Stafon Johnson has long been a self-proclaimed “church boy.”
The Dorsey High coach and former standout Dons running back found a home base in the church and grew up in Compton. His grandfather was on the board of ministers there. Faith came along as he started playing Pop Warner when he came to Dorsey and realized that pre-game nervousness could sometimes be calmed by a few words of God.
He said he never prayed before a basketball game like he did when he played soccer. It was the physicality of the game. The knowledge that accidents can happen with an incorrectly placed cleat.
“When I got into the NFL and college, there was a real chaplain,” Johnson said. “So I just figured that was just one of those universal things where ‘duh’ goes on.”
But praying in the context of high school public soccer programs is not that simple.
On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Washington state soccer coach who was awarded paid leave after praying after games at the field’s 50-yard line.
The decision blurs the line between church and state in public schools, with the Supreme Court finding the coach’s actions are protected by the 1st Amendment. For some coaches, like Johnson, who runs LAUSD programs, that line has long been a blur.
Johnson’s reaction to the verdict was surprised. Not on the verdict – on the case in general, because he says a few words of prayer with his Dorsey group before every game.
“Every step of my way in this game, we’ve prayed,” said Johnson, a former standout running back for Dorsey and USC. “I’m a spiritual guy, I’m definitely a religious guy. So I don’t want to impose anything [the team] – more so, just pray for the team and for their safety and things like that. I think that’s pretty much universal.”
“From history [of the case]it sounded like the players felt pressure to participate and I don’t want any player on my team to feel any pressure to participate before or after a game.
— David Wiltz, Dymally football coach
After warming up, just before kick-off, the Dons gather as Johnson prays for comfort. For your safety. For the health of the other team. Pray, he says, because faith and togetherness are rooted in a physical sport based on feeling “like a warrior.”
“They watch old war movies and they used to pray before going to war,” Johnson said. “It’s more of a martial art.”
Los Angeles Schools Supt. Alberto M. Carvalho told The Times the district’s policies already made it clear that employees were allowed to pray at their own time and place. The district bans prayers, which students would feel compelled to join, Carvalho said.
Eight to 10 years ago, Lorenzo Hernandez and Garfield High held similar pre-game prayer moments as Johnson. But over time, as they became “more conscientious” about the imposition of religion, those moments in the team’s non-religious pep talks faded, he said.
Public school coaches, Hernandez said, need to be more careful, free from the specific religious affiliation of so many private or public institutions.
However, a majority of his players continued to pray alone before games, Hernandez said. And he felt the group would likely welcome moments of demonstration that could now have looser sanctions following the Supreme Court ruling.
“They follow the NFL, they follow college football, and they see certain things,” Hernandez said, alluding to professional players who often pray in public after games. “They either always want to emulate it or feel like they need to pray before the game themselves.”
Venice High’s Angelo Gasca has been adamant that public school coaches cannot enforce religious beliefs and that the Supreme Court ruling would not change that view, but he also would not and has not discouraged his players from organizing their own pre-game prayer moments .
Dymally’s David Wiltz was adamant that it wasn’t right to lead his athletes in demonstrations, but if 80% to 90% of his team came to him and asked for a team-wide prayer, he said he probably would the last trial investigating decision.
Problems only arise, said Taft associate director Neezer McNab, when there is any pressure on the team to conform. That’s why some coaches are still hesitant or unwilling to involve the team in any kind of religious activity.
“From history [of the case]it sounded like the players were feeling pressured and I don’t want any player on my team being pressured to play before or after a game,” Wiltz said.
When Johnson leads Dorsey in prayer, he’s trying to invoke God in a universal sense, he said – one that doesn’t advance any particular belief but relates to a higher power.
Most of its players participate, even if they are not of Christian faith.
For some, it’s simply an act rooted in football. As Wiltz put it:
“I don’t think any student or player considers the separation of church and state when they pray.”
https://www.latimes.com/sports/highschool/story/2022-06-29/high-school-football-teams-praying-coaches-supreme-court-ruling High school coaches concerned by Supreme Court prayer ruling