A little over two years ago, the Methodist women’s tennis team gained a trophy for winning the USA South Women’s Tennis Tournament. However, it was not an ordinary victory—they had won by forfeit. The forfeit was a result of Covenant College’s Sabbath Policy, further clarified in the following statement from then Athletic Director, Kyle Taylor:
Covenant College has elected to forfeit the Women’s Tennis USA South Conference championship match, scheduled for April 17, 2016. The championship match takes place on a Sunday, and as an institution owned and operated by the Presbyterian Church in America, we observe the Sabbath by not competing in athletic events on Sunday. This conviction is clearly stated in our Student Handbook and is informed by the Bible, the Westminster Confession of Faith, and the PCA Book of Church Order.
As a policy, Covenant College does not allow its athletic teams to compete on the Sabbath, and the NCAA accommodates this. Each year, including 2016, Covenant files the proper paperwork allowing them to be safe from athletics scheduled on the Sabbath; however, individual conferences, such as the USA South, are not bound to this rule. Thus, in 2016, the championship was scheduled for a Sunday, automatically disqualifying Covenant.
So the championship was forfeited. Covenant issued its statement, and their women’s tennis team was commended for their attitudes following their forfeiture. Students across campus began discussing the complexity of the Sabbath policy and the true biblical intentions behind the Sabbath. But what did the players think?
Within a discussion where everyone held their own view and everyone was being affected by Covenant’s Sabbath policy on some level (closed academic buildings and gym), those affected by the immediate issue at hand were hardly given a platform for their personal thoughts. A hardworking group of girls and their coach had been stripped of the opportunity to compete for a conference championship, something they worked towards for an entire season, so what did they think about all of this?
While the tennis team appeared joyful and supportive of their forfeit immediately following the event, it was still a discouraging loss to process. Although the girls were part of a team, they possess their own, wide-ranging thoughts on the issue.
With regards to the Sabbath policy, alumna Mackenzie Jones, who was a sophomore in 2016 and grew up not playing sports on Sundays, states, “When the conference tournament became an issue, I didn't expect Covenant to compromise their convictions, and I didn't want to compromise mine, either. However, it was still incredibly tough for our top six not to compete for something we all earned.”
Another alumna, Annie DeLuca, also a sophomore on the 2016 team, addresses the inconsistencies with the policy by saying:
I think the policy is a misinterpretation of the Lord's Day. I believe that God gave us the Sabbath for our own rest. I think the policy to not have athletics on Sundays is a good one because it allows athletes to spend a day catching up on schoolwork and resting. However, it is very difficult as a college athlete to not do any studying on Sunday after being gone the entire weekend, and practicing every day of the week.
Here, DeLuca expresses that the Sabbath policy is somewhat contradictory considering athletics are banned on the Sabbath, but because of her athletics, she often had to work on assignments on Sundays to catch up from tennis commitments.
When asked about their influence on the decision to enforce the Sabbath policy, it became clear that the team had no say in this decision, with Jones stating, “We weren't asked if we wanted to forfeit because we girls knew it was a non-negotiable.”
Prior to leaving for the conference tournament that weekend, Kyle Taylor walked down to the courts and encouraged the girls that no matter what happened, they had worked hard and would be representing Christ that weekend. His affirmation revealed that he was aware of the potential outcome of the weekend. Jones, however, kept her hopes up by hanging on to the chance their potential opponent would allow the match to be moved to either Saturday night or Monday.
This presents another issue involved with the decision. While Covenant was bound to the Sabbath policy, and the USA South Conference was bound to nothing, Covenant’s championship opponent held the power to agree to move the match. However, Methodist decided against this and instead accepted Covenant’s forfeit and the resulting championship.
This did not sit well with some members of the team. Jennie Spielman, another sophomore member of the 2016 team states, “Accommodations could have and should have been made, but they wanted the win without the effort.”
Thankfully, in 2017, history did not repeat itself. In fact, the girls made it to the conference championship that year and ironically played Methodist on a Saturday. Additionally, a new conference rule allows adjustments for teams who won’t play on Sundays.
Jones says, “Last year, the conference made a rule so that if we, Covenant, made it to the final, we wouldn’t have to forfeit and could instead play on a Monday. It’s a privilege to have been on the team to kickstart that exception so the following groups of girls won’t have to feel what we did.”
The tennis team is just that, a team. However, they are still a group of individuals. While as a whole they may represent a decision, they are all entitled to their own opinions. The 2016 USA South Conference Championship was a difficult time for them—a season’s worth of work and perseverance interrupted by another team’s lack of willingness to accommodate their religious beliefs.
However, in hindsight, the forfeit may not have been all bad. Despite the obvious letdown of their team not being able to compete for such an honorable title, Jones tried to see the best side of the decision, saying, “I got the opportunity to tell family and friends about our forfeit, using it as a time to proclaim Covenant's convictions and applaud my college as one that prioritizes Christ and really does keep Him preeminent in all things.”
While others may not have seen it the same way, many, including the tennis team, found some good in this decision—a pride in one’s school and its priority in Christ. While the policy may have room for change, it is respectable that the school did not compromise their values, but instead showed their commitment to Christian beliefs over sports, painful as it may have been.