Let Us Pray/Play

April 25, 2004

Another Easter Sunday in the Cathedral. Hushed voices. Amens.
People holding hands and praying. At the end, all of them rising
as one and screaming, "My God, it's a miracle!"

Church?

Hell, no. Augusta National. It was Phil Mickelson's win at the
Masters.

Sports has nearly swallowed Sunday whole. Every pro sport plays
on Sunday. The big day in pro golf and tennis is Sunday. College
football started playing bowl games on Sunday. Here's March
Madness: 10 NCAA tournament games were played on Sunday. Now more
and more youth sports teams are playing on Sunday, when the
fields are easier to get and parents are available to drive.

It's that kind of stuff that has really torqued off Pope John
Paul II lately. In March he decried the fact that Sundays are
losing their "fundamental meaning" to "such things as
entertainment and sport." It's not as if he's antijock. The pope
was a goalkeeper, skier and kayaker in his day. Hey, he just
blessed New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady's right arm.
He's just hacked at the way sport is crowding God right off the
list of Sunday passions.

The first people he might want to crack down on are the
Christians themselves. Think he knows that the Santa Clarita
(Calif.) YMCA has youth hoops on Sundays? Think the pope would be
down on Notre Dame if he knew its softball team will play more
games on Sundays in May than on any other day of the week?

He's not the only one who's chapped about sports becoming this
country's main religion. Priests and pastors across the country
have noticed something lately: God is competing more and more
with Sunday sports--and losing. Especially with youth sports.

"It's only happened the last two years," says Rich Cizik of the
National Association of Evangelicals. "Coaches never used to
schedule games on Sunday."

Says the Reverend Julie Yarborough of Summit (N.J.) Christ
Church, "You see kids coming to Sunday school late and their
parents coming early to get them for games--if they come at all.
Sports is really eating into our time."

Her colleague at Christ Church, the Reverend Charles Rush, knew
there was a problem the other day when his 12-year-old acolyte
lit the candles at the front of the church wearing his soccer
cleats.

I'll tell you exactly what's going on here: the upping of
American youth sports.

For some reason overcaffeinated parents feel they have to keep up
with the Joneses. They used to do it with their cars. Now they do
it with their kids. Upping means putting little Justin into not
one soccer league but three, not one soccer camp but four.

Upping also means playing up, forcing a kid to play one or even
two levels above his age group, so that little Benjamin, age
eight, can sit on the 10-year-olds' bench, play three minutes a
game and whiff in his only at bat. But, hey, he is playing up!

And upping means moving up. The local team isn't high-profile, so
little Amber has to switch to an elite team, usually in another
town. That means extended drives to and from practice plus
traveling three or four or six hours to play in tony invitational
tournaments on weekends. This way parents from far-flung towns
can flaunt the status symbol of spending beautiful warm weekends
in a freezing ice rink watching 14 mind-and butt-numbing hockey
games.

"I admit, we're guilty from time to time," John Burrill, head of
the Massachusetts Youth Soccer Association, says of playing on
Sundays. "We don't feel particularly good about it, but with
today's busy schedules Sunday is the only time some of us have to
do these things. And if you're going to travel two states away,
it doesn't make sense to not play Sunday, too."

Well, religion bosses have decided that they're not going to take
it anymore. Spiritual leaders in Summit got together recently and
appealed for sports leagues to stop scheduling games before noon
on Sunday. A meeting between them and area youth coaches is set
for May. We'll see who kneels first.

Don't bet on coaches doing the right thing. If they could, they'd
have your kids running stairs on Christmas morning. What has to
happen is the parents have to start saying no. Not to their
kids--to their kids' coaches. "I told my boy's coach he wouldn't
be playing on Sundays," says Cizik, "and he looked shocked. I
said, 'You act like nobody's ever said that to you before.' And
he said, 'Honestly? They haven't.'"

I'm with the holy men. Not that I'm the Reverend Lovejoy, but I
just feel sorry for these kids who get nothing but organized
sports crammed down their gullets 24/7. My Lord, even God took a
day off.

Kids might weep with joy to get a day off from sports. If they
don't spend it at church, maybe they'll spend it getting to know
their siblings' names again. Or swing in a hammock without a
coach screaming, "Get your hips into it, Samantha!"

Hey, you do what you want. Just remember, when little Shaniqua
has two free throws to win or lose a game on some Sunday morning,
good luck finding somebody who'll answer your prayers.

If you have a comment for Rick Reilly, send it to
reilly@siletters.com.

COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER

Priests and pastors have noticed that God is competing more and
more with Sunday sports--and losing.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)