On a public stage in a packed lecture hall in January, Vanderbilt quarterback Jordan Rodgers quietly raised his hand and took the microphone. What followed was a bold declaration of belief as one of the school’s most notable athletes took three of the university’s top officials to task about the university’s newly clarified “all-comers” policy.
“The fact that this is restricting who is able to be a leader completely undermines the mission, our vision, and the direction of every single one of these organizations,” Rodgers said. “If someone that doesn’t share the faith is teaching, then what’s the point of even having these organizations?”
Vanderbilt’s all-comers policy (see below), which requires student organizations to allow any member of the student body to join the group and run for leadership, has faced heavy criticism from some Christian groups on campus. They say the policy discriminates against religious groups by allowing nonbelievers to run for leadership positions.
Rodgers, who was representing the campus chapter of Fellowship of Christian Athletes, made his speech more than two hours into the meeting. When Rodgers wasn’t afforded a response to a statement, roughly 20 students exited the meeting in a huff.
Despite some campus opposition, an attempt by conservative state legislators to strong-arm the school, and a letter from the Congressional Prayer Caucus in Washington, Vanderbilt has held fast to the conviction that student organizations can’t discriminate in any way.
Rodgers’ outspokenness during the town hall meeting provided a glimpse of discord within one of the school’s most public departments: athletics. The all-comers debate has created friction between some Christian athletes and administrators, due to Vanderbilt’s insistence that FCA change its charter — to permit non-Christians to run for leadership — or move off campus.
The national attention to a hotly debated religious and social issue arose just as the school renewed its commitment to becoming competitive in Southeastern Conference football and signed head football coach James Franklin to an extension. And while the school’s top athletic administrator maintains that the policy hasn’t hurt the school’s ability to raise funds, conflict and tension still remains.
The April issue of Commodore Nation magazine, distributed to supporters of Vanderbilt athletics, features a cover story titled “The Rising Cost of Success.” The issue is replete with renderings and fundraising pitches.
Vice Chancellor of University Affairs and Athletics David Williams readily admits that Vanderbilt is far behind in the arms race that is SEC athletics.
In a Q&A with Williams, the magazine asks how another million dollars in annual donations would affect the athletic budget.
“To be truthful, we are so behind our competitors here that while a $1 million would help, we actually need much more!” Williams responds in the article.
According to the magazine, Vanderbilt has the second-largest athletic endowment in the SEC with $45 million. But annual giving is dead last, with only $2.9 million.
And the magazine quotes several “big ticket items” that require an “urgency to identify major gifts”: a new Jumbotron, lights and turf for Vanderbilt Stadium, new turf for Hawkins Field, a new Jumbotron for Memorial Gym and renovations to the McGugin Center, which houses athletic operations. The total need is around $35 million, the magazine said.
Vanderbilt is also in the process of fundraising for a new multipurpose facility that will include a full-length practice field for football. Williams said the school is between $4 million and $6 million away from raising enough to cover the facility, which will include an expansion to the Student Recreation Center.
But when the Vanderbilt Board of Trust met on campus in April, a group called Restore Religious Freedom at Vanderbilt ran roughly 40 attack ads on local cable channels, urging donors to stop contributing to the university. The message: “Not another dime until Vanderbilt respects religious freedom.”
Williams said he, personally, hasn’t witnessed any athletic fundraising blowback from the all-comers discussion.
“I’m not saying that there may not be people who are out there, but we haven’t encountered anybody who has made [all-comers] an issue at all,” Williams said.
At least one donor says that’s just not true.
The City Paper spoke with a longtime supporter, who asked to remain anonymous, who said his family was prepared to make a six-figure donation toward the new multipurpose facility — if Vanderbilt made an exception for religious groups in the nondiscrimination policy. The donor said he met with Franklin and Williams outside of Nashville.
“We expressed ... that we would like to be able to give, we believe in what Coach Franklin’s doing, but we just can’t do that knowing what we know about what’s happening to the religious groups there,” he said.
Similarly, longtime Commodore Club member Tom Singleton has been outspoken about his disdain for the Vanderbilt policy and the school’s enforcement of it. He appears in a video, along with Brentwood’s vice mayor (and a VU alum) Rod Freeman, that denounces the policy’s nondiscrimination mandate for leadership positions.
“The reason this is so objectionable to me is that they are [opening up leadership positions in Christian groups] for non-Christians. But they are allowing fraternities and sororities to discriminate based on gender,” Singleton said. “I can’t, in good conscience, continue to be associated with them.”
Singleton said he didn’t renew his football and basketball season tickets — and that he was cutting all ties with the school.
The City Paper attempted to contact other athletic donors who declined comment or didn’t return phone calls.
When Vanderbilt’s chapter of the FCA submitted an application in April to be an approved campus organization without making any changes to their charter, they were denied, as expected. FCA will have the opportunity to make revisions and reapply, but officials from the national organization told The City Paper they would not be making any changes in their “faith-based” leadership model.
“We will remain steadfast in welcoming everyone to participate in our ministry activities ... and that those desiring a leadership role in FCA ministries be required to complete a Student Leader Application,” FCA spokeswoman Amy Elrod wrote in a statement. The application requires the student to profess their Christian faith. “The purpose of this is to ensure the leadership’s unity with FCA’s faith-based vision, mission and values.”
Williams acknowledged that the excluded organizations all comply with the first mandate that allows anyone, regardless of beliefs, to attend meetings. However, the sticking point has been the requirement that nonbelievers are allowed to run for leadership positions.
“We feel the leaders of FCA should uphold the values of the organization,” said Andrew Harris, vice president of the Vanderbilt FCA. “It is not an issue of allowing somebody to come to FCA, because we allow anybody to come, regardless of their religion.”
The administration’s position has been that FCA and other groups have the freedom to elect or reject their leaders, regardless of who runs. For instance, if an atheist ran for FCA president, the members of the group could simply decide not to vote for him or her.
“But basically what they’re asking us to do is sign this thing which says anybody can lead regardless of your beliefs and if you uphold the standards of an FCA leader,” Harris, an infielder on the baseball team, said. “They’re asking us to sign that and look the other way. We just don’t feel comfortable signing something that we don’t believe in.”
Williams said that even if FCA won’t comply with the all-comers policy, he’d still encourage them to have a presence on campus.
“I think they will still have a presence on campus if they choose to, it will just be something a little different from a registered student organization,” Williams said.
Benefits for registered student organizations include dedicated meeting space and funding from the university.
Head baseball coach Tim Corbin said he, too, hopes FCA can work something out.
“Personally, I just don’t want to see it get broken up. I think it brings a very healthy situation to kids who want that and crave that,” Corbin said. “It’s helped a lot of kids in our program pull themselves out of some personal issues.”
T.J. Greenstone had just lost his best friend to cancer when SEC football programs started knocking on the door during his junior year of high school. The all-district defensive lineman from Lawrenceville, Ga., eventually chose Vanderbilt.
“Coming to college I was still dealing with that a lot. I needed guidance, I needed help, I needed someone to mentor me through the grieving process of that,” said Greenstone, who tried out for the Chicago Bears two weeks ago. “And FCA and the people at FCA were huge for me.”
If Vanderbilt denies FCA student organization status, Greenstone said that could effect recruiting for athletics.
“I would struggle to send my child to a university that doesn’t support the beliefs I have or at least give my child the opportunity to practice those beliefs,” Greenstone said.
Barton Simmons, a football recruiting analyst, said other SEC coaches could use the all-comers controversy against the school.
“Every school is going to be looking for an angle and looking for ways they can out-recruit, negatively recruit,” Simmons said. “I think it could certainly be something that is brought up by opposing coaches or other SEC coaches attempting to find an edge with a prospect.”
However, prospects typically care more about the coaching staff and other circumstances, according to Simmons.
“Ultimately what it boils down to for these kids is, ‘Can you get me to the NFL and help me be successful on the field, and is this a coaching staff that I feel comfortable with?’ ” Simmons said. “I think that can override something like [the all-comers controversy].”
While the all-comers issue continues to attract attention — Forbes and The Wall Street Journal reported on it in the past few weeks — Williams said he doesn’t expect recruiting to be affected, and he hopes the school and its athletics can adapt and move on.
“We want to do what we can to meet all the spiritual needs of all of our student-athletes,” Williams said. “I would look forward to us moving forward.”
The policy at a glance
The “all comers” policy on Vanderbilt’s campus became a public controversy in January at a town hall meeting with three of the school’s top administrators. The nondiscrimination policy was clarified by the university after a Christian fraternity asked a gay male student to leave the group last fall.
According to the policy, Vanderbilt requires that all organizations’ membership and leadership positions be open to every student on campus regardless of “race, sex, religion, color, national or ethnic origin, age, disability, military service, or genetic information.”
Critics of the policy, including a group of conservative state legislators, point out that the policy doesn’t apply to fraternities and sororities, which openly discriminate based on gender. But the university maintains that those groups are protected under Title IX, a federal law.
At the town hall meeting in January, several students also spoke out in favor of the all-comers policy. One gay student said that Vanderbilt’s “dark days” of discrimination were not yet in the past.
More than 400 student groups, including 27 religious groups, were approved for official recognition in April. However, more than a dozen groups “said they are unwilling or unable to comply with the nondiscrimination policy,” according to a university press release.