Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.
We inform. You decide.
Saturday, September 30, 2023

Column: Separation of church and state championships — when religion and sports collide

Sports and religion rarely come into direct conflict.

Sure, there are instances when sports figures are in the news for their religious ideas or practices, such as New York Mets’ second baseman Daniel Murphy’s condemnation not of gay people, but of the gay "lifestyle," or Russell Wilson giving thanks to God for both wins and losses.

But for Zach Gillion, a devout Seventh Day Adventist and head coach of the girls’ basketball team at Northeast High School in Oakland Park, Florida, faith itself rendered him unable to achieve the pinnacle of high school athletic success.

Seventh Day Adventists are fundamentalist Christians who believe in the imminent return of Jesus Christ, a literal interpretation of the Bible and, most relevant to Gillion’s situation, a strict observance of the Sabbath from sundown Friday night to sundown Saturday night.

All that means is that time period every week is reserved for spiritual reflection and God-related activities. The definition of "God-related" can vary depending on who you talk to, but the one thing that every Seventh Day Adventist will agree on is that they are not to do any work on the Sabbath.

Which brings me back to Gillion, who ran into trouble when his team was scheduled to play in the FHSAA 6A State Finals on a Saturday afternoon.

He is, after all, working while coaching the team — it’s his job. So, being the devout observer of his faith that he is, Gillion knew that he wasn’t going to coach the game.

"When you grow up Adventist, you don’t flinch," Gillion said. "Because you grow up missing out on stuff."

He was, however, extremely disappointed that the FHSAA refused to switch his 6A game with the game scheduled to be played after sunset, especially after league officials had been incredibly accommodating for other games during the team’s playoff run.

Now, at this point in a column, it would generally be expected of a columnist to take a side. Either the FHSAA is persecuting Gillion’s faith by not accommodating him, leading to a war on religious freedom, or Gillion is a slave to his religion and any omnipotent deity would assuredly understand if he chose to do his goddamn job and coach his team on a Saturday.

But taking a definite side and spewing hot takes in much the same way that a volcano spews lava — loudly, without any discernable direction, and ready to mow down anything in its way — completely misses the point.

Because when it comes to religion mixing with sports, any worthwhile discussion requires nuance.

Enjoy what you're reading? Get content from The Alligator delivered to your inbox

So, on one hand, it isn’t hard to see why Gillion is upset. Accommodations had been made in the past, he believed he took the steps necessary for those accommodations to be in place again, and ultimately, his team folded in the fourth quarter and lost the championship game while he waited and wondered in a Lakeland hotel room.

His proposed solution? Just make individual accommodations when requested. Because what if, instead of him, it was a player who couldn’t compete?

"A young 17-year-old, 16-year-old, shouldn’t be put in the position where they have to choose," Gillion said.

On the other hand, it isn’t the FHSAA’s responsibility to accommodate Gillion or anyone else. As coach of the team, it’s his job to be at the games whenever and wherever they’re played. And if a school wants its coach to coach games, it should hire one who will be available every single day.

I’m not in any way religious myself, so for me, it’s easy to look at this situation and agree with the latter sentiment, or to dish out the good ol’ "God would understand, because you’ve got a responsibility to your team" advice. That was definitely my first reaction.

But as someone who’s paternal family members are all practicing Seventh Day Adventists aside from my father, perhaps my situation enables me to be a little more sympathetic than my gut instinct wants me to be.

So while it’s easy to choose to unequivocally praise Gillion for his adherence to his faith or to unabashedly denounce him for the perceived abandonment of his team, try to change your frame of reference and at least consider that discussing issues like this one requires some degree of subtlety and compromise.

Ethan Bauer is the Assistant Sports Editor. You can contact him at and you can follow him on Twitter @ebaueri

Support your local paper
Donate Today
The Independent Florida Alligator has been independent of the university since 1971, your donation today could help #SaveStudentNewsrooms. Please consider giving today.

Powered by SNworks Solutions by The State News
All Content © 2023 The Independent Florida Alligator and Campus Communications, Inc.