National Basketball Association
Do we really need sports on Christmas?
National Basketball Association

Do we really need sports on Christmas?

Published Dec. 20, 2011 12:00 a.m. ET

Merry Christmas, y'all.

I'd say "Happy Holidays," but that wouldn't be me. That would be an editor with a bland euphemism inserted for the purpose of not offending. I am a columnist and thereby offensive by title. Not that I am offended by theologically correct greetings. I gladly welcome a Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa or Happy Tuesday in return from friends and anybody else, if that is their particular flavor.

We do not exclude others when we insist on honoring our beliefs and keeping them holy. We exclude others when we refuse to do likewise for them on theirs.

So I, at least theoretically, understand the "war of Christmas" narrative frothily being debated. By pretending a Lexus is what we need to remember on Dec. 25, we turn what is very meaningful for many into a marketing slogan and secularize what ought to be spiritual.


What I cannot wrap my brain around is why a crowd so angry about an $8.75-an-hour-clerk following company policy is OK with and willing to provide a captive, Nielson-generating audience for the NBA and NFL on Christmas Day.

Neither league should be playing. And we should not be watching.

I had written some version of this column every year in Texas, a few sentences word for word because I so fervently believe them. Call this my personal war on the war on Christmas.

Now I write for and my big boss rightly noted that religion is tough. As Tebowmania and the accompanying backlash has underlined, people become offended when they believe they are being preached to about things they do not believe.

This is not about preaching. Celebrate any way you want.

Deck the halls; do not celebrate at all. Watch basketball; do not. Go to church; do not.

This is meant to make you think about who exactly is taking the meaning out of Christmas — corporations, sports leagues or us? Because it comes across as a little fake when we pretend "Happy Holidays" demeans the season but a quintuple-header of NBA games and an NFL game does not.

Do they even call them Christmas games?

But it cannot just be about the word or what greeting the cashier at Barnes and Noble says or nativity scenes on courthouse lawns. We ask that people respect our holiday, but do we?

It is increasingly hard to argue yes when the day looks so much like any other, a gluttonous amount of stuff and food and sports. We could learn a lesson from how our Jewish friends treat their most holy of days.

While I was at Mizzou, a very famous professor scheduled an econ exam for Yom Kippur. A very diverse assortment of religiously inclined friends balked until a secondary exam was scheduled. There is no bigger life metric in college than grades, and everybody was willing to get Fs for what they believed.

My friend, Rachel Stern, led this charge. She is now the director of education at The Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, and I called her to talk about this column. I knew she would tell me if I were being religiously exclusionary by demanding the sports world stop for Christmas.

"Kind of," Stern admitted. "The key is having some integrity in your religious beliefs."

And then she said the thing that really resonated with me: I would not want the centerpiece of a day I believed to be holy to be sports. It is essentially what Sandy Koufax famously said in 1965 when he refused to pitch in Game 1 of the World Series because it was Yom Kippur.

I know there are NBA and NFL players who believe as he did. They quietly whisper about why they have to play and why we watch.

The hockey boys do it right. The NHL is dark on Dec. 24 and 25 — no trades, no transactions, no games.

"The Players Association was adamant that this day was special to them. Even a couple of teams or games, they didn’t want to play," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman explained when we talked last week. “And we respected that and agreed.”

Wouldn’t ratings be huge, though?

Hadn’t "Hockey Night in Canada" really pushed for games?

And, wait, aren't you Jewish, Gary?

"Yes," he said. “But Christmas is one of those days in North America where, no matter what religion you are, things come to a halt. And is that such a bad thing?”

Not everybody gets Christmas off; this, I get. We need doctors and nurses, police and firefighters, and, sadly, the world we live in requires brave troops to spend their Christmases far away from family and friends.

The only counterargument that holds any sway for me was games on Christmas provide comfort to the troops. If this were about the troops, one of the lockout charity games would have been scheduled for a military base.

Games on Christmas feel like a money grab.

I put in emails to both the NFL and NBA seeking commissioner comment on their motivations. And NFL spokesman Greg Aiello provided perspective, namely the league specifically tried to avoid loading up Christmas Day with games. They shifted 13 games because Christmas Day falls on a Sunday. They have day games scheduled for Christmas Eve and a night game for Christmas Day, thereby trying to avoid the meat of the holiday.

“I can tell you that playing sports events on holidays is a long-standing practice that is well accepted by the American public,” Aiello said in an email.

Both leagues seemed more shocked that I had any complaint at all. It is strange I guess, a sports columnist calling for less sports. And the logical follow-up question is: Will I watch?

Having spent almost all of my adult life in Texas, I consider the Dallas Mavericks as close as I have to an NBA team. I enjoy watching them. And I really am thrilled for Dirk Nowitzki to be able to watch the NBA championship banner for which he worked so tirelessly finally go up. But, no, I will not be watching.

Not in person. Not on TV.

I get why saving the Christmas Day games was so important to the NBA and why the NFL plays, too. All David Stern and Roger Goodell did was schedule the games. They are not warring on Christmas or Christians, any more than the store clerk. They are not taking anything out of the day.

Christ is never out of Christmas, just like God cannot be taken out of Yom Kippur by a test or World Series game. He is always there. The real question is do we include Him in our celebrations? Because we choose how we celebrated the day — with stuff, with basketball, with family, with LeBron, with the Guy we proclaim is the reason for the season. There is no right answer. This is not a judgment. This is just a question.

If this is indeed a war, as we are being sold, what side are you on if you choose to spend the day with LeBron instead of the One whose birthday it is?

You can follow Jen Engel on Twitter, email her or like her on Facebook.


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