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Bremerton's praying football coach got what he wanted, so now he may quit for good
Christian football coach Joe Kennedy returned to the field Friday night, perhaps for the last time
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Last night marked the first football game of the season for the boys at Bremerton High School in Washington—they won 27-12—but the majority of spectators were there to watch something else entirely: A post-game prayer from assistant coach Joe Kennedy. A prayer made possible by a right-wing majority on the Supreme Court that ignored the facts in order to let Kennedy have his moment at the 50-yard line.
After the game was over, Kennedy walked to midfield for a brief, uneventful prayer during which he wasn’t surrounded by anyone. He got the attention he wanted before heading back to the locker room.
For all the events that led up to that moment, it may have been his last time on the field.
A quick refresher in case you forgot: Kennedy argued that he lost his coaching job in 2015 because he wanted to deliver a quiet Christian prayer at midfield after games. All of that was exaggerated or untrue. He was never actually fired. The prayers weren’t “quiet.” And the concern was far more about the coercive nature of his showboat prayers, not his ability to privately pray. But the only reason the Bremerton case was in front of the Supreme Court at all was because, theoretically, their decision was the only way Kennedy could regain his job and the right-wing justices were eager to jump into the fray.
In 2022, the Court’s conservative majority ignored the facts of the case and sided with Kennedy, further eroding church/state separation and requiring the district to give him his old job back. The district is now obligated to pay attorneys’ fees amounting to over $1.7 million, some portion of which will be paid through their insurance.
The irony with the Supreme Court’s decision was that it seemed hard to believe Kennedy was just going to waltz back onto the football field. He moved away from Bremerton to Florida years ago. Was he seriously going to move back for a low-paying coach position?
Last September, months after the decision came down, the Seattle Times reported that Kennedy was nowhere to be found. Was he too busy being a conservative celebrity to actually do the job he claimed he wanted (which is precisely what atheist groups predicted would happen)? Yes and no.
It’s true that Kennedy will soon release a ghostwritten memoir called Average Joe: The Coach Joe Kennedy Story. There’s also a movie about him in the works produced by the God’s Not Dead people; while he’s not directly involved with it, he’ll presumably be involved with the publicity campaign. But the delay on the field likely had more to do with paperwork than anything else. Only this past March did the district announce that everything was finally completed:
Mr. Kennedy will be an assistant football coach for Bremerton High School for the 2023 season. Mr. Kennedy has completed human resources paperwork and we are awaiting the results of his fingerprinting and background check. Mr. Kennedy will need to complete all training required by WIAA. Football coach contracts are approved by the Board at the August 3, 2023 board meeting, and begin in mid-August. As with any other assistant coach, Mr. Kennedy will be included in coaching staff communication and meetings, spring football practice and other off-season football activities.
That’s why it took until last night for Kennedy to finally get back on the field. First Liberty Institute, the conservative legal group that backed him, urged other coaches to pray at midfield Friday night in solidarity, though it’s not clear if anyone did that.
But despite everything Kennedy went through to get back his position, it may also have been his final game because the pull of Christian celebrity is as strong as ever. Besides the book and movie, the Seattle Times notes that Kennedy gets paid to give speeches and that politicians like Ron DeSantis have attempted to get his endorsement. (Not surprisingly, Kennedy is a firm Donald Trump supporter.)
Need more evidence coaching isn’t in his future? He hasn’t bothered moving back to Bremerton.
He’s currently housesitting, and said he and his wife have talked about parking an RV on her sister’s property in the area during football season.
They’re not looking for homes in the community. They haven’t sold their property in Pensacola. Kennedy wouldn’t answer questions about his plans beyond Friday:
… Will Kennedy stick around after the first game?
On the last question, he’s not saying. Everything’s been leading up to Friday’s game, he said, “the fine bow” on top of his Supreme Court victory, which overturned lower court rulings and the public school district’s directive against overt activity while on duty that could be taken as an endorsement of religion. He insisted he can’t think further ahead than Friday.
What sort of football coach can’t see past the first game of the season? One who’s already heading toward the exits, that’s who. Kennedy also added that his future plans might include “some ministry or something.”
If and when he walks away, it’ll be definitive proof that he’s only coaching for the purpose of praying on the field. Does anyone seriously think he’s doing this for the students? How shitty must those athletes feel knowing that, regardless of how they play, all the media attention will be on a coach who has already planned a future without them?
As any high school coach could tell you, the job is a sacrifice. You don’t get paid much and it takes a lot of time, but you do it because you love the students. You do it because what you get out of it is more valuable than a paycheck. When Kennedy used his platform to advertise his religion, it was clear the students were not his main priority. It’s clear that hasn’t changed in eight years.
He never cared about the kids, the team, or the job. He only ever cared about himself.
Last night, the Freedom From Religion Foundation announced that they had placed a billboard about two minutes away from the high school. It says, “Wishing Bremerton High School a safe, secular & successful school year.”
It’s a fine message that capitalizes on the story, but it’s telling that the atheists are focused on what’s best for students while Joe Kennedy’s main concern is staring back at him in the mirror.
“Coach Kennedy’s antics are a desperate way of keeping his unconstitutional agenda in the spotlight,” says FFRF Legal Director Rebecca Markert. “We’ll be countering it whichever way we can.”
To their credit, the district issued strict guidelines about Kennedy’s prayers in accordance with the SCOTUS decision and the law as it stands: Any prayers (a.k.a. “personal conduct”) had to occur outside of game time when coaches were on duty, and only when students were at least 25 feet away at the start of it. In short, they were saying the prayer had to be a solo event after the game even if students decided to join in after it began. Looks like the students didn’t want to do that last night.
If Kennedy really cared about these students, he’d accept his SCOTUS victory and let the kids play without him there. He has no reason to be there other than a desperate desire for the spotlight—and to create a postscript for the movie version of his life. He could easily have stayed in Florida and said that God gave him the ultimate victory so now, for the sake of the children, he’ll stay put in Pensacola so that the attention remains on the student athletes where it belongs. He didn’t do that. He wanted to bask in the glory once more because he thinks high school football is all about him.
Once he’s gone, which could be very soon, the attention will finally be where it belongs: on the students playing the game, not the coach using them for his personal benefit.
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