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.

Image courtesy of

Print Friendly

  • Mike Hickerson

    BYU is pretty well represented in the NFL, with 17 current roster players according to ESPN.

    And that’s without mentioning Hall of Famer Steve Young, who is even a descendant of Brigham Young himself.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Excellent info, Mike. Thanks for the links.

  • Jerry

    The N.C.A.A. requires that championship schedules be arranged to accommodate the religious beliefs of institutions

    I can understand that but in today’s multicultural world, Saturday would be out for some Jews etc so it’s a hard problem to solve on an individual basis.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Jerry, that’s probably true, and all the more reason for journalists to be covering these difficulties.

  • Julia

    A small historically-German-Lutheran-and-Evangelical town near where I live had a big brou ha ha a few years ago about scheduling school events Sunday. Historically the town had avoided scheduling things on Sundays (particularly before noon) for obvious reasons and also Wednesday evenings because that’s been set aside seemingly forever for choir practice or weekday Bible study, etc. But the state of Illinois required cheerleaders competing for prizes to travel to Springfield on Sunday and the public school forfeited because Sunday had been a sacrosanct “family day” since time immemorial in Mascoutah.

    ‘No Sunday’ rule in Mascoutah bars cheerleaders from state competition
    School official defends ban

    Mascoutah parents say an out-of-date rule designed to give students time to go to church is keeping their kids from participating in a cheerleading state championship.

    But Mascoutah Superintendent Sam McGowen said a ban on school events on Sundays and Wednesday nights is still important to the community and following it is the right thing to do.

    Both the varsity and junior varsity squads qualified for the state championship competition Feb. 9-10 in Springfield. Because the varsity members compete on Saturday, they will be allowed to go. But the JV teams face off on Sunday, so that team will have to stay home.


    The officials never did back down and tried to justify the long-time rule by saying it was for family time – it’s just a coincidence that the local Protestant church services are on Sundays and Wednesday evenings. Right.

    From Get Religion combox February 2008.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    One angle of this story I have never seen discussed in the media is the much greater impact interference with Sunday mornings has on Protestants (and Eastern Orthodox).
    Most Protestant and Orthodox churches are not large enough to have more than the one Sunday morning service or divine liturgy.
    Catholics, on the other hand, frequently have their choice of Masses virtually hourly starting at 4p.m. Saturday all the way through 7p.m. on Sunday. In fact, 4p.m. Saturday seems to be the Catholic Sunday of choice in most parts of the country.

  • Tyson K

    Deacon John:
    That’s completely dependent on geography. Where you are in Massachusetts, Catholic churches are bigger than Protestant ones and so there are plenty of Masses. But in many parts of the country (especially, e.g., the rural South), there are lots of Protestants and relatively few Catholics, so the Baptist/Methodist/whatever church may have a bunch of services on Sunday morning while the tiny Catholic church probably only has one Mass.
    Catholic churches being large and Protestant/Orthodox churches small is certainly not a universal thing.
    Even in rural areas with lots of Catholics (like where I’m from in Missouri), there aren’t “virtually hourly” services, as far as I know. My hometown, pop. 7500, is over 50% Catholic but the Catholic Church only has 3 services a weekend.

  • Tyson K

    Three Masses a weekend… my Protestantism’s showing…

  • Mike Hickerson

    We’re starting to wander a bit, but tmatt had a GR post a couple of years ago about Pittsburgh Steeler Troy Polamalu (who is Greek Orthodox) attending church on Tuesdays, since that is the only day of the week that his wife and he have time to go.

  • Lee Dyck

    This story reminded me of the following Ref21 post I read a couple months ago about Scottish Rugby star Euan Murray’s choice to not play on Sundays either…

  • Martha

    Deacon John, 4:00 p.m.?

    Aren’t Saturday evening Masses not supposed to start until after sunset, which broadly means no earlier than 6:00 p.m.?

    At least, that’s the rule round here! Somebody’s not following the rubrics, hmm? ;-)

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Martha –virtually every parish in the Archdiocese of Boston has a 4p.m. Saturday Mass. Maybe the excuse is that for a few weeks in the dead of winter the sun sets before or around that time and it isn’t practical to keep changing the time of that Mass.
    Tyson K—3 Masses a week-end is still 2 more choices than very many non-Catholic churches around here have. My daughter and her family have lived in North Carolina, Georgia, Texas, and Alabama and all their parishes were as large as any here in the North–with as many Mass time choices.
    Maybe there should be more media stories about some of the basic difficult situations many religious believers face in our increasingly secularistic and unfriendly-to-religion age–including being simply able to get to services, divine liturgy, or Mass on the week-end.

  • Joel

    You write: “The reporter merely assumes everyone should know why Sundays are so sacred.”

    Is that not a pretty safe assumption in a nation where an overwhelming majority of people come from a religious tradition that includes a “holy day”? But I like your suggestions of things that could have added interesting background. I think there is enough there to justify a whole other article just on the background alone.

    By the way, I was raised Mormon and the church does not have any doctrine against playing organized sports on Sunday. Though many Mormons do hold themselves to that standard (including myself when I was growing up), it’s actually a bit surprising that this rugby team of 35 was unanimous on the point. It would have been interesting for the reporter to talk to more of the players individually and find out if they had always set this rule for themselves, or whether attending BYU had raised their level of commitment to Sabbath keeping.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Hi Joel,
    Good thoughts, though we encourage reporters not to assume anything about their readership, especially since the article hinges on Sunday being sacred. Good suggestions for further improvement.