To Pray or Play, That Is Not a Question

By David Whitley
National Columnist - AOL News -
Published 4/18/2010

SANFORD, Fla. -- The field was empty Sunday. Just a day earlier, the BYU women's rugby players had happily posed for a team photo under the stadium's scoreboard.

The lights said the Cougars had just beaten Wisconsin-Milwaukee 46-7. The score didn't begin to tell their story.

"We won today," Coach Tom Waqa said. "But the girls' biggest opponent is tomorrow. That is adversity."

US Collegiate AA Center Kristi Jackson on the move for BYU.

With a national championship in sight, the Cougars walked away. To advance meant they would have to play Sunday.

As in the Sabbath. As in keep it holy.

As in bye-bye championship.

"It's bittersweet," team captain Kirsten Siebach said. "But it was a decision we had to make."

The players are all members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Perhaps you know them as Mormons. By any name, what they did is almost unheard of these days.

Imagine Kentucky forfeiting a chance to make the Final Four. John Calipari probably wouldn't get a bonus for placing religion ahead of basketball. Or is there a difference in Kentucky?

BYU is the updated Title IX version of Chariots of Fire. In that movie, Scotsman Eric Liddell refused to run in the 100 meters in the 1924 Olympics because it fell on a Sunday.

Instead of running his specialty, the devout Christian started training for the 400 meters. Newspapers called Liddell a traitor to his country. He persevered and won a gold medal.

Sandy Koufax triggered a national debate when he attended a synagogue instead of pitching Game 1 of the 1965 World Series. It was Yom Kippur and Koufax couldn't bring himself to work on the Jewish holy day.

There have been other conscientious objectors to Sabbath play. This may be the first time an entire team has stood up by walking away.

The difference is BYU won't get another chance to compete. And unlike Liddell and Koufax, the Cougars were blindsided into this predicament.

Governing bodies usually accommodate BYU's scheduling wishes. The NCAA classifies women's rugby as an "emerging sport," and doesn't fully sanction it.

It is run by USA Rugby, which inadvertently scheduled games on Saturday and Sunday at the Seminole Soccer Complex. The Cougars said they couldn't play on Sunday, and USA Rugby said it would switch the schedule.

BYU's 35 players raised $10,000 to pay for non-refundable plane tickets to the Sweet 16. That's another thing you'll never see a men's basketball have to do.

To save money, the Cougars arranged to stay with local Mormon families. It's hard to imagine John Wall sharing a bunk bed with the son of a local Wildcat booster.

After the plans were set, USA Rugby informed BYU that other teams had made plane and hotel reservations that couldn't be switched.

Too bad, so sad.

Would the Cougars have gone to all that trouble if they hadn't been assured they wouldn't play on Sunday?

"No way we'd do that," Siebach said.

She sounded slightly irritated, which was something of a relief. The Cougars were so magnanimous about their predicament it was almost enough to make me look into becoming a Mormon.

Instead of bellyaching, they went on a mission.

"We saw it as an opportunity to stand up for what we believe we have to do," Siebach said. "We're not trying to tell everybody not to play on Sundays.

"But we'd like to show them it's important to stand up for what you believe in."

Koufax did and became the World Series MVP. Liddell not only won a gold medal, he became a missionary to China and died a hero in a Japanese prison camp. Being true to yourself is a reward far more valuable than a trophy.

With that kind of attitude none of BYU's young women will make it as athletic administrators. College sports are built on compromise, from hiring shady coaches to recruiting Dumbo students.

If ESPN wanted to schedule a game at St. Peter's Square during Papal Mass, teams would fight for the contract. And don't say it's only women's rugby, so nobody would watch even if ESPN paid them.

BYU's women wanted to win a rugby championship every bit as badly as Duke's men wanted a basketball title. Judging from the grass, dirt and sweat covering their white uniforms Saturday, the Cougars certainly worked as hard for their goal.

"We want Penn State!" a fan yelled.

Penn State's the defending national champ. BYU is ranked No. 6.

"No disrespect to the other teams," Waqa said, "but I think we could play well against any Division 1 team."

So playing Devil's Advocate, why not just do it?

Siebach just smiled.

"As members of the church, we're committed to its standards and commandments," she said. "And one of them is to keep the Sabbath day holy. Everybody may not understand that."

No, but we should all understand principles. And nowadays when anybody refuses to compromise theirs, it's worth applauding.

"They'll be remembered more for this than being champions," Waqa said.

Let's hope so, though the sports world's attention hasn't exactly been focused on the Seminole Soccer Complex the past few days. On Sunday, there was only an empty field and a blank scoreboard.

Penn State reluctantly accepted the forfeit and advanced to the Final Four. BYU's women reluctantly boarded a plane, taking their next opponent with them.


It didn't stand a chance.

"They'll be remembered more for this than being champions."
-- Tom Waqa
BYU Women's Rugby Coach