Sport’s Christmas Day Conundrum

Religion is regularly in the news in recent years. In fact it would have to be one of the hottest topics. Yet how many of the population would admit to being devout followers of a religion?

Depending on the answer to the above question the response to the push by sporting codes to play games on Christmas Day becomes very interesting.

Not only have we seen Cricket Australia Chief Executive James Sutherland discuss the possibility of scheduling matches on what most Australians consider one of the most sacred days of the year, Christmas Day, and a day usually set aside for the family, but in the USA where they play games on Christmas Day there has been the annual push to stop this trend.

In the NBA, Christmas Day has proven to be an important day because television ratings are generally higher than during the regular season, as turkey-filled fans slump into the sofa and watch the games as their Christmas dinner digests. This year, the NBA scheduled five games at various times throughout Christmas Day. All of these games were on national television, three on ESPN and two on the ABC.

The NFL on the other hand moved most of its games to Saturday, Christmas Eve, to avoid the holiday. However the league still had six games on Christmas Day.

It comes as no surprise that the religious leaders are dead against any sport being played on Christmas day, or Easter for that matter. Yet funnily enough the shouts come loudest from the Christian leaders. How often do we hear leaders from the Jewish, Hindi or Muslim faiths speak up about sport being played on their most religious of days? How much consideration is given to these athletes when the fixtures are produced in various competitions?

Of course there have been famous cases of athletes whose religious beliefs have been so strong that they have simply opted not to play under such circumstances. The great Michael Jones, flanker for the All Blacks when they lifted the World Cup in 1987, refused to play on Sundays. He missed both the quarter final and semi final games. In the 1970’s when English Football moved to playing games on Sundays, Swindon Town’s goalkeeper, who at the time was rumoured for a move to Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest, Jimmy Allan, also refused to play on a Sunday. It cost him a move to the First division. This year in Rugby League Canterbury Bulldogs Will Hopoate also refused to play on a Sunday for similar reasons.

If you go back to 1965 the Jewish baseball pitcher Sandy Koufax refused to play in the opening game of the World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in his religion. His team the LA Dodgers, lost that game to the Minnesota Twins. Koufax played in three of the other World Series games to help the Dodgers seal a 4-3 series victory.

The British boxer Amir Khan had to knock back a big-money fight against Floyd Mayweather in 2014 because he is a Muslim, and was observing Ramadan. At the time his management stated that Khan fasted for 17 hours a day for 30 consecutive days during the holy month, and would therefore not have been able to carry out a proper training regime to prepare for the fight.

All of these athletes deserve our respect for standing up for their beliefs and convictions.

Of course others have strong religious beliefs and yet still chose to participate. NBA star of the 1990’s Hakeem Olajuwon, who helped the Houston Rockets to back-to-back championships in 1994 and 1995, chose to play for his team during Ramadan. He strictly adhered to his beliefs and fasted for the whole month of Ramadan, yet still managed to perform. In 2008 the Rockets proposed a statue dedicated to him outside their stadium, but Olajuwon’s Muslim faith forbade any statue bearing a likeness to be erected. Instead a statue of his shirt was created.

Apart from the mainly Christian leaders speaking out against such a move by Cricket Australia there are representatives of the players who have come out to say that it is unfair for players to be away from their families on Christmas day.

If we look back at the A-League, after three seasons of the Perth Glory hosting a Boxing Day match, the FFA bowed to pressure and cancelled the fixture, because it meant teams from the East had to travel on Christmas day. There are still fixtures on Boxing Day in the A-League, but now they tend to be between teams on the East coast with short travelling times, so that this problems does not arise.

As has been shown in the USA such a move is likely to be a winner for television broadcasters, and as they say in modern sport, money talks.

This is where James Sutherland made a comment that implied if the players want to enjoy the financial rewards that they currently do, then they have to bow to the current commercial pressures.

Responding to The Australian Cricketers Association, who is strongly opposed to the idea, saying players should be spending Christmas Day with loved ones, Mr Sutherland said that it was “all part of the job.”

Sutherland, realises the impact from first hand experience with his daughter Annabel playing in the Women’s Big Bash. He revealed that she was on a lunchtime flight to Sydney on Christmas Day to play on Boxing Day. “It’s part and parcel of what happens as a professional cricketer today.” He said.

The argument put forward by many is that Australians should be playing cricket in the backyard or at the beach cricket on Christmas Day rather than watching it on television. Yet rightly or wrongly times have changed, and far less beach and backyard cricket is played. Also less is watched on television, and more on tablets and mobile phones.

Many in favour of sport being played on Christmas Day have pointed to the fact that for a long time a traditional Sheffield shield match was played over Christmas between New South Wales and Victoria.

In fact in Britain up until the 1950’s football matches were played on Christmas Day. The last Christmas Day game was played in 1965 when Blackpool beat Blackburn Rovers 4-2 at Bloomfield Road. It was in 1957 that the last full set of Christmas Day fixtures were scheduled. The reason the games stopped had nothing to do with religion, but all to do with the fact that public transport workers were given the day off and buses and trains no longer ran.

Some would argue that up to the fifties society was far more religious than it is today. So why were there not the protestations in those days about sport being played on Christmas Day? Possibly because as stated, many of those working in public services were still expected to work; just as today many people in many industries find themselves still at work on Christmas Day. Yet in those days ordinary working people only got two days off at Christmas, while footballers had none. Also Christmas was far from the commercial festival it has become today, and so the attitude towards it was very different.

Maybe we have to accept that 50 years on times have changed again. Maybe ultimately the choice should come down to the individual. If, as shown by some of the athletes listed they feel that they cannot play on their specific religious days they should be allowed to withdraw with no risk to their contracts, or place in the squad. Their beliefs and convictions should be respected by clubs and fans a like. Maybe such a move would result in more education and tolerance or alternative religious beliefs. If schools are not going to educate on such matters maybe sport can?

Alternatively, if the general populous no longer has strong feelings about the various religious days then maybe they should no longer be public holidays? That would be far more controversial than athletes being asked to perform, and is one hot potato very few politicians will go near!

(Apologies for the lack of posts in recent weeks but Ashley was in the USA filming his next documentary)

Sport’s Christmas Day Conundrum
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