11/19/2013 05:19 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Christian Football in Nebraska

Ron Brown, assistant coach of the University of Nebraska−Lincoln football team, acknowledged at UNL's Big Red Breakfast this month that he reads scripture to his players daily. An article in the November 2 Lincoln Journal Star summarizes and quotes from his response to a question about how he balances faith and football.

His answer is that he doesn't. Faith is not something to be toned down or lifted up to "get in the middle ground." Faith is not something to be balanced with anything else: "There's only one way."

And why when he coaches football must he provide his student-athletes with daily Bible readings? "Because I'm trying to coach their heart and soul."

"People say," he noted, "'Wait a minute, Brown. You're not at Nebraska Christian. You're at a land-grant institution, a state, publicly funded university.'" In response, Brown claimed that "the faculty, those professors in existentialism and philosophy are telling these same players, 'There is no God. There is no right from wrong.'"

That's where Coach Brown comes in: "I'm just deprogramming all that stuff. I'm giving them my version, what I believe is the truth. Are we a university of diversity? A university of tolerance? Tolerate that."

Okay, I'm trying. Brown's conception of how a public university should operate, if I understand correctly, is that faculty should be free to do whatever they please, and coaches too: "If those professors want to live out their reality and their truth, they have a right to do that, they're hired to do that, but so am I."

In a subsequent letter to the editor, Thomas Kiefer, who earned his doctorate in the UNL Department of Philosophy in 2003, wrote that no formal class in existentialism has been taught in the department since about 1990. Most of his classes "did not raise the question of God's existence," and when the question did come up there was equal attention to authors and arguments on both sides.

As for telling students, "There is no right from wrong," Kiefer denied that any UNL philosopher, then or now, held any such view. He specifically mentioned the distinguished Christian philosopher Robert Audi, who was a professor at UNL until he was recruited away by Notre Dame.

Kiefer's observations hold for other departments as well. Nowhere at UNL, to the best of my knowledge, do faculty teach that there is no God or that right cannot be distinguished from wrong.

Ron Brown, Kiefer concludes, simply "made stuff up." This is not a favored approach to knowledge, either in the philosophy department or anywhere else at UNL.

Brown has perhaps misunderstood the concept of academic freedom. Faculty are free to develop and present their own interpretations and ideas in their areas of expertise because such freedom enhances the quality of research and teaching. This is not a right to do anything they please.

For example, the state of Nebraska recently provided funding for a study of the effects of climate change on Nebraska agriculture. The study was required to exclude human factors. UNL rejected the funds and announced a study of its own that will respect the academic freedom of the researchers to consider all relevant evidence and reach whatever conclusions they deem most justified.

Needless to say, UNL faculty who teach about climate science will be free to present and discuss the results of this study in their classes regardless of what politicians think should be studied and taught. But faculty are not free to teach whatever they wish about any topic they choose to a captive audience of students.

Contrary to Brown's expansive claims about the rights of professors, UNL faculty do not have a right to indoctrinate students in their religious (or anti-religious) views. Faculty are hired to teach and do research in philosophy, chemistry, engineering, and other subjects, and this is what they do.

"I would not be a man of integrity," said Ron Brown, "if I watered down what I believe." I have no reason to doubt that he is sincere, and I respect his freedom of belief and his right to express his beliefs.

But Ron Brown's goal of coaching "heart and soul" goes beyond what his job permits. As teachers and coaches we may try to reach students' hearts, but as employees of a public university it is beyond our purview to aim for their souls.