He turns the other cheek.
Brown, 55, knows he walks a fine line as a high-profile employee of a taxpayer-funded university. His detractors say he crossed it last month when he attended an Omaha City Council hearing and testified against an anti-discrimination ordinance that extended protections to gay and transgender people.
In Brown’s three-minute appearance, he challenged ordinance sponsor Ben Gray and other members to remember that the Bible does not condone homosexuality. He told council members they would be held to “great accountability for the decision you are making.”
“The question I have for you all is, like Pontius Pilate, what are you going to do with Jesus?” Brown asked. “Ultimately, if you don’t have a relationship with him, and you don’t really have a Bible-believing mentality, really, anything goes. … At the end of the day it matters what God thinks most.”
Barbara Baier, a member of the Lincoln Board of Education, wrote to university administrators to request Brown’s firing in the wake of his testimony. She noted the university-wide policy not to discriminate based on, among other things, sexual orientation.
Brown — in a decision he said he now regrets — gave Memorial Stadium in Lincoln as his address of record. Baier said some people could have inferred he was representing the university, not just himself, when he appeared before the council. She said Brown’s continued employment creates an atmosphere hostile to gay student-athletes.
“He says terrible things about members of my community — citizens of this country, people who have not committed any crimes,” Baier said. “He compares gays and lesbians to people who have committed crimes, people who are desiring to go and cause the destruction of the American family, and nothing could be further from the truth.”
Chancellor Harvey Perlman admonished Brown for giving the stadium address but said Brown’s personal views do not reflect those of the university. In fact, Perlman wrote a letter to the editor in the Lincoln Journal Star to bring up that point.
It was not the first time Brown has spoken out against homosexuality and not the first time people have called for his dismissal for doing so.
“To be fired for my faith would be a greater honor than to be fired because we didn’t win enough games,” Brown said in an interview with the Associated Press. “I haven’t lost any sleep over it. I realize at some point, we live in a politically correct enough culture where that very well could happen.”
It was six months ago that Brown earned national acclaim for leading a prayer for healing at midfield before the Cornhuskers’ game at scandal-torn Penn State.
“Hero to goat,” Brown said.
Brown is adamant he won’t change his Bible-inspired message or quit delivering it. As a Christian, he said, he’s called to evangelize.
At a time when Tim Tebow‘s faith has been the subject of admiration and ridicule, there are those who like the fearlessness Brown shows going against the grain of what they say is a culture out to marginalize religion and unwilling to define right and wrong.
A Lincoln city councilman has said he plans to propose a similar anti-discrimination ordinance next week and that a public hearing could be held May 7. Brown said he is praying about speaking in opposition if his schedule allows.
In a state where the Cornhuskers are assigned celebrity status, separating Brown from the program would be a stretch.
Brown acknowledges that he uses his position as a platform for his ministry. He sprinkles in football metaphors during his many speaking engagements and sometimes references the players he has coached.
He said the risk of losing his job pales in comparison to the price others have paid for standing up for their beliefs. Christians throughout the world, he pointed out, have been murdered because of their faith.
“The same thing that was a sin 2,000 years ago is a sin today,” Brown said. “The thing that was right 2,000 years ago is right today.”
Brown was born in New York in 1956 to an unwed mother who placed him in an orphanage. His adoptive parents brought him up as a Catholic, and he said he had a mostly trouble-free childhood even as his mom and dad struggled to make ends meet. With their encouragement, he said, he earned an academic scholarship to Brown University and starred there as a defensive back.
He said he felt a spiritual emptiness during his college years but came to be influenced by the devout lifestyle of one of his teammates, Harry Walls. Brown said he was born again in 1979 and began evangelizing.
He now heads a Christian ministry called FreedMen Nebraska, hosts a show on a statewide Christian radio network, appears on a cable-access channel in Lincoln and writes a column for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes‘ magazine. Brown also has written books on Christian character and growth.
Brown has been an assistant at Nebraska under three head coaches, starting with Tom Osborne in 1987. He was let go when Bill Callahan replaced Frank Solich in 2004. Bo Pelini, who took over for Callahan in 2008, rehired Brown.
Advocacy groups called for Brown’s firing after he condemned homosexuality on a Christian radio show in 1999, and the American Civil Liberties Union has threatened legal action against Nebraska public schools that require students to attend Brown’s Bible-fueled motivational talks.
The attention Brown has received for his non-football activities has worn on Pelini.
“Why don’t you ask me why I hired him?” Pelini said. “I hired him because he’s a good football coach. He’s trustworthy. He has a lot of integrity. I hired him because I believe in him as a football coach and a guy who has positive impact on kids.”
Pelini said he knows Brown injects religion into his relationships with his players and none has complained.
Osborne, now the athletics director, said Brown is within his rights to express his personal views.
“I think it’s important that there be clarity with what you do in your capacity at the university and what you do as a private citizen,” Osborne said.
Brown stepped to the pulpit at Dundee Presbyterian Church in Omaha on Sunday night and began preaching with the same passion he brings to coaching. He gave a pep talk about the role of missionaries. Football was the backdrop, with Brown mentioning star running back Rex Burkhead as he spoke figuratively about “pushing the ball over the goal line.”
Brown offered a disclaimer after his 50-minute talk, saying his views did not necessarily reflect those of the university. Pamphlets in the pews referred to Brown as an accomplished football coach but made no mention of his ties to the Huskers.
Brown said he isn’t picking on gays and lesbians. He said a gay agenda has cropped up in American culture and that he is merely responding to it.
He said gays and lesbians do not deserve the same protections as groups that historically have been discriminated against, such as blacks and women.
“I have simply said that based on the Bible, homosexuality, the lifestyle of homosexuality, is a sin,” he said. “That has created a flame within itself. But I’ve decided I’m not going to be afraid of people calling me a bigot or a homophobic or narrow-minded out of a simple, gentle, compassionate expression of the truth of God’s word. I’m not going to be bought off by that.”