Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey has demanded answers from the Alabama High School Athletic Association after the boys’ basketball team of Oakwood Adventist Academy, one of the longest continuously operating black private schools in America, was forced to forfeit a semifinal game in the state tournament that impinged on their observance of sabbath.
In a letter to AHSAA Executive Director Alvin Briggs on Tuesday, the Republican governor stated that she is “most disturbed” by “Oakwood’s alleged treatment at the AHSAA’s basketball tournament.”
She said that Oakwood being forced to forfeit its game last Saturday in Class 1 A Northeast Regional semifinals because of the agency’s unwillingness to swap timeslots with other schools “raises some very pressing questions.”
Seventh-day Adventists recognize the sabbath from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. However, Oakwood was scheduled to play the semifinal game at 4:30 p.m. last Saturday at Jackson State University. Although both teams set to play in the 7:30 p.m. timeslot had reportedly agreed to swap timeslots so Oakwood could play after sundown, the state agency allegedly denied the request.
“As I’m sure you know, few things are more important to Alabamians than their faith. And from my perspective as Governor, this is a very good thing,” Ivey wrote. “Sincere faith brings Alabamians together. It is a source of comfort during times of challenge. And it drives Alabamians to make their communities better. Indeed, a sincere commitment to faith is one of the defining hallmarks of our great state.”
“I hope you’ll understand why I was most disturbed to read Oakwood’s alleged treatment at the AHSAA’s basketball tournament — and why this episode raises some very pressing questions, not only for me but for public officials and citizens across our great state,” she added.
Oakwood Athletic Director Calvin Morton told CNN that he asked AHSAA if they could play after sunset at 7:30 p.m. to accommodate their religious beliefs, and the request was denied.
“We weren’t asking for a change of stadium or venue or a change of a different day,” Morton said. “It was a simple two-to-three hour game change … which we thought was a reasonable ask.”
Other teams in the basketball tournament that were scheduled to play in a later time slot offered to switch schedules so Oakwood would not impinge on their sabbath to play, but AHSAA refused that request as well.
After meeting with his team about the situation, Morton said the team chose to forfeit the game.
“OAA stands firm in their convictions and painfully but proudly forfeits their Saturday/Sabbath playoff game scheduled this afternoon at JSU and their hard-earned shot at the Alabama state championship out of their firm Bible-based belief in seventh-day (Saturday) Sabbath observance,” Oakwood Principal Judy Chiles-Dent said in a statement shared by the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
On Saturday, worshipers at the Oakwood University Church celebrated the team’s stance. They told local news stations that what they believe is much bigger than basketball.
Toussaint Williams, an associate pastor at the church who is also a parent of a player on the team, said the team had been working hard for years. He said there were years when the team had only won one game.
“We want to publicly affirm, on this talking about black history … affirm these young men and the sacrifices that they made,” he said during a worship service.
“They got up during the pandemic every Sunday at 8 o’clock to be COVID-tested, to be swabbed. … They went all across Alabama to be phenomenal ambassadors for the academy, for the university church, for their families and we are excited by them.”
“We want to let you know that you have support and we’re excited about what God is going to continue to do in this particular area where you stand,” he told the team.
Even though they forfeited their semifinal game, Dent said the team still traveled to Jackson State University on Saturday night to support their competing teams.
In a letter to the school, Ivey extended an invitation for the team to join her at the Alabama state capital. Dent has accepted the invitation.
“Their selfless display of sportsmanship in attending the playoff games at Jacksonville State University, despite their forced forfeit, to cheer on those teams who so graciously agreed to accommodate your team’s Sabbath observance, is an inspiring example to competitors and athletes everywhere,” Ivey wrote.
“On a personal note, I know that my faith has brought me both comfort and strength throughout my life. I am encouraged that young men on your basketball team understand the importance of prioritizing their faith over the things of this world,” she added. “That they have been instilled with this maturity at such early ages will serve them well beyond their playing days.”