Originally created 11/28/98

Gridiron praying waves red flag for officials



The college football official who penalized University of South Carolina receiver Zola Davis for praying in the end zone after a touchdown was just doing his job, say some high school referees.

If a player calls attention to himself or taunts opponents, a referee must step in.

But some coaches made a different call, saying that praying isn't taunting. The Davis incident was an overreaction, they say.

Excessive celebration got a new meaning at a Gamecock-Ole Miss game in October after an official flagged Mr. Davis for kneeling in the end zone and pointing to the heavens after a touchdown. It was the first time the gesture had drawn a flag in his four-year college career.

"It couldn't have happened any where but in Mississippi," said Verne Rushton, assistant football coach at North Augusta High School.

Mr. Rushton, a coach for 12 years and faculty adviser for his school's chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, has seen players express religious sentiments at area high school games as well as college games in Tennessee, South Carolina and Georgia. But he's never seen them called, he said.

The penalty was an indication of a general hypersensitivity to separation of church and state, said boy's basketball coach Norm Cox of Lakeside High School.

Some think religious expression should have no place in the public sphere, that it has to be kept strictly private, he said.

Some high schools, fearing lawsuits, will go to extremes in disallowing personal expression, said Mr. Cox, who is Lakeside High's faculty adviser for the Fellowship of Christian Students.

As a coach, he cannot force his religious convictions on someone but neither should students be muzzled, he said.

"It is almost unfair," said Mr. Cox, who has coached for 10 years.

Mr. Cox said he opposes taunting, but saying a prayer is a different issue.

South Carolina high school referee Alvin Steven, however, thinks Mr. Davis was calling attention to himself. It's the official's job to clamp down on baiting and taunting, Mr. Steven said.

"If we see it, we are to call it," said Mr. Steven, who has 36 years of experience as a high school football referee.

W.T. Wiggins, a football referee for 25 years, said he tries to ignore some things but if officials don't penalize taunting, it only gets worse.

"It the sort of thing that starts a fight," he said.

Younger players copy what older ones do. There is no place for taunting, especially in high school or earlier grades, said Mr. Wiggins.

"They aren't getting paid or getting scholarships," he said.

Barry Johnson of Aiken, another high school football referee, said safety and good sportsmanship are uppermost in an official's mind.

While there haven't been rulings on the high school level on specific gestures like the Davis incident, there's more to consider than a gesture, he said.

There's also the player's intent, Mr. Johnson said.

If a gesture is seen as a religious act, Mr. Johnson said he doubted an official would penalize it but he still has the right to do so.

"It's the referee's call," he said.

Virginia Norton covers religion for The Augusta Chronicle. She can be reached at (706) 823-3336 or vanorton@augustachronicle.com.