Ahhh, August! When back-to-school feels like a real possibility for both those who miss it and those who dread it. It’s also the month that big high school football states are allowed to start official practices. In Michigan, the two-a-days have commenced!
But rather than running lines and practicing passes in the middle of the day, they’re kicking off their tw0-a-days in the middle of the night. For a second consecutive season, the Fordson High School football squad is practicing from 11 p.m. to 4 a.m. While it spares the team from some the grueling heat of a Michigan summer day, the move was made for religious reasons.
Ninety percent of the students at Fordson High School in Dearborn, Mich., are Muslim. This year, the holy month of Ramadan coincides with the start of high school football season. Rather than risking dehydration, overheating and low blood sugar — or asking the observant team members to break their fast before sunset — Coach Fouad Zaban moved practice. That way, players can eat a light meal, head out to practice and drink all the water they want (and need).
Dearborn has one of the highest concentrations of Muslim Americans in the U.S. According to this story about the atypical practice schedule in the New York Times, rarely have the moving dates of Ramadan coincided with the beginning of football season. At Fordson’s rival, Dearborn High School, nearly one third of the football team is fasting. Their practices are from 6 to 11 p.m.
The Times notes plenty of precedent when it comes to accommodating religious belief in sports:
Sandy Koufax, who is Jewish, declined to pitch Game 1 of the 1965 World Series because it was scheduled on Yom Kippur. Brigham Young University, owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, does not play athletic events on Sunday. And the Hall of Fame basketball player Hakeem Olajuwon, a Muslim, also fasted during Ramadan.
Next week the students return to school. Though Ramadan 2011 continues, the Fordson team will go back to practicing in the afternoons. Players will have to deal with hunger. As for thirst, they can swish water in their mouths but it is considered a break in the fast to actually drink it.
Shutting down practice isn’t an option. The Fordson Tractors are five-time state champions and they not about to forfeit the first game of the season on Aug. 26. Though it’s will still be Ramadan, different players have different plans:
Leila, the senior guard, said he would limit his weight lifting this month, explaining, “You don’t have enough protein to repair your muscles.” He might lose 15 to 20 pounds from his 275-pound frame, but he believes he will gain them back once he resumes normal eating.
Some teammates said they would break their fasts on opening day to gain energy and avoid cramping (and make up for it with later fasting.) Leila said he would not eat or drink until sundown, which should occur about halftime. Then coaches will provide water, dates, oranges and other fruit to help refuel their players’ empty tanks.
I think it’s great that coaches and schools are trying to meet the needs of these players. What these kids have in their favor is their sheer (and near) majority. I wonder if other Muslim athletes, especially in areas with smaller Muslim populations, are also able to ask for accommodation. I doubt night practices would happen in, say, Texas for just one or two Muslim students. But it looks like the players are finding ways to make it work — and hopefully not endangering themselves in the process.