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.
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:
1 reason I’m Athiest is cause I want to invest My beliefs in the things I decide. not what others chose…..like a spiritual republican…..
— AJ Barker (@A_Barker_82) October 29, 2012
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.