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Reconciling Spiritual And Athletic Priorities

To the Editor:

At the time of this writing, the world is witnessing the closing ceremonies of the Olympics, in Sochi, Russia. While the winter games are not my cup of tea (or should I say, my glass of vodka,) I am enamored at the athletic achievements of each of the participants, be they in the physical agility manifested by the downhill slalom skiers, the artistic beauty of the figure skaters or the over-the-top gyrations of the X Games-type snow boarders. For one who could only last about 20 minutes on ice skates, in the early fifties, on Danbury’s Rogers Park pond and never achieved the goal of standing, uprightly, upon a board on wheels, nevertheless, I have a great respect for athletics, having played many diverse sports in my earlier days, doing fairly well especially in running, wrestling and basketball, and have made many terrific life-long friends along the way.

What continues to frustrate me in the forum of sports-related activities, is to see people ranking them on a level with worship, i.e., by scheduling practices at times traditionally set aside for worship – be it at a church, synagogue, mosque or temple. Now, I do realize that some faith communities meet on Fridays, Saturdays or Sundays and that time is of the essence in this matter. However, no young athlete should be deprived of playing a sport, due to the fact that he/she had to miss practices that coaches scheduled on Sunday mornings, or at other times, when families celebrate spiritual, community services. Such practice is grossly unfair to athletes and occasions division in families.

I suggest that all athletes take a good look into the life of Eric Liddell, a Scottish Christian who refused to participate in the 100-meter race at the 1924 Olympics, on a Sunday. While this was Liddell’s favorite event and one that the British Olympic Committee had badgered him to run, he later participated in the 400-meter race, unranked, and won. The story with some literary license was put on screen as “Chariots of Fire.” In a closer era, I would point to the story of Sandy Koufax of the Brooklyn Dodgers, one of the greatest pitchers of all time, who sat out Game One of the World Series in 1965 because it was Yom Kippur and he was of the Jewish faith. As the Dodgers' ace, Koufax still pitched Games Two, Five, and Seven, throwing complete-game shutouts in Games Five and Seven.

To the coaches in any and every sport, I join my fellow religious clergypersons to ask you to reflect upon this issue and do the right thing. You are a most important influence on the athletes whom you are coaching. Go and do the right thing! May I offer a personal note as the dad of a former coach of the Nighthawk Wrestling Team. Congratulations on your State LL Championship! Best wishes in the State Open!

Chaplain Leo McIlrath

13 Sugarloaf Road, Sandy Hook     February 24, 2014

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