Dabo Swinney to skip fundraiser after backlash

May 27, 2015, 3:19 PM

— -- Clemson coach Dabo Swinney will no longer attend a fundraiser held by a conservative South Carolina organization after receiving considerable backlash from gay rights groups, Clemson students and the South Carolina House minority leader.

The Palmetto Family Council planned to honor Swinney and "South Carolina defenders of religious liberty" at a fundraiser on June 2, the event invitation states.

On its website, the Palmetto Family Council states its vision is to "transform the culture in South Carolina by promoting the values and virtues of marriage, the traditional family model, and sexual purity." It also boasts being involved in "South Carolina's Partial Birth Abortion Ban, the defeat of Video Poker, preserving marriage as between one man and one woman, defending religious liberties (i.e., school prayer, release time, etc.), and many other issues."

Sponsorship donations for the fundraiser range from $500 to $5,000, and tickets cost $50.

Swinney said in a statement that he has no association with the Palmetto Family Council and, after receiving considerable backlash, said he will not attend. He said he believed his attendance at the event was solely to honor his All In Foundation, whose mission "is to raise awareness and health issues in order to change lives of people across the state of South Carolina."

"I appreciate the recognition of my and the foundation's efforts," Swinney said. "However, after much thought, in order to avoid a distraction for the team and the entire football program, I've decided it is in the best interests of all involved that I not attend the event on June 2."

Reese Boyd III, Chairman of Palmetto Family's Board, said the group's intent was to honor Swinney's accomplishments and the work of his foundation. "We understand Coach Swinney's reluctance to engage in, or respond to, petty political attacks, and we certainly appreciate his principled leadership on and off the field. We will continue to promote his good work and recognize others that do the same." 

The event will go on as scheduled.

On Tuesday, GLAAD vice president of programs Zeke Stokes, a South Carolina native, was among the many who asked Swinney to withdraw from the event.

"Coach Swinney has an obligation to the players he leads and all students who attend Clemson to use his considerable profile to promote causes that bring us together, not tear us apart," Stokes said. "The Palmetto Family Council's values are out of line with the values of love and acceptance for all people, and I hope the coach will reconsider the message that his alignment with them sends."

Clemson student William Ta'oma started a petition on change.org asking Swinney to withdraw, and 1,391 had supported the online petition as of 2:30 p.m. ET Wednesday.

Ta'oma wrote the Palmetto Family Council's "views and actions help to create and maintain a culture of hostility to LGBTQ people."

Last week, South Carolina House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford said in a statement to The State newspaper that it was "highly inappropriate that Coach Swinney would appear at a fundraiser for an organization that is so openly discriminatory and politically motivated." On Wednesday, Rutherford commended Swinney for his decision not to attend, saying, "I applaud Coach Swinney's leadership & foresight on this very important issue. It's a testament to his character as an Individual & coach."

The State reported South Carolina athletic director Ray Tanner previously spoke at a Palmetto Family Council event.

Palmetto Family Council president Oran Smith told The State that Swinney was not being honored for political reasons, and Swinney said in the statement that his appearance was not politically motivated.

"It was my understanding that the nomination and selection for this award was based on the work done by our All In Foundation and the difference it is making in our community," Swinney said. "My acceptance of this award was to be on behalf of all the volunteers that make our foundation a success. The work of our foundation is intended to build a better community and be a positive influence.

"Recently, my scheduled participation in this event has been perceived incorrectly as an endorsement of certain viewpoints and has entered the political arena. I have been out of town since last Thursday and am disappointed that this has become a distraction for me, my team and many others. I have been and continue to be very open about my personal beliefs. However, I do not inject those beliefs or the work of the foundation into the political process."

Smith stated that Swinney was aware of what the planned event was.

"[W]e don't wish to contradict our brother or harm him. But, our request letter was quite specific about the presence of donors, length of remarks, etc," Smith said.

Swinney has previously come under fire for his religious beliefs. In April 2014, the Freedom From Religion Foundation issued a letter to Clemson citing "constitutional concerns" about Swinney's Christian beliefs becoming intertwined with the football program at Clemson, a public university.

In March 2014, Swinney told the Charleston Post and Courier that "it would be very unfair for me, if I have a gay player on my team, to tell him, 'Well, you can't be gay.' Just like it'd be unfair for him to tell me, 'Well, you can't be a Christian.' You have to respect one another."

Information from ESPN.com's Andrea Adelson was used in this report.

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