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: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/what-and-who-we-sacrifice-on-the-gridiron/

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