Monday, January 22, 2007

TOPIC: Religious athletes - Youths are facing conflicting demands from church and sport
By Derek Poore / The Courier-Journal
Photo by The Courier-Journal
From the time he was 4, Matt Cooke lived for baseball. He played on his school's teams and made trips with highly competitive travel squads. But in the 10th grade he quit, choosing his church over his sport. "I felt a little persecution," said Cooke, 20, about teammates who sometimes derided him for devoting so much time to church. Cooke, who went to Oldham County High School and is now a Western Kentucky University freshman, was caught in a dilemma faced by many young athletes in religious families: conflicting demands on their time by their church, often supported by their parents, and their sport, with coaches insisting on regular practice and often weekend travel for out-of-town games.
"Kids feel very caught in it," said J. Bradley Wigger, a professor of Christian education at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. "It's been gradually increasing over time." Cooke said that before he quit, he was benched after missing baseball practices to sing in his church's praise band, and that some teammates called him a "Jesus freak."
Children and their parents worry about missing practices and games for religious obligations. But especially when future college athletic scholarships are at stake, sports often win the battle, to the dismay of some ministers. Kevin Jones, youth minister at Crestwood United Methodist Church, said he's convinced that the lure of athletic scholarships causes some parents to set unrealistic expectations for their children. "Just because a kid makes a travel team doesn't mean they are going to get a scholarship," Jones said. "My concern is that the parents are neglecting their faith to chase a better education for their kids."
'Compromise where you can'
The conflict occurs across different faiths. Members of the Mark family of Harrods Creek have typical schedules for youngsters active in sports. Daniel, a freshman at Kentucky Country Day School, is a Mockingbird Soccer Club player. He also was a ranked junior player by the U.S. Tennis Association but recently dropped tennis to focus on soccer. Daniel's brother, Josh, an eighth-grader, is a goalkeeper for his soccer team. "The boys pretty much have something every single day after school," said their mother, Ronna Mark. But Daniel skipped a North Carolina tennis tournament last fall because it fell on Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of repentance. "You sort of compromise where you can," said his father, Martin Mark.
For some young players, deciding between practice and church is a no-brainer when the price is sitting on the bench. "I stick to my plan, especially when the team is counting on me," said Allison Hoffman, 17, who splits time between volleyball and attending Crestwood United Methodist Church. Hoffman recently committed to play volleyball at Bellarmine University, but she said she isn't abandoning her church. "My faith will always be with me long after I finish playing sports," she said.
Sacred space
Some churches create their own sports leagues to bring in families with young athletes, although the level of play tends to be more recreational than competitive. Jeff Fuson, youth minister at Crestwood Baptist Church, took another approach, assembling teams of adults who minister to youths who travel for sporting events. "Church on Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings used to be sacred space," Fuson said. But he said he overcame his initial reaction "to wail against the culture." "You say, 'If you don't come to my service, you're going to hell,' " he said. "Some will make that approach, but we'll drive them away from church. A lot of them won't come back."
The Rev. John Judie at Christ the King, a small Catholic church in western Louisville, said parents are ultimately responsible for their children's moral obligations. "There is the child who wants to be involved in 101 things and the parents who readily agree and support them without teaching the child a healthy balance and establishing priorities," Judie said.
'Missing the big picture'
Mockingbird soccer coach Josh Chatraw said coaches need to be understanding when a player misses practice or a game for church. "If a coach benches a player because they are committed to their faith and can't go to a tournament, I think that they're missing the big picture," he said. After he left baseball, Matt Cooke became an officer in his school's chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA), a national organization that encourages the use of sports as a vehicle for Christian teaching. His mother, Elizabeth Cooke, an Oldham County High School teacher, said families and coaches need to talk things out when church-sports conflicts arise. "Parents need to be upfront and ask coaches questions, like 'How is Wednesday night practice and church going to affect it? Will he be penalized if he misses practice?' " she said. Her son, who won an academic college scholarship, said he misses baseball but doesn't regret his decision to give it up, even though he thinks he could have handled the pressure differently. "I should have just taken it and continued to play well and let my performance speak," he said.

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