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Christian College Challenges NCAA Conduct Rule

August 31, 1995

LYNCHBURG, Va. (AP) _ Jerry Falwell’s Baptist college went to court Thursday to block a newly enforced no-gloating rule that forbids a football player from kneeling in prayer on the field to thank God for a touchdown.

Liberty University argued that the NCAA ban is religious discrimination and violates civil rights law.

``The NCAA has enough problems with drugs and crime and violence, sex and rape to bother itself with prohibiting prayer,″ Falwell, the school’s chancellor, said after a hearing in federal court.

Liberty lawyer Tom Neuberger argued in court that the NCAA had ``put itself in the business of deciding what kind of prayer they are going to allow.″ He said the NCAA wants to force players to pray ``where the fans can’t notice it.″

NCAA lawyer Henry Sackett, however, argued that prayer is not mentioned in the rules and that the issue ``a question of conduct, not of spirituality.″

``When a person kneels in the end zone, nobody but that person and God knows whether he is praying or not,″ Sackett said. ``But everyone is looking at him, and that is the point.″

U.S. District Judge James Turk said he would rule Friday on Liberty’s request for a temporary restraining order. Liberty’s football season starts Saturday in Lynchburg, about 90 miles west of Richmond.

The 3-year-old rule, to be strictly enforced beginning Saturday, was designed to stop players from in-your-face showboating and other unsportsmanlike displays in the end zone. A team is penalized 15 yards on the ensuing kickoff for a violation.

The rule bans players from removing their helmets, taunting the crowd or opposing players, and posing or dancing after touchdowns or big plays. (For years, spiking the ball on the ground after a touchdown has drawn a 5-yard penalty.)

One provision specifically bans ``any delayed, excessive or prolonged act by which a player attempts to focus attention upon himself.″

Greg Summers, a spokesman for the National Collegiate Athletic Association, said a player cannot kneel in prayer because that is a delayed action, not a spontaneous one such as thrusting one’s fist in the air.

``They don’t want anything that is choreographed,″ he said.

However, the rule does allow a group of players to gather briefly in prayer on the field after a big play. Players can also pray on the sidelines.

The ban is being enforced this year at the behest of the rules committee, Summers said. He said he was unaware of any other legal challenge.

``The NCAA is overstepping its bounds. It’s doing something that is not only unconstitutional, it’s immoral, going against someone’s religion,″ said Jarrod Everson, a freshman football player at Liberty.

Professional football players are allowed to celebrate, or pray, on the field as long as they don’t taunt an opponent.

Falwell founded the university in 1971. Its enrollment has grown to 9,000.

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