When UConn assistant football coach Ernest Jones talked about spirituality in his role as director of player engagement, he set off a controversy that prompted the school president to say that “employees can’t appear to endorse or advocate for a particular religion or spiritual philosophy as part of their work or in their interactions with students.”
Jones, also the running backs coach, told The Hartford Courant in a story Sunday that “we’re going to make sure (players) understand that Jesus Christ should be in the center of our huddle, that that’s something that is important.” He also implied that head coach Bob Diaco felt the same way.
UConn President Susan Herbst, in a letter that appeared in Wednesday’s Courant, responded:
“At public universities we value everyone in our community, and treat each person with the same degree of respect, regardless of who they are, what their background is, or what their beliefs may be,” Herbst wrote. “Every student, including student-athletes, must know they are accepted and welcomed at UConn. Always. Our staff should educate and guide students, to ensure they are well-prepared for life at UConn and beyond. But it should go without saying that our employees cannot appear to endorse or advocate for a particular religion or spiritual philosophy as part of their work at the university, or in their interactions with our students. This applies to work-related activity anywhere on or off campus, including on the football field. Our athletic director and Coach Diaco agree wholeheartedly with me, and have made this clear to their staff.”
Herbst was responding to a letter that appeared in The Courant on Tuesday, in which Rena Epstein of West Hartford said that she felt “alienated” after reading Jones’ statement.
Epstein wrote: “It sounds like football players who are not Christian might not be welcome at UConn, and would not feel a part of that huddle. “
Jones spent the past two seasons as director of player engagement at Notre Dame and has had similar roles at Cincinnati and Buffalo. Diaco was defensive coordinator at Notre Dame, the Catholic university widely known for its “Touchdown Jesus” mural, which can be seen from the stadium.
Diaco could not be reached for comment and the university said that Herbst’s statement would speak for the issue.
In the interview with The Courant, Jones talked about all faiths but then went into the “Jesus in the huddle” comments.
“Just because you come to the University of Connecticut doesn’t mean you won’t have the opportunity to pursue your faith,” Jones said. “No, you’re going to be able to come here and love the God that you love. So we provide opportunities for them to grow spiritually in our community. So I’ll get out and meet some people in the community so when this young man, for example, says, ‘I’m a Seventh Day Adventist or I’m a Catholic or I’m a Baptist or I’m a Jehovah’s Witness,’ well, OK, here you go.”
“And we’re going to do things in our building, fellowship, non-denominational type things, players, coaches. We’re going to make sure they understand that Jesus Christ should be in the center of our huddle, that that’s something that is important. If you want to be successful and you want to win, get championships, then you better understand that this didn’t happen because of you. This happened because of our Lord and Savior. That’s going to be something said by Bob Diaco. That’s something that’s going to be said by Ernest Jones. That’s who we are.”
Gary Jones, director of the Connecticut Regional Anti-Defamation League, said that UConn addressed the issue properly.
“Clearly, this was a mistake on the part of the coach who is now employed by a public university, but we understand that both the president of the university and the coach have addressed the problem and corrected it and we’re very comfortable with the response,” Gary Jones said. “It was a mistake that was corrected. The last thing we want anyone to do is feel like this is a bad person or he had bad motivation. That’s just not true.”
Diaco talked about the player engagement role last week on UConn coach Geno Auriemma’s radio show, telling WTIC-AM announcer Bob Joyce: “It is a great role that (Jones) is an expert at and it is making sure players have a yearlong plan for developing in a myriad of different areas. Let’s just call it social development. It is teaching them about agents; it’s teaching them about drugs and alcohol; it’s teaching them and giving them inspirational stories from people that had adversity and persevered, bringing those people into clinic and lecture. It’s teaching them how to write a resume. It’s teaching them how to do an interview. It’s teaching them how to set a table or eat with a fork and knife properly, and etiquette; a myriad of different life-skills lessons and social development levels that help the players engage. It will also develop for a yearlong plan, a detailed community service plan where we are out in the community helping.”