How Super is the Super Bowl?

What are you doing during the Super Bowl?
Echoes of Ancient Rome?

There’s something interesting cooking in the American Jewish zeitgeist right now. Two rabbis I respect are independently raising questions about football in general and the Super Bowl in particular.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz points out that homeless people and services for them have been displaced in downtown Phoenix, AZ by something called “The NFL Experience,” a shopping venue offering NFL and Super Bowl merchandise. (Boycotting the Super Bowl, Standing With the Homeless! in the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles) He raises the ethical issue: in what sort of society are human beings treated like so much garbage to be pushed aside for sports memorabilia? He raises the image of the gladiatorial battles in ancient Rome, something our sages held in contempt. Rabbi Yanklowitz therefore calls for a boycott of the Super Bowl.

Rabbi Stephen Fuchs writes of his own change of heart regarding both college and pro football in Will You Bow at the Altar of Football Violence? on his blog, Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives. He writes, “the combination of limitless violence and limitless adulation for student athletes is a lethal combination” resulting in shameful sexual and domestic violence off the field and the cumulative damage done by “routine” football injuries. He, too, calls for a boycott of the Super Bowl.

I’m an alumna of the University of Tennessee and have been a fan of the Vols for 40 years. However, I see now that there was a disconnect in my thinking. I’d walk to class Monday mornings in the fall of 1973, and see star quarterback Condredge Holloway hobbling to class. The guy would play brilliant, full-hearted football on Saturday and Monday morning he moved like a little old man, he was so beat up. Also, there was a definite hierarchy on campus: football took precedence over everything else, including the education of football players and everyone else. Even knowing all that, I never considered the ethical questions until recently, as scandals have proliferated both on the college and pro levels.

Here are some questions I’m pondering, and that I invite you to consider:

  1. Why support football, as it exists today, which is so destructive of the health of its players? We are commanded, as Jews, to preserve life and to view bodies as precious gifts.
  2. Why support an organization (the NFL) that is so cavalier about violence towards women that it took months and a video of a man beating his fiancé to unconsciousness to get more than a slap on the wrist? As a Jew, can I give those people the support of watching a game, much less buying a ticket to any NFL game?
  3. Why are we pouring millions into a single entertainment event when so many people in the same city are homeless? We are the same nation to whom the prophet Amos said, “Thus said God: … I will not revoke [my wrath]. Because they have sold for silver those whose cause was just, and the needy for a pair of sandals. Ah, you who trample the heads of the poor into the dust of the ground, and make the humble walk a twisted course!” Amos 2:6
  4. What does it say about us that we’ll pay astronomical sums in salaries and endorsements for star athletes to bash each others’ brains out, and we will encourage our children to see them as heroes? Our sages viewed the Roman games with such contempt that they taught that one could only attend in order to save a life or give evidence as to a death, in order to obtain legal rights for a widow. (Avodah Zarah 18b)

Every Jew has to make up his or her own mind about these things. However, it isn’t sufficient to reply, “It’s fun!”  We have a sacred duty, as Jews, to speak up when something is wrong.  We have it in our power, as consumers, to (1) stay away, as the two rabbis above are doing or (2) protest via op-eds and letters or (3) demand change in the NFL, college football, and other venues.

What do you think? What will you do?

After I posted this piece, I received a tweet from Rabbi Avraham Bronstein of Great Neck Synagogue in Great Neck, NY. He’s interested in these issues as well: @AvBronstein:

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

14 thoughts on “How Super is the Super Bowl?”

  1. How a nation treats its people, let alone its animals, is a view into the substance and ethics that describes it. Apparently, we are not doing very well here, especially when it comes to fame and fortune driven endeavors. Money, excitement, and testing of physical limits as entertainment has become the nexus of power and set as an example of desired success. Counterpoint to this are the communities, synagogues, churches, social service and humanitarian organizations, and individuals who work tirelessly to attend to the immense hole in the fabric of decent life that is the reality for so many. Feels like David and Goliath. It helps to remember that David won out, but it is tremendously difficult to envision this today.

    1. The David & Goliath metaphor is an interesting choice, given the rest of David’s story. What would it take for a similar victory in this case?

  2. I’ve told you before that I do not call myself “Christian” because of the horrendous evil done throughout more than 2000 years as people hide behind that label. You also know I am a follower of Jesus, which for me is quite distinctive from the word “Christian.”

    You and I also know the reality behind the misguided, misunderstood, misinterpreted Christian view of Sunday as the Sabbath. Therefore I won’t get into what lies behind both those words. I will point out that people who still call themselves Christians because that label does not mean to them what it means to me will still violate what was once seen as the only holy day of the week, the day that was seen as the Sabbath day in the Christian realm by buying tickets to, by planning parties surrounding and/or simply gathering around a TV in order to pay homage to what has become to many a(n) (un)holy day. I add this to your wonderful list of the wrongs surrounding this sport.

    For me, this began in high school as the football players — especially the quarterback — were set aside as the most-approved clique in school. As I grew older I saw the reality of teachers being forced to pass uneducated players in order for the players to play as most of the members of the ironically named Board of Education in the various cities and towns hoped for trophies and titles to be accumulated throughout the years. I saw the extreme violations of the rules of scholarships given to football players — and now to anyone athletically gifted — wanting to receive help to pay for a college education. I saw the complete farce that resulted as, once again, the “big players” were passed through all their classes and being given steroids and other “enhancement performance” drugs by their coaches and/or trainers in order to “win, win, win.” All this and much more that happened to millions who never went on to become professional football players. (If only teachers, police, firefighters, EMTs, trash collectors and others so necessary to us were paid the salary of these professional players!!)

    Did I ever get caught up in the love of football when I was younger? Of course. I went to several different high schools as we moved around every year or two. I have a distinct memory of one particular high school I really cared about. I loved that school, my teachers and friends so much I really wanted to stay there and graduate. At that high school we had “Mum Friday.” This particular day was so named for two reasons. First of all, it was a day when the girls who were lucky enough to have someone give them a mum — the flower — which was gigantic and attached to various school ribbons while proudly being displayed upon their chests all day and into the nighttime football game. Secondly, the word “mum” was also used because we were all forced to not say one word in the hallways between classes since we were to save our voices for the pep rally that afternoon and the game that night as we cheered our team on to victory. I never received a mum to proudly display upon my clothes, but I had a crush on one of the football guys who was older — a junior to my lowly freshman status — and who I hoped to impress by gazing upon him from afar since I was painfully shy in those days. I cheered my heart out at the pep rallies. I adored two of the cheerleaders because they were the first guys I ever knew who were cheerleaders and they were SO cool!!

    That’s just one memory. I will not bore you with all the rest. Yet it does indeed remain a nice memory, as well as the memories I have in which my dad related to me through football as he patiently explained the rules of the games I would watch with him in order to have him talk to me, to interact with me.

    I love how the game was compared by Rabbi Yanklowitz to the Romans. I have seen so many things done in America that call to my mind the “bread and circuses” of the Romans — the gladiator fights and the killing of Christians in the Roman version of what we now see as our sporting arenas. “Keep them entertained, keep their bellies filled, keep their focus away from the truth.” A way of thinking that has now overwhelmed our nation to the point to where we have, in my opinion, turned our backs upon God. I have seen us slowly turning from Him for most of my lifetime. I think it’s only the remnants who He always keeps of His people (“I have reserved for myself, {insert number I cannot remember} who have not bowed their knee to Baal”) like you, like me who still love Him, worship Him, obey Him, trust Him, believe in Who He is as well as what He does, etc. Therefore I often spending my time alone with Him in tears as I ask forgiveness for my nation and quote, as well as I can remember, the words God used in response to King Solomon’s prayer during the time of dedication of the amazing temple God allowed him to build. I remind God of His promise, since I believe it applies to any nation who follows Him, and I ask for His help in saving this nation of mine, this nation I still deeply love.

    As for the homeless — I cannot even begin to comment all I would like. I will say this: The homeless are a group my heart goes out to for so many reasons. My heart has been tender toward them for so long I cannot remember when it started. My heart, my head, my entire being became more aware, more concerned, more . . . everything toward the homeless when my dog and I were facing living on the streets within the next six months of a certain point in my life.

    I thank you for writing this post. Oh, I also feel the same way about televisions and Christmas trees — we place them in places of honor in our homes and gather ’round them and worship them, even to the point of singing to the trees (“O, Christmas Tree” is the first song to come to mind that evolved out of letting druids and their practice of worshipping trees come into the Church when the Church had devolved to such a point they invited everyone to become part of the Church and allowed those who were pagans to keep their religious practices and holy days, thereby incorporating into the pure worship of God the worship of false gods. Obviously the leaders of the Church never read God’s commandments to stay separate from the world, to never allow those of false religious beliefs and practices to come into His house, to be a part of His people, to intermarry with His people. This caused the fall of Israel in the past. It has caused the Christian realm to become worldly and to now be in down in the muck and mire of these worldly ways.) I thank you for being willing to draw attention to this particular subject, which hopefully will cause those who read this post to expand their thinking into other areas of life and the choices we each have to make — even if that choice is to do nothing, which is the worst choice of all.

    I’m sorry I don’t get to read all of your posts due to my various health issues. When I read the ones I can, I seem to always come away with something I would not have if I had not been able to visit you!! 🙂

    1. Thank you for the kind words, Kathy.

      I was struck by Rabbi Yanklowitz’s mention of Rome, too, especially given that the NFL seems fairly conscious about inviting the comparison with its use of Roman numerals.

  3. Rabbi Ruth, You are so right on this issue! Living in Phoenix and experiencing the “Super Bowl” frenzy right now is something I’d rather not. The economic might and the physical might this experience brings is beyond measure. It is not only the super bowl it is also the pro golf tournament that are happening at the same time. Your David and Goliath metaphor is a great analogy, however when all this ends, the greater Phoenix and surrounding suburbs will be left with little more than clean up and money that will do little to help those in need; and athletes returning home with aches and pains (Dear G-d I pray that is all) to nurse.

    1. Sheila, it’s good to hear a local perspective. However, I can’t take credit for the David and Goliath analogy: temelevbarg came up with that. Her original comment accidentally went in the spam filter, but I’ve fished it out and dusted it off. You might enjoy reading it.

  4. Rabbi Ruth,

    I will not watch the Super Bowl today. I will go for a walk, because I agree with your post: the game is violent, for starts, and many players end up with serious brain injuries.I also am disgusted with the cavalier attitude the NFL has about some player’s domestic violence.

    If this country took homelessness as seriously as it does pro football, we would have housing for the poor, and treatment programs for the mentally ill and substance abusers.But no, we have in depth stories in the New York Times Magazine about a professional football player who maybe cheated in the run up to his team’s participation in the Super bowl.

    I just feel sad about our country’s priorities.

  5. thank you Rabbi, for sharing the links and views, couldn’t agree more! As a nation, somehow we need to get our priorities figured out and put at least as much time, money and energy into caring for one another as we do into entertainment.

    1. Thank you for the comment, Meredith. You’ve put it very succinctly: we need to put as much into caring for one another as we do into entertainment.

  6. Or as I liike to put it: “Let’s go watch the guys give each other dementia! If we’re lucky, our kids will imitate them. Dementia for all!”

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