Steven Young Permission to Play on Sunday

MYTH: Steve Young, Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback, received permission from the General Authorities to play football on Sundays.


Everyone loves football. And if one of our own has the opportunity to go pro and eventually win the Super Bowl, well certainly he should be granted an exception from the traditional method of keeping the Sabbath day holy. Right?

Well, that is what this myth seems to suggest.

Football superstar Steve Young was awarded the Most Valuable Player in 1992 and 1994, was the MVP of Super Bowl XXIX in 1995 and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2005. During his career he won six NFL passing titles and continues to hold the NFL record for highest career passer rating. Steve Young is also an active member of the LDS Church.[1]

Controversy began in the mid-1990s when members of the LDS Church tried to reconcile keeping the Sabbath day holy (which includes instructions from General Authorities not to play or watch sports on Sunday)[2] and seeing one of their own become famous while disregarding this counsel. As a result, a rumor began that Young received special permission from the Prophet/General Authorities to play on Sunday, thus allowing him to play on Sundays without breaking one of the Ten Commandments, while still being idolized by LDS youth.

One website outlines the story as follows:

My wife and I were in Sunday School one Sabbath day and we were discussing keeping the Sabbath holy. Inevitably the conversation turned to famous athletes who play football, basketball, etc. on Sunday and what a bad example it was to our children. Then someone just has to mention Steve Young and what a "wonderful example he has been to our youth". The[n] someone else says "He would be a better example if he were to turn down the money in favor of doing the right thing." Then comes the shocker. At this point of the conversation (or dare I say debate?) someone raises his hand and authoritatively states that "Steve Young received permission from the Prophet to play on Sunday because it would be a great missionary tool for the church." This immediately causes two distinct reactions. 1- Nodding heads of approval (usually from the more sports inclined portion of the class). or 2- Looks of shock and amazement at the thought of the Prophet over-riding a long standing law of the Gospel for one man. The person who makes the revelation of the "waiver" made by the Prophet never gives any kind of authenticating proof other than "I heard that....". This happened in my Ward one Sunday and I was left feeling so sick that none of the people in the class seemed to be interested in knowing the TRUTH of the matter. They only wanted to validate their individual points.[3]

This myth may have been perpetuated when John Halpin, friend of Steve Young, wrote an article trying to explain Young’s decision. In his article he stated, “Elder Maxwell told him [Steve Young] that he could be an example and have a missionary effect on thousands.[4]

There are three points of controversy to this myth. First, is the appearance that the Prophet/General Authorities would bend the commandments of God for anyone, effectively altering God’s laws for the benefit of one person. Second, is the idea that one can be an example of the Gospel while simultaneously not living some of its fundamental beliefs, as outlined by the leaders of the LDS Church. And third, is the claim that such ecclesiastical endorsement would encourage the youth of the Church today to justify non-observance of the Sabbath, and potentially lead to justifying other sins. One blogger stated,

It is a small step from "The Prophet ok'd Steve playing on the Sabbath" to "Therefore I can watch Steve play on the Sabbath!"… In short, the propagation of this type of story is dangerous to the spiritual health of the Church and should be avoided.[5]

In a personal letter to me, dated March 16, 2009, Steve Young said the following:

Thank you for your letter inquiring about the myth that I “received permission from the Prophet to play on Sunday because it would be a great missionary tool for the church.” Concerning this myth, I can assure you that I was never given such permission but certainly spoke to many general authorities regarding it. Just as the Savior’s eternal plan gave us the freedom of choice, the church leaders never told me what to do. With my NFL career, playing on Sundays was never an easy decision. I felt comfortable that I was able to serve the Lord as an ambassador and missionary to millions of people all over the world. This was a very unique opportunity for me and does not always apply to everyone. Even though I worked on Sundays, I still kept my regard of the Sabbath the best I could – just as I did in my youth. Actually, when I was with the 49ers, we had enough LDS members on the team to have our own “49er branch.” With church approval, we conducted sacrament together each week during the season.
I can’t say what is right or wrong for anyone else, but I know I grew up with an appreciation of the Sabbath day and also the responsibility involved with being on a team.

Clearly the decision to play on Sundays was Young’s decision, alone, and he received no special exemptions or endorsements from the Prophet or General Authorities.

Some have argued that a famous athlete who broke the Sabbath should not be looked upon as a good example or missionary. However, evidence indicates something different. During his career, Young spoke at numerous firesides, drawing attendance in the thousands and allegedly resulting in referrals and baptisms in the hundreds.[6] Certainly his missionary efforts cannot go unrecognized.

It should also be recognized that although he played on Sundays, he was always an active member of the Church. He was involved in the creation of a branch with the LDS members of his team, observed the Sacrament whenever he was able, kept the word of wisdom and law of chastity and was an endowed temple worker. Young was married in the Kona Hawaii temple on March 15, 2000. He also founded the Forever Young Foundation, which serves children facing significant physical, emotional and financial challenges and serves as a National Advisor to ASCEND, a humanitarian alliance that provides life skills mentoring to people in Africa and South America.

It would not be appropriate to judge Steve Young or his decision to play on Sunday, or anyone else for that matter, and certainly not without all the facts. I believe we each have enough on our plates in our daily efforts to teach our families correct principles and live by them without worrying about what other people are doing, or did a decade ago.

In the end, members can rest assured that the myth is false and no special permission was granted to play on the Sabbath. Below is a letter from Young’s lifetime friend trying to explain Young’s decision to play professional football. Although it is obviously biased, it may give you additional insight into Young’s decision.

Essay by John Halpin
I would like to respond to the many comments about the Sabbath Day and Steve Young. I know there were many comments with good intentions and purposes but I could not just sit here without sharing the truth. I must explain to you all that Steve is a very close and personal friend of me and my family. He lived with us in our home for 8 years and there is still much contact with him and I want you all to know that this is how it really is and how he really is. Steve is very aware that he is held up as an example both good and bad. It troubles him of course. The truth is that during his freshman year he went home during Christmas Break to start processing his mission papers.

His Bishop felt strongly that he should wait. Just before he went back to the BYU for his second semester after Christmas his Bishop gave him a blessing and told him to postpone his mission at this time. At that stage in his life he was very shy and very obedient and certainly not one to not obey his Bishop. He had no idea what would be ahead for him. This was the ongoing counsel over the next few years.

He was very active as a missionary even then. He taught and baptized his freshman roommate and took very seriously teaching the non members around him. During the years at BYU he was made to feel that he was the one responsible for their national success and they depended on him for all of the national recognition. He continued thinking he would eventually still serve. So many things happened so fast after all of the success that BYU was having that when he was offered the contract with the USFL he was staggered and unbelievably effected. He got off the private jet with the largest contract ever offered an athlete, sick inside he wanted nothing to do with it. He went to Neal Maxwell's house, who surely must have been surprised when he opened the door to find this shy bewildered person standing on the doorstep begging him to tell him what to do. He hated the publicity, he didn't want the money and he wanted to run and hide. Elder Maxwell told him that he could be an example and have a missionary effect on thousands.

He still wanted to run and hide. He did just that, even the news media picked up his strange behavior. His Dad went with him to report for the first day of camp or he would never have gone. His Dad convinced him, since he was a lawyer, that he had put his name on a contract and he was to honor it. So the rest is history. He has always hated playing on Sunday. He tells young people in his talks that the Sabbath is sacred and he tried to create another Sabbath by first holding a Sacrament Meeting in the hotel Saturday before the game with the other LDS players and then all day Tuesdays he attends the temple. He is a set apart temple veil worker in the Oakland Temple. He felt that possibly the Lord would accept his Sabbath as He does in Israel for the BYU students and members. He tells the kids and he really means it, that though he has accepted his visible position as a form of a mission he would give anything and longs for the day that maybe he can be in a remote village somewhere in the world, spreading the gospel one on one. His choice has been very painful many times and he wanted to quit and be like everyone else.

When the Sports Illustrated magazine did a feature on BYU missionaries they had a black and white picture of all the players and then they put all the missionaries in color. He hated that black and white picture of himself. He now speaks in the mission field for Mission Presidents. The only way the young people can attend the massive firesides is if they bring a non-member. He is bold in testimony and tells them not to worship sports idols or rock stars but worship the God in Heaven and Jesus Christ. He bears his testimony and teaches the gospel couched in his experiences and has the ears of young people and families of thousands of non members. These groups are 5 to 7 thousand people and the referrals are in the hundreds and the baptisms are greater in number than all the missionaries tracting for months.

So it is easy to judge someone without all the facts. He too has sacrificed a lot. He probably would have been married by now, something he has wanted desperately if the NFL didn't own his life. The part that most people do not understand is that he has always felt that his money was a stewardship and he is charitable beyond anyone's imagination. He keeps very little for himself. Also he was offered $700,000 to make a commercial for Coke. They wanted him to pass a can of Caffeine Free Coke to a beautiful model. He agreed until they told him that she would be catching a can of Coke Classic. That was earlier in his sponsoring years and was and is a lot of money but he refused. His life has been one of sacrifice.

He knows the BYU athlete that turned down his pro career because of Sabbath Day commandment and he admires him immensely, so he and he alone will be accountable for his choice. However, I have never seen a lonelier or more dedicated kid and man in my life that wanted to make a positive difference in the world on behalf of good values and his strong belief in the Church. Very few young people will be faced with his choices and very few really know the story of how hard his choices have been for someone that is shy and extremely lonely.

I have used Steve in my classes many times as a person of GOOD example. A person who loves the Lord, who stands up for righteousness and goodness and as someone who truly has dedicated his life's purpose for the furthering of the kingdom. He has committed more than just two years - he has committed his all! Yes, he is an example for our youth. He is proud to be Mormon and he has always stood tall with his testimony. Truly someone our youth can look up to!
-John Halpin

[1] Retrieved March 29, 2009
[2] Gospel Principles Manual, Chapter 24 “The Sabbath Day.” Official teaching manual for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1997, p.161
[3], Unknown author, retrieved March 23, 2009
[4] Ibid., Story by John Halpin. Retrieved March 23, 2009
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid., Story by John Halpin. Retrieved March 23, 2009

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