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Families grapple with the pressure to play youth sports on Sundays

Editor's note: First of a two-part series examining sports and the sabbath.

After playing in a couple of Saturday soccer games in a Las Vegas tournament last spring, 10-year-old Meg Covey, the team’s only goalkeeper, joined her teammates for breakfast Sunday morning.

The other players were dressed in their uniforms, preparing for Sunday games. Once the meal was over, Meg put on her dress.

Meg and the team departed at the same time, but to different destinations. Her teammates headed to the field for games while Meg and her family left to attend church.

“We walked out with everybody, wished them good luck, and we drove to St. George,” said Meg’s mom, Suzy Covey, of Draper.

The Coveys, who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, have a family rule that their children can’t play sports on Sunday in order to keep the Sabbath Day holy.

However, she and her husband allow their children to choose for themselves when they turn 15.

“We want them to understand our beliefs, their beliefs, and make their own decisions,” Suzy Covey said. “Meg is probably our most determined child. She has a very strong will. I was surprised that she didn’t fight me on it. It was a little hard to go down to breakfast with the girls. She wanted to be with them.”

It’s a dilemma faced by many families that don’t want to participate in sporting events on Sundays for religious reasons. While Sunday play in the state of Utah is rare, when teams travel out of state to compete in certain tournaments, Sunday play is a regular occurrence.

The Coveys had informed the coach prior to the tournament that if the team advanced to Sunday games, Meg would not be participating. But it still caused some awkwardness that Sunday morning. Meg was caught between respecting her family’s rule and feeling like she was letting her team down.

Another player’s family on the team opted not to go to the tournament due to the Sunday play conflict. Other LDS families chose to participate in the entire tournament.

For the Sunday games, the coach had invited a guest player, a goalie, to play in Meg’s absence. The team won one game but lost the other.

“I think they missed having Meg there but the team was very respectful, too,” Suzy said. “Nobody said she should have played or that it was a hardship for our team.”

Suzy Covey believes what happened that Sunday morning taught her daughter important life lessons.

“I hope that when she’s 15, she’s strong enough to make the decision on her own not to play on Sunday,” she said. “I think she realizes that she can stick with her beliefs and the rules of her family, and that people can respect that. It turned out to be a good experience for us.”

Sunday play, when it comes to youth sports, didn’t used to be an issue years ago. But with the creation of clubs, elite-level teams and the prospects of college scholarships, that has changed dramatically.

“There are certain clubs that won’t take you if you’re not going to play on Sunday and you can’t be on the club team because of that," Suzy Covey said. “It’s unfortunate because we’re making the kids make a decision about their beliefs at an early age. Maybe that’s a good thing if you look at it the other way, that they have to decide early on what’s important to them. It’s unfortunate that in order to be the best, they have to compromise. Coaches and clubs will put you in that situation.”

A league of its own

Spencer Bramwell’s daughter, Savannah, also loves soccer.

Trouble was, many of the games played in their area of Gilbert, Arizona, were held on Sundays, a day which Bramwell, who is a member of LDS Church, holds sacred. When Savannah was 11, he gave her the choice to play on Sunday and told her to pray about the decision.

“It really backfired on me,” Bramwell recalled.

Savannah prayed about it and felt she would be fine playing on Sundays.

Bramwell was disappointed, but supported his daughter by taking her to soccer games on Sundays. Two years later, Savannah attended an Especially For Youth event, changed her mind, and decided not to play on that day anymore.

“I was thrilled,” Bramwell said.

Meanwhile, he, and other LDS friends, decided to take matters into their own hands. They talked about starting their own non-profit soccer league, built on the premise that there would be no playing on Sunday.

As a result, the men created the No Sunday Fútbol Club, which began its inaugural season this spring with high-qualified coaches and fewer games, intended to put less stress on families.

“We started down the path of knowing it would be an easy fit among the LDS population but we didn’t want an LDS club,” Bramwell said. “You want to involve everyone. We focused on the idea that we’re spending too much time away from the family.”

More than 400 players are participating in the league.

The No Sunday Fútbol Club has broken ground on its own facility and has attracted a lot of families, both LDS and non-LDS, that like the concept of fewer games and less chance for burn-out for their young athletes.

“What I wouldn’t have been able to predict is how much attraction we’ve had from those of other faiths,” Bramwell said. “I knew the Mormon population would be interested. But a lot of people want to put their families first. We’re not alone in that feeling.”

John Miller, a member of the NSFC board of directors, has spent many years in youth soccer supporting his son. Miller is not a member of the LDS faith but he is a strong believer in the organization’s philosophy.

“Some people seem to think it’s a ‘Mormon League,’” Miller said. “But family is very important and if you’re able to enjoy your family and belong to an outstanding organization, who wouldn’t want to do that? It’s not a Mormon league, just a league that’s friendly and has great values. The bottom line is, this is a special thing that’s come together. Sports can really take over your life. I really like this family-first idea.”

Not only does the NSFC refrain from playing games on Sundays, but teams don’t train on Mondays, either.

“All five of my kids are involved with the club. My wife can go to the one field on Tuesday nights and all five guys will be trained in a five-hour block instead of being at multiple places at the same time,” Bramwell said. “Because we got to do it from the beginning, we made all the rules we wanted. We’ve got to stop tearing families apart with games here and there and there. Whatever faith people are, soccer can still be a huge part of their lives and not be the only thing. We hope to see a change within the state of Arizona. If the model can be mimicked and done other places, we hope it catches fire.”

The pressures to play on Sunday

After graduating from the University of Utah 25 years ago, Jeff and Liz Pierce moved to Southern California and started raising their family, consisting of four sports-minded children.

Their oldest son, who just wrapped up his LDS mission, will resume his college basketball career at Massachusetts Institute of Technology when he returns, and another son is a star high school quarterback.

“Our kids played all the sports — football, basketball, baseball, soccer. Southern California has a strong Mormon community but is a very small percentage of those who are members of the church,” Jeff Pierce said. “It’s a different atmosphere (than Utah). Because of that, the sports programs are very oriented around Sundays. Especially at the higher levels, the club levels and if you’re trying to become a high school athlete. Everything is played on Saturdays and Sundays. Even more on Sundays than Saturdays. There are a lot of Sunday-only leagues. All the tournaments are Saturday-Sunday. You’re definitely pressured to into making some decisions if you’re a member. Everyone’s going to handle it differently.”

In many cases, the Pierces’ children were the only LDS players on their teams. Pierce added that because his kids are advanced athletically, with the chance to go on and play sports in college, it put the family in a difficult spot.

“I would prefer my son not play on Sunday for the big-picture things,” Pierce said. “To be a better young man or young woman, no doubt about it. But as far as being a better baseball player, you have to play on Sunday. You’re going to feel the pressure to do it. Those kids that didn’t play on Sundays, unless you’re a complete phenom, then there’s no way you can compete down there if you didn’t play at least some Sundays. No chance. Zero chance. Our attitude was, it was looked down upon by some (LDS Church) members and agreed to by others. If we feel like we were committed to the team, just like we were committed to the church. If the team was going to forfeit or if it was a big enough event, then our kids would go to another ward that day and we'd schedule it around the game.”

The Sunday play dilemma caused strife at home, too.

“My wife is a little stronger than I am as far as Sunday play goes. It would cause a lot of contention in our home all the time,” Pierce said. “It was always a battle. Our kids wanted to play every event. Mom wanted them to play in no events. And I was kind of caught in the middle. We tried to compromise and do what we felt was best.”

Last year, the Pierces moved from California to Utah for numerous reasons, including the opportunity to be back with extended families. As far as youth sports goes, the decision to return to Utah has “been a big blessing for our family. My third son, who’s 13, would be right in the middle of it," Pierce said. "It’s a big thing for my wife and our family. We don’t have to worry about him and my daughter playing on Sundays. They don’t miss church. It’s been a huge bonus of moving back to Utah. We went from all to nothing.”

Scott Halliday grew up in San Diego, attended the University of Utah, then moved back to San Diego with his family. His oldest son, Jonathan, played youth sports in California and was the backup kicker on the Utah football team the past few seasons.

“As an LDS family, we had to make a commitment,” Halliday said. “If my son made a commitment to the team, then we had to make a commitment to the team that if there was Sunday-play tournaments, usually going out of state, there might be times he had to play on Sunday. We said, ‘If you’re going to join a team and make that commitment, then you can’t let the team down. That’s part of being a team.’ We supported him in that.”

One of Jonathan’s baseball coaches in his competitive league was Tom Brunansky, a former Major League Baseball player. When Brunansky was growing up, one of his best friends was a member of the LDS Church, so he understood, and respected, the idea of not participating on Sunday.

“The team was going to practice Tuesday, Friday and Sunday,” Halliday said. “We were the only LDS people associated with the team. But Tom changed the practices from Sunday to Saturday because of Jonathan.”

Halliday and his family returned to Utah in 2003.

“When we moved back, Jonathan was 13. We didn’t think much about it,” he said. “At the high school level, we played tournaments out of state and Sunday play was involved. Here in Utah at the competitive level, we didn’t have Sunday play issues."

Standing up for beliefs without being 'self-righteous'

Not even all LDS families agree on what’s appropriate on Sundays. Not everyone is as understanding as those on Meg Covey’s soccer team.

“It gets more heated the older you get. Some families don’t understand why you can’t play three Sundays a year,” Suzy Covey said. “I’ve heard plenty of negatives from parents. Every family has to decide if playing soccer, or traveling home from a vacation, is OK for your Sabbath and what’s not. It’s a tough one. I don’t want to come across as self-righteous. I told Meg not to talk too much about it with the girls. If they ask, she says she's not playing on Sunday and leaves it at that. (At the tournament in Las Vegas) I was surprised none of the LDS families said anything. Maybe because they had chosen to play and they didn’t want to talk about it either.”

As her family arrived at sacrament meeting in St. George that Sunday in March, Covey felt she had done the right thing.

“I felt good in the end that they saw what was important to their mom. That was the goal,” she said. “It was important to be at church. It was a little hectic to get there on time. But when we got there I thought, ‘It was worth it.’”

EMAIL: jeffc@deseretnews.com