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Defending The Sabbath From Soccer

Values Clash

Here in this northern suburb of Chicago, Sunday morning's traditional peace and quiet has given way to the rumble of cleats on turf.

More than 170 teams from 10 states have shown up for Libertyville's annual youth soccer tournament. Funded in part by corporate sponsors, it's one of the largest competitions of its kind in the Midwest and one of the most hotly contested. Some youngsters demonstrate team spirit by dyeing their hair to match their uniforms.

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It's a spectacle that reflects the phenomenal growth of youth soccer in America. It also presents a flattering portrait of the nation's soccer parents - mostly middle-class suburbanites - who spend entire weekends at events like this, glued to their lawn chairs and camcorders.

But beneath it all lurks a controversy that's repeating itself across the nation, and challenging one of the oldest conventions of family life. As today's parents struggle to spend more time with their children, youth soccer threatens to squeeze out more traditional Sunday pursuits.

Like worship.

"There's only so much family time, so you have to make choices about what activities are best for your child," says Kim Spath, whose daughter Katie stands close by wearing shinguards and a bright orange uniform. "Sometimes that means you do soccer in front of church."

Although the nation's passion for sports in America has often collided with religion, and specifically the biblical commandment to honor the Sabbath, observers say, the explosive popularity of soccer presents one of the most serious conflicts yet.

Last year, more than 3 million American children played organized soccer, according to the Soccer Industry Council of America. That's a 350 percent increase since 1980. Among national high school athletic programs, soccer is growing faster than any other sport.

Too few fields

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Soccer advocates say the game's popularity is due to the fact that it requires relatively little equipment and is structured in a way that allows each team member a chance to play. The sport has benefited immensely, they add, from the success of the 1994 World Cup and the profits it generated for the US Soccer Foundation. According to the foundation, there are $40 million worth of soccer facilities under construction nationwide.

Residents of Tampa, Fla., for instance, will consider a $2 million bond issue this year to build a six-field soccer complex.

But in most communities, the supply of playing fields has yet to catch up with demand. In many cases, soccer leagues are forced to respond by scheduling more games on Sunday mornings - often to the dismay of local clergy.

In Gloucester County, N.J., church leaders have protested earlier Sunday start times. In Spring Grove, Pa., complaints from church leaders prompted the school board this summer to ban the use of district athletic facilities on Sundays before 1 p.m.

Moreover, many church-sponsored athletic leagues have taken steps to prevent soccer from taking precedence over services. St. Bruno's Roman Catholic Church in Dousman, Wis., recently decided to prohibit youngsters from playing soccer unless they attend Sunday Mass.

But nowhere has the controversy been as heated as in the Milwaukee suburb of Wauwatosa. After two soccer tournaments emptied pews and forced Sunday School teachers and choir directors throughout the city to cancel programs, a group of 22 clergy members sent a letter to soccer leagues pleading with them to stop scheduling games and practices on Sunday mornings.

"Both children and parents feel torn between loyalty to team members and loyalty to their church and to God," the letter said.

"We decided it was time to ask the soccer organizers to respect our time as we respect theirs," says John Sumwalt, pastor of the Wauwatosa Avenue United Methodist Church. "Both churchgoing and soccer are wonderful activities for children, but parents shouldn't be forced to choose between them."

Although some larger churches have been able to accommodate soccer families by adding extra services on Fridays and Saturdays, and a Catholic priest in Wauwatosa has begun conducting a special Sunday noontime Mass at a local soccer complex, many families at the Libertyville tournament say they've found ways to accommodate both Sunday pastimes.

"My son had a 7 a.m. game, then he went to church in his uniform and came back for the next round," says Sharon Brunks of Palatine, Ill. "It's not a hassle, it's a commitment. We're committed to soccer and to Christ, so we do them both."

Working it out

Kathy Bowzer, who drove to Libertyville from Clinton, Iowa, so her three children could play this weekend, explains that whenever her family travels to another city for a tournament, they call the local Catholic churches to find out when masses are scheduled. Between games, she says, parents on the team take turns ferrying kids to church.

"It can be hectic to work it out," she says. "But it seems like we always do."

According to Dennis Manzardo, vice president of the Greater Libertyville Soccer Association and the tournament's assistant director, any sporting event of this size raises some conflicts for families of all faiths.

This year, he notes, the tournament collided with the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur. Tournament officials try to leave breaks between Sunday morning games to allow families to attend church, he says, but it's impossible to make guarantees.

"We know people have to make choices, but the alternative is to do nothing," Mr. Manzardo says. "What we feel we're providing is so family-oriented, so healthy for the growth of children, that we like to think it provides all the positives despite the fact that some people may miss church services."

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