Not since the Oscars have so many stars collided: The holiest day of Judaism, Yom Kippur, and the holiest day of university athletics, the Panda Game, both fell this year on September 30.
The Panda Game, on Ottawa’s campuses, is a big deal. A very big deal. For the perplexed, it is the oldest athletics rivalry between the Carleton Ravens and the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees. It is, by far, the most popular college football game in the country.
Last year, the Panda Game was the largest Canadian Interuniversity Sport regular-season football game in at least two decades. This year eclipsed it. The Canadian Football League hypes it as “more than a game,” so much so that at the start, the over 24,000 fans “march in like members of a religious congregation at a service.”
Maybe. But for the students torn between Yom Kippur and Pedro, the adorable if terrifying panda mascot that Wikipedia somehow claims is a “national icon,” the choice is starker: Join the festivities, or respect your faith.
Most of the Ottawa Jewish students I talked to did the obvious. They went to shul. At the Chabad Student Network’s Kol Nidre service at Tabaret Hall, for instance, the pews were almost filled. This could explain the divine retribution that the Gee-Gees faced – they lost this year in double overtime, again, just like they lost the last four consecutive years. (My prayers this year were answered.)
But there were quite a few faces missing. They went home, rather than to stay here. Amanda Wagner, a third year Carleton University student, told me that “it wasn’t hard to pick to not to go to Panda Game because, to me, Yom Kippur is an important holiday.” Yet, she added, her plans changed: “Normally, I would stay in Ottawa. [This year,] I decided to go home to Toronto for the holiday so that I wouldn’t get jealous of my friends… partying while I spend the day fasting.”
All of this could have been solved by pushing the Panda Game to the Sunday – or to another week. So why not? Faced with the terrible burden of local Jewish journalistic integrity, I decided to find the truth. It may even shock you to read another three hundred words.
Football might involve two teams, but it needs four partners to play the administrative tango. The national sports association – obnoxiously called U SPORTS – “is not responsible for scheduling pre-season or regular season games,” having earned the mantle to only manage national championships. Instead, it transfers the responsibilities to Ontario University Athletics (OUA), the independent provincial arm that tentatively schedules competitions for 23 sports.
Most football games are booked by the OUA each Saturday at 1 pm. Their CEO, Gord Grace, explained over the phone that it is largely a matter of technicality because any host university can request to change the date based on campus needs. In fact, many universities changed sporting dates the week of Sukkot because of Thanksgiving; their schedule, unlike the Ten Commandments, is flexible.
Likewise, Carleton University is blameless. I was surprised to find out that not only does Carleton University pay attention to the dates of the High Holidays, they even pushed Homecoming away from major festivities to “try to bring as many alumni back to campus.”
The last culprit is guilty. Since the Panda Game alternates between Carleton and uOttawa, this year’s hosts were the Gee-Gees. Although uOttawa could have requested – and, according to the OUA, they would have most likely accepted – a change in date, they yielded. More troublingly, when asked, their spokesperson said instead “that all scheduling is done at the league level.” In short, nothing else could have been done.
Compare this with the response from McMaster and Laurier universities which accidentally scheduled homecoming games on Yom Kippur. Both told me they deeply regret scheduling on the same weekend as Yom Kippur and will consciously work to avoid conflicts with significant holidays in the future. Laurier University also hosted a kosher breakfast the day after with the university’s football team and senior administration.University of Ottawa’s Sports Services did no such thing. They should have been more upfront in their answer: Jewish holidays don’t matter. At least it would have been honest.