Minnesota Gophers Receiver Leaves Team Because of Verbal Abuse by Coaches, Including Attacks on His Atheism

In an interesting showcase of the power of the Internet, the University of Minnesota’s leading receiver AJ Barker left the team via a letter to his coach, Jerry Kill. He posted a letter, explaining his reason for leaving the team, on Tumblr and made his allegations public.

AJ Barker

Barker felt he was treated unfairly and was not given an opportunity to obtain a scholarship as a walk-on player, despite being one of the best players on the team (he led the team in yards and receptions despite missing three weeks with an injury). He also alleged that information about an ankle injury he suffered was not properly shared with him by the training staff. However, he was most upset with Coach Kill’s role as “dictator/manipulator”: a cycle of verbal abuse and embarrassment followed by promises of love and friendship.

While the whole situation is very messy, one point stood out to me. When recounting the verbal abuses he had taken, he mentioned he “was called a faggot for [his] spiritual views by [assistant] Coach Rob Reeves” and that other players witnessed the event. He also accused Coach Kill of negatively referring to his spiritual views:

You [Coach Kill] referenced my spiritual views on three different occasions claiming ‘if I were a bad person I’d hold it against you.’ Well, Coach Kill, taking everything into account, the fact you felt the need to say that on three different occasions goes to show that it probably did play a part in your views of me.

This does not sound like something a coach at a public institution should say about any of their players, but it sounds like something I have had people say to me, as an atheist.

So I did some searching and it turns out that, on October 28th, Barker tweeted:

Despite the misspelling of the word “atheist,” it’s not every day you hear of an athlete going public about his/her non-belief. The idea that his atheism could have anything to do with mistreatment from the coaching staff upsets and angers me, and the publicity of how AJ was treated makes it less likely that another student athlete would come out.

It will be interesting to see how the school and coach react to the allegations. Jerry Kill is a well-respected coach in the college football world. Many coaches (though not all) yell and scream at players on a regular basis, but the atmosphere that Kill has going on at Minnesota appears abnormal. Withholding injury information, embarrassing players in front of their teammates, and fixating on a player’s spiritual beliefs is not the sort of atmosphere an educational institution should be creating.

It is worth noting that, as Barker said in an interview (below) Sunday night, he posted the letter publicly not to get the school or coaching staff into trouble, but to present his reasons for leaving to any potential teams that might want him to play for them. Barker still has one more year to play college football and is looking to transfer.

Additionally, this is not a reactionary event: Coach Kill had attacked Barker’s character and upbringing multiple times, as is noted around the 23:30 mark in the interview when Barker accuses Kill of saying to him, “I don’t know what fucked up things happened to you growing up that made you who you are.”

You can’t help wonder how much of that was motivated by Barker’s lack of faith.

About jkmiami89

Jessica Kirsner is the Development Associate with the Secular Student Alliance. She graduated in the Spring of 2012 from the University of Miami with a BA in biology.

  • observer

    “I don’t know what fucked up things happened to you growing up that made
    you who you are.”

    Funny, I could say the same thing about religious extremists. (With less aggression…maybe)

  • Paul Paulus

    I can haz lawsuit?

  • Zugswang

    That’s very sad.  Hopefully the NCAA allows him to transfer without penalty.  A lot of us who played sports in high school or college are all too familiar with the oppressive and invidious religious atmosphere that is still so tightly linked with athletics.

  • Jessica Kirsner

     Because he was a non-scholarship athlete, he does not have to sit out a season when he transfers. Whether any coaches want him on their team after he publicly bashed his old coaching staff and athletic department is another question all together.

  • http://twitter.com/saxon_terry Terry Saxon

    The intolerance and ignorance displayed by the Gopher coaching staff re: atheist wide receiver, goes a long way to explain teams dismal rep. as the poor man of the conference. I doubt if prayer will improve their prospects

  • RobertoTheChi

    Fire Coach Kill!

  • antitheist


  • guest

    Using the term “lack of faith” at the end of this article was a bad choice of words.  This is the accusation that the religios use just before they ‘sorrowfully’ condemn us (atheists) to hell or kill us to save our souls.

  • Baal

    Yes, a ‘noisy’ quitting (even for just cause) makes hirers nervous.

  • Fbab661

    I agree Jessica, the public airing of his dirty laundry against the staff will probably hurt him more. Although there are a lot of coaches that won’t touch him with the atheist tag….
    I went through a lot of the same things. I played high school and college football, and it seems that many coaches think that you can’t play without god in your playbook. It’s a very lonely existence when everyone says the lords prayer before games or having to explain why you are not going to the FCA meeting.  Great team building methods as long as you conform….

  • Fbab661

    BTW the Minneapolis Star Tribune article on it makes no mention of his atheism

  • Gus Snarp

    And the religious/big time college football fans like to tell us that things like public baptisms after practice at other Universities tell us it’s not indicative of any discriminatory environment at the University. Will they believe it now?

    I don’t know how typical the verbal abuse is, but honestly I wonder why it is that we tolerate coaches who use berating, intimidating, demeaning tactics on a regular basis in a collegiate athletic program. Yet I would say that is probably the norm. There are many reasons to criticize and question collegiate athletics, but maybe this is the biggest. We wouldn’t tolerate that kind of behavior anywhere else on campus, yet we somehow remain thoroughly convinced that it “builds character” in young athletes. Between that and traumatic brain injuries, maybe we shouldn’t be out to fire coach Kill, maybe we should be out to disband big time college sports teams across the board. That’s the rational thing to do, given the evidence.

  • BrentSTL

    Here’s what AP is reporting via Yahoo! Sports: http://sports.yahoo.com/news/minnesotas-kill-player-quit-over-180831360–ncaaf.html

    No mention in the story about his atheism as well. And, needless to say, the comments being left on the story leave a LOT to be desired.