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Room to Pray at the Game

February 22, 2007

Locker rooms. Coach's office. Concession stands. Luxury suites. Prayer room?

Though college sports are like a religion to some, few, if any, stadiums have a space set aside for religious observance.

In a recent meeting with an athletics department official, a Muslim student group at Northwestern University asked for designated prayer areas in the football stadium and basketball arena. Instead, the university has decided on a compromise that allows students to bring prayer rugs to the games and pray in spots that do not block traffic.

Since sporting events frequently last hours and overlap with required prayer times for Muslims, ardent fans are put in a tricky situation.

"These students want to be like everyone else -- go to ballgames and participate in activities," said Timothy Stevens, the university's chaplain. "They say if it comes down to a choice [between prayer and a sporting event] they won't go to the game."

Members of the Muslim-cultural Students Association have found places to pray inside Northwestern athletic facilities but continue to seek out clean, quiet areas, said Hibah Yousuf, who represents the group to the university's student government.

"This is a first step; it's not an ideal solution but Muslim students will benefit," Yousuf said.

Northwestern didn't have a prayer policy in place because it hadn’t heard complaints prior to this year, said John Mack, Northwestern’s associate athletic director of external affairs, who met with members of the Muslim student group. 

“We were able to hear the students’ concerns, and I think the resolution works for both sides,” Mack said.

Limited space is the primary reason why the university declined to set aside a dedicated area for prayer, Mack said. If Northwestern allows one group a room in a stadium, it must then accommodate other groups, he added.

Yousuf said she understands that argument. But Stevens said Muslim students have a heightened need for a dedicated space because of their stringent prayer schedule. He said he didn’t consider the Muslim students’ request unreasonable.

Stevens worked with the group over recent years to secure permanent prayer spaces inside a religious center, a multicultural center and the largest classroom building on campus.

“Having a designated space is a show of support for Muslim students,” Stevens said. “There haven’t been any bad incidents [inside stadiums], but when people see Muslims praying under bleachers or in the corner, there are folks who will make comments.”

Stevens said the issue of a prayer space became more pressing about a decade ago, when Northwestern's football team gained popularity during its improbable run to the Rose Bowl. Muslim student attendance at men's basketball games is also steady -- the team had a player of Muslim heritage from 2002-6.

Roughly 2 percent of Northwestern undergraduates identify themselves as Muslim, according to Stevens.

 

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