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Libert University Sues NCAA

By J.A. Adande
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

In essence, it's about life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness - and whether a prayer uttered on the football field is grounds for a 15-yard penalty.

Liberty University, the Christian school founded by Rev. Jerry Falwell, filed a lawsuit against the National Collegiate Athletic Association Thursday, challenging the enforcement of sportsmanship rules that include kneeling in prayer in the end zone among acts that constitute unsportsmanlike conduct. Liberty cited the 1964 Civil Rights Act and freedom of religion among the grounds for its suit.

"It could (set a precedent), depending upon the outcome," Liberty Athletic Director Chuck Burch said. "We're hopeful that the whole thing will bring enough attention to the whole situation that it could be re-evaluated and we can avoid a long drawn-out legal process and it can be to the betterment of football."

The suit was filed by Liberty Coach Sam Rutigliano and four of his players. Liberty has requested a temporary restraining order against the regulation, and U.S. District Court Judge James Turk said he would issue a ruling Friday. The Division I-AA Flames start their season Saturday against West Virginia Tech in Lynchburg.

The NCAA - a bureaucratic institution whose voluminous and exhaustive rules govern nearly every aspect of the athletic programs of more than 800 schools - has been taken to court on numerous occasions, but a spokeswoman said this is believed to be the first time a game-related regulation has been challenged.

The NCAA Football Rules Committee recently decided to increase enforcement of a three-year-old rule that addresses unsportsmanlike conduct. That rule came in response to the growing trend of players removing helmets to mug for the TV cameras, taunting and baiting opponents and practicing elaborate dance steps after scoring touchdowns.

But the committee didn't want to remove all of the enthusiasm from the game, so it sought a way to differentiate between what is spontaneous celebration and what is "any delayed, excessive or prolonged act by which a player attempts to focus attention on upon himself," which would be unsportsmanlike conduct and a 15-yard penalty (a second unsportsmanlike conduct call on the same player results in ejection). They came up with a videotape that had 150 examples of violations, which included kneeling on the ground to pray after a touchdown.

"There was quite a bit of discussion about that, obviously, as it being a form of religious expression and perhaps prayer," said Vince Dooley, the chairman of the rules committee. "We decided in the final analysis that that would fall under any delayed action. If that were the case and we were to allow that to happen, then in the interest of fairness that would have to extend to other forms of religious expressions. Players could contend that other forms and displays - even dancing - could be a form of religious expression."

Burch said the prayers are neither prolonged nor self-congratulatory.

"We're taking about something that's a very short number of seconds," he said. "Somebody drops to the knee, gives thanks to the Lord and he's going to the sidelines. It's not something that disrupts the flow of the game."