Ask an Atheist with Sam Mulvey

Freedom of Football?

footballpracticeMy senior year in high school I managed to finally earn one varsity letter.  I’d worked hard since seventh grade, practicing skills and drills in short bursts and extended 2-hour sessions.  I suffered callouses, strains, muscle aches, and tendonitis.   Our coaches made us drill and repeat till we got it right.  I went to Districts and finally All-State my senior year.  I was no gymnast nor swimmer; I didn’t play soccer or field hockey.  I played viola.  That’s right, I “lettered” in Symphony Orchestra.

Which is perhaps why, despite electively returning to high school for my chosen career, I remain somewhat baffled by the mystery that is high school football pre-season.  Running miles in full gear in the August heat just doesn’t sound rewarding, but I do admire the young men (and  a few women) who slog through drills, push their bodies, and bond as a team in the few weeks before the rest of their peers and teachers return to school.  As I prepare my classroom and curriculum in the waning summer days, I muse that these teenage athletes must subscribe to some personal Footballer Bill of Rights…

My Universe shall make no law respecting an establishment of football, or prohibiting free exercise or competition thereof; or abridging the freedom of sprints, or of bench-press; or the right of the players peaceably to assemble on the sidelines, and to petition the Coach for a redress of grievances.

And then I come across the story of Ahmed Elshaer, a Muslim high school student in Florida. He’s not going to let Ramadan come in the way of him and his football, nor let football get in the way of his Ramadan!

Elshaer is fasting from all food and drink from sunup to sundown for Ramadan, the Muslim holy month that lasts all of August.

That means no water or sports drinks during the opening weeks of high school football practice — even as the heat index is expected to reach triple digits and concern about heatstroke is growing nationwide.

Elshaer rises before the sun at 3 or 4 every morning and stays awake long enough to gulp from a gallon jug of water and devour two beef bologna sandwiches and a banana before falling back asleep.

He then spends the day exercising, and when school starts he’ll sit in class all day and then exercise.  In the 90+ degree Florida heat.  Is this starting to sound like a bad idea to anyone?

Now, pro sports has its share of athletes outspoken about their religious practice.  There’s Sandy Koufax, who refused to pitch a world series game on the Jewish day of atonement.  There’s boxer Cassius Clay, better known as Muhammad Ali after his Muslim-influenced name change. And there’s the countless athletes who thank Jesus for helping them win the pennant/match/meet/game.  Ahmed even noted that Minnesota Vikings safety Husain Abdullah practiced while fasting for Ramadan.

Professional athletes operate of their own volition; student athletes practice under the supervision of coaches, school districts, and doctors.  Ahmed’s athletic director stated “the district has no policies on players who fast during sports,” and continued that the district “won’t exclude him because of his religion.”

I don’t want to bar Ahmed from playing football, from practicing, or from being a part of his team, and certainly not because of his religion.  Sports can provide students with a fantastic sense of accomplishment and purpose, and far be it from me to discourage this important and beneficial aspect of adolescent development.  I want to exclude Ahmed from practicing for same reason I’d exclude a student with a sprained ankle, an asthma flare-up, or a bonked head from practicing in the same way as his/her peers.  Because as a coach, YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR YOUR PLAYERS’ SAFETY!

Ahmed, like his peers, would have had to get a sports physical from a general practitioner. If he didn’t disclose that he’d be fasting for Ramadan, then the doctor’s sign-off would have been ill-informed.  If he had disclosed this to his doctor, and had not discussed a plan to ensure his physical safety, Ahmed would not likely be declared fit for participation in sports.  Or at least one would hope.

The health concerns for strenuous exercise in hot, humid weather without continuous rehydration, replenishment of electrolytes, or caloric intake are numerous, including heat stroke, renal stress, low blood pressure, mental fog, etc. The article mentions a few that Elshaer has already experienced:

Linemen like Elshaer are more susceptible to hot temperatures and high humidity because of their size…. Elshaer credits his new teammates for supporting him during a difficult transition to football. He has lost 10 pounds since Ramadan began, dropping his 6-foot-2 frame to 265 pounds, and he said he nearly fainted during conditioning drills last week but “fought through it.”

The district athletic director needs to step in NOW and require the young man to obtain doctor’s approval to practice while fasting.  Ahmed, I’m happy to have you “fight through” some muscle burn, or “fight through” those last lap around the track.  But to “fight through it” while maintaining the following?

If it’s my time, it’s my time.  If not, God watches over me.


It’s tough, but I’ve got to do it for my religion.

Ahmed, there’s no requirement in Islam that one practice football during Ramadan.  You’re putting yourself in danger.  Your religion says fast; it does not say fast while over-exerting in humid heat.  In fact, your religion provides special dispensation from Ramadan fasting for those whose health would be threatened, as well as those “in battle.”  I think you could successfully argue either of those points, and make up your fast days later as per your religion’s instructions on the matter.  There’s nothing admirable nor holy about endangering your still-developing adolescent body.  And there’s no Football Bill of Rights.  School officials need to protect children in the face of the U.S. Constitution’s  guarantee of freedom of religion.  There’s no Freedom of Football.


About the Author: Becky Friedman

Becky works on the Ask An Atheist production team, frequently appears on episodes, and lends her voice to commercial announcements. She speaks Spanish, works as an educator in the Seattle-Tacoma area, and sits on the Board of Humanists of Washington.

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I just hope that his parents sue “god” when their son collapses with a stroke on the field. Can’t give the skydaddy all the props but none of the dis, yo.


Well said, Becky!

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