Alabama and another in North Carolina, have received letters from the Freedom From Religion Foundation in recent months. The nonprofit advocating for atheists and agnostics said it had filed complaints about the promotion of religion around football games. Jefferson County (Ala.) officials were asked to “ensure that schools no longer schedule prayers at school-sponsored events, including football games.”
The Associated Press left multiple messages for athletic directors and principals at the schools in both North Carolina and Alabama that were not returned.
Outside of Detroit, coaches gave time and space for their players to pray, showing the teens that different religions can be accommodated, as well as 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 drive a car on a given day—to make sure he got down the road to his hotel after a game. The uniqueness of having Christians, Muslims and Jews playing on the same team did not go unnoticed by one of the players participating in a pregame Islamic prayer.
“Some other teams probably don’t have the same,” said Mohamed Menisy, a 16-year-old forward in the juniors. “We are one team, one family. We just respect each other.”