Decision To Sit Out Difficult And Sometimes Impractical
By Scott Robertson
forward to the afternoon of December 24. Christmas Eve, a Friday.
In something of a scheduling/calendar
quirk, the National Football League has a nationally televised game
that day - just one - Green Bay at Minnesota in a game that could decide
not only the championship of the NFC North Division, but crucial playoff
seeding and perhaps the all-important home field advantage throughout
Now imagine Doug Pederson lining
up under center for the Packers in this critical game, or D'Wayne Bates
at wide receiver for the Vikings. Where are Brett Favre and Randy Moss?
In this example, they're not even
at the Metrodome. They are home with their families celebrating the
Christmas holiday. Both players decide that their religious beliefs
are such that they cannot play at their best, so in honor of their beliefs,
they sit out the game.
What would be the implications
of such a move?
"That would never happen," said
Bob Wolfley, sports columnist with the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and
one who covers the Packers each year. "There are Packers, and I'm sure
there are Steelers, too, who are very religious. We saw it first hand
here when Reggie White was here with the prayer circles on the field
after the game. But I don't think you'd see Brett Favre sit out a game
Maybe not, but it has happened
on an even bigger scale. Los Angeles Dodgers' great Sandy Koufax, scheduled
to pitch the first game of the 1965 World Series against the Minnesota
Twins, refused to take the mound that day because the game fell on Yom
Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. Jane Leavy, in her book
on Koufax titled "A Lefty's Legacy," said by virtue of that decision,
Koufax inadvertently made himself a religious icon and an irrevocably
"Yom Kippur is the holiest day
of the Jewish Calendar, the Day of Atonement," Leavy wrote. "Those who
repent their sins are inscribed in the Book of Life. On October 6, 1965,
Koufax was inscribed forever in the Book of Life as the Jew who refused
to pitch on Yom Kippur."
Leavy said the decision made Koufax
"The Dodgers lost, but Koufax
won," she wrote. "In that moment, he became known as much for what he
refused to do as for what he did on the mound. By refusing to pitch,
Koufax defined himself as a man of principle who placed faith above
craft. He became inexplicably linked with the American Jewish experience.
"As John Goodman put it in the
movie "The Big Lebowski," 'Three thousand years of beautiful tradition:
From Moses to Sandy Koufax.'"
Two seasons ago, Shawn Green of
the Dodgers sat out on Yom Kippur, even though the day fell in the midst
of a heated pennant drive. His decision to sit out was not received
nearly as well as Koufax's decision. Many thought he, as a million dollar-plus
player, should have played anyway. Green got flak from many fans and
sportswriters who believed he was letting his team and teammates down
by not playing in such a crucial game.
Former Steelers' offensive lineman
Ariel Solomon said the comparatively short NFL schedule makes it difficult
for any player to consider not playing a game, even if it falls on a
solemn religious holiday.
"I don't think it's something
you can really do," said Solomon, who is Jewish. "We played on Sundays,
of course, which is the Sabbath day for the Christian players. When
you only play 16 games, it's hard to take a day off like that. For me
personally, I made a commitment to be an NFL player. That was important
to me and I never felt I should take a game off for a holiday like that."
Solomon's family is from Brooklyn.
So is Koufax.
"One of the things he had was
the liberty of his position as a pitcher," Solomon said. "He was part
of the rotation, so even though he sat out the first game, he could
come back and pitch again in the Series. When you are struggling to
play in the NFL, you don't have that same liberty. You can't afford
to go to your coach and tell him you don't want to play."
Jewish players are not alone in
that conflict. This season, as in many past seasons, Good Friday and
Easter Sunday, two deeply religious holidays for Christians, fell in
the opening week of the season. Years ago, it was common for stores
and restaurants to be closed between the hours of noon and 3 p.m. on
Good Friday. Yet baseball players still had to prepare for games and
play them that day and three days later.
"I don't think it was ever a problem
not to play on those days," said former Pirates' shortstop Tim Foli,
a devout Christian. "You have to have respect for yourself and your
job, whatever it is. You do your best, and in the case of a ballplayer,
doing your best means you play to win. That's what the Bible says -
you run the race to win. I don't see anywhere in there where it says
to take a holiday off."
Foli, though, understands the
situations that Koufax, Green and others faced or will face in the future.
"I say to each his own," Foli
said. "If certain players feel that way, like they should take the day
off, then more power to them. I never felt that way. To me, it was important
to do my best before God. With me, my talent was as a baseball player,
and I felt as though I was wasting a talent God gave me if I did not
Bill Curry, a former center with
the Green Bay Packers and the Baltimore Colts in the late 1960s and
early '70s, said he knew of players who struggled with decisions on
whether or not to play on holidays. Considering that most NFL games
are played on Sundays, he said, it would be difficult for any player
to decide not to play, yet many still struggled with the notion of playing
on certain holidays.
"It never crossed my mind not
to play," said Curry, who coached at Georgia Tech and Alabama and now
is a college football analyst with ESPN."(Playing football) was what
I was supposed to do. I thought very strongly that playing on Sunday
was an extension of my faith - and extension of what I believed. But
it's a very personal decision. That's one of the great things about
living in this country - the separation of church and state. I hope
we can keep that going."
Solomon played at the University
of Colorado under Bill McCartney, founder of the Christian-based Promise
"I never really had a problem
where my religion conflicted with what I was trying to achieve as a
player," Solomon said. "I felt those were two separate parts of my life.
I always felt I was respected by my teammates.
"Playing at Colorado for Coach
McCartney, he always respected my ideals. I don't ever remember there
being a conflict at all."
Other athletes face different
conflicts. San Francisco 49ers linebacker Saleem Rasheed, a devout Muslim,
fasts during the month of Ramadan, which falls during the football season.
Rasheed fasted - taking in no food or beverages - from sunup to sundown
for the month. That can be a physically demanding situation, given that
practices and games take place in the afternoon and Rasheed does not
drink water even during those times when it was hot and he was sweating
So the collision of sports and
religious beliefs will persist for as long as the games are played.
Wolfley, perhaps, put the matter
"There's no way to quantify this,"
he said. "But I've always wondered up here if there are more people
watching the Packers on Sunday than go to church that day. I'm sure
it's the same in Pittsburgh. There are a lot of churches around, so
you never could really get those numbers. But you know almost everyone
in Green Bay and in Pittsburgh is a football fan and watches the games.
"I guess that's a religious experience
of a different sort."