Sacred Sundays, even for rugby

When I attended Wheaton College, one of the schools with an exemption so athletes aren't forced to play varsity sports on Sunday, there was speculation the NCAA repeatedly scheduled one talented Wheaton athlete to meet the toughest opponent in the playoffs. With an early Wheaton exit, the NCAA could avoid having to reschedule its remaining postseason matchups.

The New York Times covered a scenario where sports and Sunday did collide in this story: "B.Y.U. Women's Rugby Team Will Forfeit if It Reaches Sunday Game." The story is worthy of coverage, but I wish reporter Katie Thomas had a little bit more space for context.

Kirsten Siebach, the team captain, explains that the team had good reason to believe they would make it to the the quarterfinals of the national college playoffs this weekend.

Siebach said all 35 team members are practicing Mormons, and because USA Rugby scheduled that round on Sunday, the team has decided to forfeit if it wins its game Saturday against Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

"We're obviously just very frustrated," said Siebach, a senior. "We don't want to put USA Rugby in a bad light, but at the same time we feel like we've been treated wrongly."

Ashley Voss, a spokeswoman for USA Rugby, said scheduling the round for Sunday was not intended as a slight to the B.Y.U. team. "It's in no way a move to disregard their religious beliefs," she said. "We want them to be able to compete. We want them to be here."

Kristin Richeimer, director of membership relations at USA Rugby, said an oversight was responsible for the scheduling.

Admittedly, the writer probably didn't have very much room, but instead of wasting the room on meaningless quotes, perhaps she could have spent it explaining why Sunday matters so much to this team. Does the LDS Church give any theological guidance on what is acceptable and what isn't on Sunday? Are there exceptions for people who might take a "Sabbath" on another day?

The story spends a lot of space on explaining the scheduling oversight before getting to the point: these women believe in something more than the sport of rugby.

B.Y.U., a private university owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, does not allow its athletic teams to play on Sundays. The N.C.A.A. requires that championship schedules be arranged to accommodate the religious beliefs of institutions, but club rugby does not fall under its purview. Few universities sponsor varsity rugby teams.

Because the team is not formally affiliated with B.Y.U., Siebach said, "if we really wanted to, we could play on Sunday."

Why stop there? Would it hurt to put in a sentence or two on why Sunday is so significant that the girls won't play on it? The reporter merely assumes everyone should know why Sundays are so sacred.

If the reporter had more space, perhaps she could have added more historical context, like whether other BYU players have gone on to play on Sundays following graduation. For instance, BYU alumnus Eli Herring wrote letters to NFL teams telling him that he would not to play in the the NFL because teams play on Sunday. He was drafted in 1995 by the Oakland Raiders but became a high school coach.

Are there BYU alumni who took the opposite route after graduation and play in the NFL? We've looked at other stories where the day of the sport being played conflicts with a religious tradition. Certainly there are other notable examples of athletes not playing on the Sabbath (Jews) or Sunday (Christians) (hint: cue Chariots of Fire soundtrack). More anecdotes would provide supplemental background, showing how BYU students aren't isolated in their Sabbath convictions.

Perhaps some religious scholars could weigh in on how society has changed from when we had a stronger Blue Law society where businesses were shut down on Sunday. The burden of observing or respecting religious traditions seems to fall on the individual sporting leagues or businesses. Craving or not, you still can't get a Chick-Fil-A sandwich on Sunday.

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