Naval Academy Football Coach Balances Faith, Profession

US Naval Academy football coach Ken Niumatalolo appears in the documentary “Meet the Mormons,” a feature film production by the Church of Latter Day Saints that attempts to show that Mormons are “average” and successful in society.

In an article carried at the Baltimore Sun, Niumatalolo is highlighted for his decision to end mandatory team meetings on Sunday, freeing his staff to spend the day with their families and at church. As celebrated NFL coach Tony Dungy and others have explained before, long workdays on Sunday are an expected part of the football culture, and Niumatalolo worked his fair share as an assistant coach: 

As an up-and-coming assistant, Niumatalolo had no choice but to work on Sundays. Weatherbie and Johnson both kept Sunday mornings free so staff members could go to church, but meetings were mandatory in the afternoon.

“You did what you had to do. Most people in this business work on Sundays. It’s a big part of the job,” Niumatalolo said.

[But] as head coach, Niumatalolo has the authority to set the schedule.

Niumatalolo — who has apparently never served in the military — makes a point of saying he has to respect the line between military and religion:

“I recognize that I am the head coach at the Naval Academy and that I have to be careful not to cross the line between the military and religion. Our players know that I am a religious person, but I have never been a preachy type of coach. I don’t carry my scriptures around or quote the bible. I would never push my religion on anyone.”

Above all else, Mormons believe in freedom of religion, Niumatalolo said. Navy’s football roster is comprised of players from all backgrounds and faiths. There are Baptists, Christians, Jews, Catholics and even some players who are not religious at all.

“I am very cognizant that I sit in this chair and I go out of my way to make sure I don’t infringe on other people’s beliefs. I also hope people show me the same respect,” Niumatalolo said. “These are my personal opinions and beliefs. In no way, shape or form am I trying to use my position to influence others.”

In that regard, Niumatalolo is like many Christians — believing that faith thrives best where it is free. That freedom includes the ability of Niumatalolo to have, express, and live by his faith, even if some might be offended by it or by the evangelical nature of Mormon beliefs.  It also includes the ability to make decisions consistent with his faith, even when those decisions affect others — like not having team meetings on Sunday.

It is interesting to note that for many years the US Air Force Academy similarly had a coach with a strong faith in Fisher DeBerry.  Faith has also long found a place in the West Point football team as well.

For its part, Annapolis almost went painfully out of its way to distance itself from Niumatalolo’s role in the film.

“The Naval Academy, as a government entity, does not endorse any religion or any particular motion picture about religion. Coach Niumatalolo participated in the ‘Meet the Mormons’ movie in his personal capacity as a Latter-day Saint, not his official capacity as the Navy head football coach,” Schofield said in a prepared statement. “Any footage in the movie of Coach Niumatalolo performing his duties as the head football coach should not be interpreted as Academy endorsement in any way, but rather as an explanation of his particular vocation in this moment in time.”

It’s a shame the Naval Academy was so focused on distancing themselves from religion that they missed the opportunity to discuss the culture of religious freedom fostered by Annapolis throughout its campus, as displayed by the cross-section of representation on the football team, and the ability of their head coach to have and express his faith.