Rivals High - Team forfeits playoff game due to religious fast
On Thursday afternoon at the SunDome in Yakima, Wash., the Mercer Island (Wash.) Northwest Yeshiva girls basketball team walked onto the court for its consolation-bracket game in the Washington state tournament.
The girls shook the hands of their St. John (Wash.) St. John-Endicott opponents.
Then, they walked off the court.
Their actions weren't a protest or the result of any type of dispute. They were just the logical outcome of following their faith.
The Northwest Yeshiva girls forfeited their playoff game.
The game was scheduled to be played during the Jewish "Fast of Esther," a time when those of the Jewish faith go without both food - and, more importantly, water - until sundown on Thursday.
When their request to change the game time was denied, Northwest Yeshiva, an Orthodox Jewish high school of just 95 students located just outside Seattle, decided to forfeit.
"We didn't think it was safe for the team to play without water," the school's head, Rabbi Bernie Fox, said.
Because of it, the first team from a Jewish school to qualify for the state tournament became the first team in state history to forfeit a postseason game - all in the same week. The team finished the season with a 10-14 record.
Their actions have drawn national attention. Some have saluted them for showing there are more important things than sports; others have wondered why the issue couldn't have been avoided with a schedule change.
The school did make an attempt to play.
Northwest Yeshiva knew that the potential scheduling conflict existed when the initial playoff draw was announced.
Had it triumphed in its opening game earlier in the week, the conflict would have been avoided. But the loss - a 62-25 defeat Wednesday at the hands of Sunnyside (Wash.) Sunnyside Christian - put the school in a consolation bracket, thus forcing the issue.
School officials contacted the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA), offering several suggestions even prior to the team's first game, knowing there would be a lot of logistics involved in rescheduling.
"We came up with possibilities that we hoped might be a win-win for all involved," Fox said.
Fox said the school offered to play the game Thursday evening at an alternate venue, with Northwest Yeshiva partnering to help defray the financial costs of moving the game. Another option, Fox said, was to play the game on St. John-Endicott's home court, also in the evening.
But the WIAA said changing the game would cause too much disruption in the rest of the playoff schedule.
"As to the request that, could we do some rescheduling to deal with this particular issue, that would negatively impact the schedule for all 31 of the other teams involved," WIAA executive director Mike Colbrese told the Yakima Herald-Republic.
"And if we were to go off-site with (any rescheduling)," he continued, "we've basically taken both teams out of their schedule and they end up playing their game at night, not in the afternoon. And they're also not getting that state tournament experience, which is really what the whole thing is about."
So, after Wednesday's loss, Northwest Yeshiva contacted St. John-Endicott about setting up a meeting on the court instead.
"It left us in an awkward situation," Fox said. "We felt that if we could not reschedule the game, we would at least show good sportsmanship."
And the teams met Thursday afternoon to shake hands.
"St. John-Endicott was very appreciative," Fox said. "They conducted themselves with perfect sportsmanship."
Whether Northwest Yeshiva will be sanctioned by the state for its actions remains to be determined.
Colbrese told the Yakima Herald-Republic on Thursday that that the WIAA board wouldn't discuss potential sanctions until late March, its next scheduled meeting. While the WIAA is well within its jurisdiction to punish the school, Colbrese told the paper that "the board is under no obligation to sanction Northwest Yeshiva."
And while a forfeit wasn't exactly the way the Northwest Yeshiva girls had hoped their season would end, they were supportive of the decision.
"We worked really hard to get here, to qualify for state," sophomore Julia Owen told the Yakima Herald-Republic. "But we're also very happy to be able to show that our religion is very important to us. Although it's hard because it would be great to get the chance to continue, we're not wishing we could ignore the fast and play, because observing the fast is important."
And it's that positive outlook that Fox had hoped his team would show in what proved to be a difficult situation.
"Whether you're in a public school or religious school, you want kids to gather not just knowledge, but values to guide decisions in life," Fox said.
"This was a situation where the team was challenged to do that - to prioritize. And they felt that as important as this basketball tournament was, they couldn't compromise their personal values.
"I'm very proud of them."