A Story of Sports and Religion…of Winning, Losing, Sportsmanship and Common Sense

You would think the fence between the bleachers and the field would be enough. But often, it turns out to be too small, too weak for the force pushing it from one side. Even a wall and a moat might not do the trick. Metaphorically, it seems there is no barrier big enough to keep adults from getting in the way of youth sports.

Our story takes us back to the fall of 2000.  

In Connecticut, as in many other states, youth sports teams compete for a state championship in various age groups. Teams from towns throughout the state are matched-up and play week-by-week through a Tournament bracket leading eventually to two teams meeting for the State Cup Championship. It’s single elimination. You win, you move on. You lose, or forfeit a game, you’re out. It’s competitive. The kids are playing hard to win, but most of all, they have a lot of fun playing soccer.

The Connecticut Junior Soccer Association or CJSA runs the tournament.

So far, so good.

The Avon, Connecticut U-11 (under 11-years old) boys travel soccer team was playing in the second weekend of the Connecticut State Cup Tournament. But the weekend’s games created a conflict with the Jewish holiday, Rosh Hashanah, that began at sundown Friday. The game between Avon and Fairfield U-11 teams was scheduled for 2 o’clock Saturday afternoon, September 30th, within the 24 hours strictly observed by Jews in celebration of the New Year.

This is 11 vs. 11 competition. Seven of Avon’s sixteen soccer players are Jewish and would be unable to play the game as scheduled on the holiday. Since the CJSA rules called for the game to be played on or before Saturday, Avon coach Len Goldberg called the Fairfield coach, Don Houston, asking that the game be played before Saturday.

The response from the Fairfield coach caught the Avon coach by surprise.

“No, we won’t play any other time. The game is scheduled for 2 o’clock at Fairfield. That’s it.”

Len Goldberg said “maybe you don’t understand, we want to play the game. It’s just that the team can’t play on Saturday. Can’t we try to find another date that will work”?

“No”, said Don Houston. “You would still have 9 players. If you don’t want to play, don’t. The game’s at 2, If you don’t show up, you forfeit.”

The Connecticut Junior Soccer Association listened in on the follow-up phone call and attempted to mediate, but the Fairfield coach refused to even consider any other time to play the game. The CJSA, having set itself up for a problem by not looking at the calendar in the first place, dug itself in deeper by not stepping in and solving the issue.

Len Goldberg was hurt and angry. He talked to the boys and to the parents and outlined the problem. The boys wanted to play, but wanted to play as a team.

One big family.

The Avon parents and players agreed that observance of the religious holiday was more important than playing a soccer game. So, it was agreed that forfeiting the game was the best course of action.

But the unfairness of the situation bothered Len Goldberg. He felt the kids were being wronged. That “doing the right thing” was unfairly penalizing them.

And isn’t this supposed to be about the kids?

He called various media outlets. A TV station picked up on the story. It led the 11 o’clock news. The Hartford Courant ran a story on it. Hartford Courant columnist Jeff Jacobs wrote a commentary. It was distributed nationally. The New York Times reported the story, as did the Associated Press. At practice the following day, every Connecticut TV station was there, as well as television crews from New York; CNN and FOX too.

The simple scheduling conflict over a religious holiday had become a national story.

With the heat on from the media, coach Don Houston started backing down. He told the media “I never said I wouldn’t play another time”.

The CJSA started back-peddling too. It suggested that even though the Association rules called for the game to “end” by 7:30 Saturday evening, it would be all right to play the game if it “started” by 7:00 pm. That would be after sunset and the 24 hours of strict observance for the Jewish holiday. Neither town had lighted fields and the two towns are about an hour and 45 minutes apart, so the CJSA said it would try to find a neutral field midway between the two towns on which to play the game.

The Avon soccer team was now in a bit of a bind. Playing the game at 7:00 pm would still be a problem since preparation and travel time would come at the expense of properly observing the holiday. But saying “no” would risk ridicule and accusations of being unwilling to compromise.

After discussing the situation, the Avon parents again decided that if the CJSA couldn’t allow the game to be played Sunday afternoon, or sometime the following week, the Avon team would forfeit the game. The CJSA said the rules were the rules and no further scheduling accommodation would be made.

It appeared the forfeit would stand.

But, the media spotlight wouldn’t go away.

Editorials criticized the lack of sensitivity on the issue and so, as often happens in such conflicts, an 11th hour compromise was reached. The CJSA set up a secret location for the match to be played the following weekend. Parents were not informed of the site until the morning of the game to allow the teams to play without the media being present.

So, in the end, the game was played. And my 10-year-old son, Matt, and the other players involved, learned some valuable lessons about priorities.

What is troubling is how the adults handled the conflict.

The Connecticut Junior Soccer Association erred by scheduling games on a religious holiday. There was no need to place parents and children in such a position in the first place. Then, having realized the scheduling conflict, the CJSA could have simply instructed teams to reschedule games. A number of other towns expressed concerns about the scheduling of games on Rosh Hashanah and all were rescheduled through mutual cooperation.

The position of the CJSA was hard to understand.

There were no State Cup Games scheduled for the following weekend because of the Columbus Day holiday, so there was a two-week window in which to reschedule the games without running into the next round of competition.

Bad weather would have forced postponements and rescheduling. Why not reschedule the game because of the conflict with the religious observance?

Instead, the CJSA stood firm and said it wouldn’t change the rules.

The lack of common sense made the governing body look foolish.

Of course, the Fairfield coach could have made things easy by simply agreeing to reschedule the game in the first place. Not until the media pressure built did he change his stance.

It is hard to understand how well-meaning adults can get caught-up in winning to the extent they do.

There was an automobile commercial some years ago that you might remember. It showed the car filled with youth hockey players making its way through the snow up a steep mountain to play a hockey game. The car makes it to the top and the commercial ends with the kids cheering after being told that the other team has had to forfeit because it couldn’t make it to the game.

The commercial suggested that kids would rather win by forfeit than play the game.

How ridiculous.

Sure kids want to win. But first and foremost, they want to play the game!

When the Fairfield coach initially put “winning” ahead of “playing”, he forgot about the players he coaches.

Youth organizations provide many benefits and opportunities. Its rules can bring order and fairness. Youth coaches spend freely of their time and most have their hearts in the right place.

But, sometimes, we forget to use common sense.

We all need to take a step back and remember who this is all for.

If the Fairfield and Avon 10-year-olds had been left to work it out, I’ll bet they would have found a way to reschedule the game —- without creating a national story.

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