The Oakwood Adventist Academy basketball team forfeited a playoff game scheduled on the Sabbath. But there are reasons the game couldn't be rescheduled

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UPDATE (Feb. 25): On Friday, the Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA) responded to Gov. Kay Ivey’s letter by saying that Oakwood agreed to the terms and conditions of postseason play, including the possibility of weekend and Sabbath day games, when they applied for inclusion into the organization.

AHSAA executive director Alvin Briggs wrote: “… Oakwood agreed to follow the rules of the AHSAA and agreed to participate in all playoff games without petition, or forfeit. The statement was provided to the AHSAA in writing, and the AHSAA responded, in writing, accepting their agreement to participate in championship play, without petition, or forfeit.”

Briggs added that offering exceptions to schools would be “chaotic,” given the number of teams and (I would think) the logistical nightmare that would present.

On Saturday, the boys’ basketball team at Oakwood Adventist Academy in Alabama was scheduled to play in the State semifinals. To put that in more familiar terms, they made the Sweet 16 for the Class 1A bracket.

But they didn’t play that game. Instead, they forfeited the match (officially losing 2-0) because the members of the Seventh-Day Adventist-affiliated school refused to play on the Sabbath, which takes place from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday.

The backlash

As CNN reported, the school’s Athletic Director Calvin Morton asked the Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA) if they could play a few hours later, after sunset, but the AHSAA denied the request. The state association continued to say no even after the two teams playing later that night agreed to swap time slots to accommodate the change (and the team opposing Oakwood Adventist Academy agreed to it).

Now even Governor Kay Ivey has weighed in, saying the AHSAA should’ve made the change and asking for answers as to why the request was denied:

The team members and coaches are handling it all in stride:

“It’s great that we have that support for us,” Morton added. “It’s not just for Oakwood Adventist Academy, it’s for any other school or academy that has religious values or beliefs.”

The team’s senior captain, Raynon Andrews, told WAFF they have no regrets about their decision.

“There is a whole Facebook community, there are people all around the world texting parents, saying how proud they are of us,” Andrews said. “That means a lot.”

On one level, you have to appreciate their sportsmanship here. It’s not that anyone did anything wrong, per se, and the students certainly deserved a better (fairer) end to their season.

But there’s more to this story than just a cruel refusal to accommodate a faith-based school.

Factors worth considering

While the AHSAA hasn’t issued a formal statement about why they refused to make the switch, there are some things worth considering to understand this story in full. (CNN doesn’t mention any of them.)

Consider that the dates of the tournament have been known for quite some time. The AHSAA has already released its tournament calendar for all sports through 2026. That’s necessary to make sure venues are booked and administrators and athletic directors are fully aware of when playoff games will occur. In other words, the date (and arguably the time) of the basketball game was already in the books. It’s not like it was thrust upon the team after they won their previous match. It’s something they would have known about long before the playoffs began.

Consider all the adjustments that would have to be made if the two games got switched. It’s not clear if the 4:30p and 7:30p games had different referees (or other personnel) who would’ve also had to make the change, or if that was even possible because there are occasional conflicts of interest. (Sometimes referees have ties to certain schools.) What about schools that booked buses to the arena so students could cheer on their teams? What about cheerleaders, band members, and other team boosters?

Consider that the AHSAA schedule for the games played over the weekend includes a clause saying times would be planned out “to allow boys’ and girls’ teams from the same school to be scheduled consecutively.”

That may have been the problem here. It turned out that both the boys’ and girls’ basketball teams from Decatur Heritage Christian Academy made it to the Regional Semifinals. The girls were scheduled to play at 6:00p on Saturday night, while the boys were scheduled to play at 7:30p on Saturday night, all of them at the same venue. By scheduling those games consecutively, students who wanted to root for their school could do so one right after the other.

That means even though the Decatur boys apparently volunteered to play in the earlier (4:30p) time slot, it would’ve created a different kind of scheduling hazard for the AHSAA.

Finally, consider the possible ripple effects. If the AHSAA agreed to make the switch to accommodate a religious preference, what else would they be obligated to do in the future? Could a single student request a time change for a team sport or individual event if it conflicted with a religious observance? It’s so much easier, and so much better, for the AHSAA to simply lay out the schedules in advance and not adjust them unless there’s an absolute emergency. That’s what they did here.

This has happened before

It’s not like this is the first time religion has interfered in a high school athletic event like this.

We’ve seen a Christian wrestler refuse to compete because he didn’t want to wrestle a girl who had been given a green light to play against the boys. (In that situation, he forfeited the match and accepted the consequences.) That happened again in 2020 when an entire team forfeited rather than compete against girls. All of them cited their religious beliefs as justification for not competing.

We’ve also seen an Orthodox Jewish school in Houston, Texas withdraw from a tournament because (wait for it) a game fell during the Sabbath.

My point isn’t that organizations running these tournaments shouldn’t make reasonable accommodations if they’re able to. It’s that chaos would ensue if religious beliefs were always allowed to override the rules that apply to everybody. And in this most recent case in Alabama, there are so many factors involved that go beyond simply a swapping of the time slots.

Unless you’ve been involved in organizing these competitions and making sure they’re fair for all competitors, it’s hard to understand just how many elements need to be considered.

As heartbreaking as it is to see these high school athletes give up their playoff chances, they made this decision on their own. The AHSAA didn’t force it upon them; the students and adults at Oakwood chose to quit in favor of an arbitrary religious restriction. You don’t have to respect their decision, but you should respect their right to make it. Similarly, while many people (including the governor) are attacking the AHSAA, as if they wanted to discriminate against a religious school, those criticisms are misplaced, possibly for the reasons I mentioned above.

The students at Oakwood Adventist Academy had every chance to compete. Because of their religion, they decided not to. You can feel bad for the position they were in, but this was ultimately their choice. They were not “forced to forfeit,” as some media outlets put it. They chose to quit.

They deserve far less sympathy than they seem to be receiving online.

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Hemant Mehta is the founder of FriendlyAtheist.com, a YouTube creator, podcast co-host, and author of multiple books about atheism. He can be reached at @HemantMehta.