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Super Bowl 2021

‘The ways of Torah are peaceful’: Why football is a dilemma for American Jews

As US gears up for a Super Bowl with Jewish players on both teams, American Jews wrestle with fandom for a sport hit by injury, racial injustice and domestic violence controversies

Illustrative -- Kansas City Chiefs fans celebrate the team's Super Bowl victory in Kansas City, Missouri, Feb. 2, 2020. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)
Illustrative -- Kansas City Chiefs fans celebrate the team's Super Bowl victory in Kansas City, Missouri, Feb. 2, 2020. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

JTA — Rabbi Josh Feigelson remembers the moment that football lost its magic for him.

It was October 20, 2013, and Feigelson was eating dinner with his family at Ken’s Diner, a kosher restaurant in Skokie, the Chicago suburb where they live. A TV was playing a football game between the Green Bay Packers and the Cleveland Browns.

Feigelson, who grew up in the football-crazed college town of Ann Arbor, Michigan, was a longtime fan of the sport, and his then preteen kids had taken up the mantle, participating in fantasy football leagues and following news about the NFL’s 32 teams.

So they were watching closely when the Packers’ Jermichael Finley, a 6-foot-5 (195 cm) tight end weighing close to 250 pounds (113 kg), was hit so hard by an opposing player that he dropped limply to the turf.

Green Bay Packers’ Jermichael Finley lies on the field after being injured during the second half of an NFL football game against the Cleveland Browns, October 20, 2013, in Green Bay, Wisconsin (AP Photo/Mike Roemer)

While the others around him picked up the fumbled ball and finished the play, Finley lay on his side, unable to move.

He was eventually taken off the field on a stretcher, and doctors diagnosed his injury as a spinal cord contusion stemming from a hit to the head and neck — essentially, a few of his vertebrae had jammed too close together. He has since mostly recovered, but he never played in another NFL game.

To Feigelson’s surprise, Finley’s injury didn’t register with his kids.

Rabbi Josh Feigelson (Courtesy)

“They were like, ‘Whoa, that was an amazing hit!’ And it’s like, this guy just potentially lost his life. I mean, he certainly ended his career, and he’s got kids,” said Feigelson, the executive director of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. “I thought, ‘No, I can’t say that, there’s nothing to marvel at here.’ And I could feel it… something woke up for me.”

Feigelson added, “It’s a beautiful game. But what we’ve all become more aware of, as in so many other areas of our lives, is that there’s all this stuff that we haven’t allowed ourselves to see. And I think it is a Jewish value to allow ourselves to be conscious of that and to reckon with — is this a price we’re willing to pay? And can we really suffer that level of cognitive dissonance, that this is such a violent sport?”

Feigelson is not alone in the struggle to reconcile his Jewish values with his football fandom amid multiple ongoing crises for the sport, over the danger it presents for players and the NFL’s handling of both players’ misconduct and racial justice protests. Now, even as the country gears up for a pretty Jewish Super Bowl — Sunday’s game features Jewish players, a rarity, on both teams — American Jews are wrestling with just how closely to tune in.

While the love affair between Jews and baseball is firmly established, many American Jews are also avid football fans. Statistically, in terms of TV and in-person viewership and personal preference, football is by far the most popular sport in the country, and many of those interviewed by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency compared the activity of getting together with family or friends (in person or virtually, even in the pandemic era) every Sunday for their teams’ once-a-week games to a regular religious ritual.

Sometimes the sport even interacts with religion.

“I think there was one year where a football game fell on Rosh Hashanah, so [my family] went to services in the morning, and then had the big Rosh Hashanah dinner, and then, you know, watched the football game,” said Philadelphia Eagles fan Amy Schiowitz, who watches her team every week without fail.

Patrick Robinson of the Philadelphia Eagles celebrates after defeating the New England Patriots 41-33 in Super Bowl LII at US Bank Stadium, February 4, 2018, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Elsa/Getty Images/AFP)

Being a football fan has grown more complicated for many in recent years. First came the mounting evidence that the sport is dangerous: Many players experience a dangerous number of concussions, and studies have found that they are at risk of traumatic brain injuries, especially one called chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

In addition to pain, CTE causes mood swings, memory loss and even suicidal tendencies. Several former players, including the Pro Bowlers Junior Seau and Dave Duerson, have killed themselves in recent decades.

More recently, the NFL has drawn criticism for its handling of two sensitive issues: racial justice protests and domestic violence by its players. In the eyes of many observers and fans, the NFL penalized too lightly several players convicted of physical domestic abuse against their spouses and children, including Tyreek Hill, the star wide receiver of the Kansas City Chiefs, playing in the Super Bowl against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Then there is Colin Kaepernick. After kneeling during the national anthem before games in the 2016 season to protest police brutality against Black men, the star quarterback was effectively blacklisted by the league’s owners, prematurely ending his career. He and a teammate sued the NFL for unfairly colluding to keep them from playing (they settled the case in 2019 under undisclosed terms). Kaepernick became a symbol of anti-patriotic sentiment for some — including Donald Trump — and almost a prophet for others who see his protest as predicting the wave of racial justice protests that swept America in 2020.

In this September 12, 2016, fle photo, San Francisco 49ers safety Eric Reid (L) and quarterback Colin Kaepernick (R) kneel during the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Rams in Santa Clara, California. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

NBA agent Danielle Cantor Jeweler said the difference between how the NFL and the NBA, the basketball league, handled racial justice protests was one factor that undercut her love for football. In the wake of the killing of George Floyd last year, the NBA encouraged its players to speak out and allowed them to wear Black Lives Matter slogans on their jerseys.

Jeweler, who is one of few women in her field and says her Jewish values guide her career choices, grew up a self-proclaimed “diehard” Washington Redskins fan in the DC area (the team is now temporarily called Washington Football Team as it works toward changing its name after decades of criticism for using a racial epithet). Her family had season tickets and went to “every home game my whole life,” often tailgating before games. She knew the players’ individual statistics.

But these days, she finds herself watching football much less.

“I still watch somewhat, although way less than I used to, and there’s sort of this dissonance when I watch. And I’ve talked to a bunch of people and gotten sort of a range of views on that,” Jeweler said. “Is there a higher Jewish value system that we can hold ourselves to?”

Rabbanit Leah Sarna. (Courtesy of Sarna)

For Rabbanit Leah Sarna, an education director at Drisha, a center for Jewish learning in New York City, the solution to these anxieties is clear-cut: fully stop watching and supporting the sport.

“I would like to see the Jewish community completely divest from football,” she said. “Sport gives us a way to relax and helps us to feel pride in our localities… But the minute you have people getting permanently injured, for my pleasure, that just stops making sense. And the minute it stops making sense, it doesn’t just become, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t do this.’ It becomes, in my opinion, prohibited by Jewish law.”

In Judaism, the concept of pikuah nefesh prohibits actions that endangers a human life. Sarna said that abandoning football can fall into that category.

Feigelson brought up the analogy of hunting for sport, saying that rabbis have written that that concept connotes senseless violence.

“A sport centered around violence, is really — there’s something that doesn’t sit right about that. It’s not peaceful, it’s not in keeping with the notion that the ways of Torah are peaceful,” he said.

But not everyone feels that way. After Sarna recently posted on Facebook that she considers tackle football “assur,” the Hebrew word for forbidden, she garnered nearly 200 responses, many of them to counter her assertion. Some argued that other sports are just as dangerous and also cause concussions; others argued that she doesn’t understand the game or its fans. One commenter wrote: “it’s important to acknowledge that there is also a lot of beautiful skill and strategy in the sport. I don’t think many people who love the sport would agree with you that it’s centrally about enjoying violence.”

Rabbi Stephen Slater is one of those who sees football as beautiful. He leads the Conservative Temple Beth-El synagogue in Birmingham, Alabama, where many locals end conversations with the phrase “Roll Tide,” an indication of support for the University of Alabama’s Crimson Tide football team. (Slater said he was advised to end his Beth-El interview that way if he wanted to get the job.)

Alabama football fans try to get a picture of Alabama’s captains as they parade down University Blvd. Jan. 23, 2016, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama (AP Photo/Hal Yeager)

In his community, there are two choices, and it’s not watching football or not watching — it’s rooting for either the University of Alabama or its in-state rival, Auburn University. Seeing Tyreek Hill play is like watching the “most unbelievable feats of dance,” Slater said, arguing that football is a beautiful display of physical skill.

“The feats of athleticism are just stunning. The sort of total physical engagement it requires. You know, speed, strength, skill, teamwork… I think we see many of the very best athletes in America are attracted to it,” he said.

Confetti flies as fans watch the New England Patriots parade through downtown Boston, Feb. 5, 2019, to celebrate their win over the Los Angeles Rams in the NFL Super Bowl 53 football game in Atlanta (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

Slater added that he thinks the sport’s intensity — and the intensity with which fans watch it — is actually a useful outlet.

“American football really looks like a battle, you draw lines, and then you know, charge at each other… And I think that feeds something in a peaceful way that’s really crucial for society,” he said. “I was captain of my soccer team and that was this massive outlet for all this youthful energy that we had. It was a place to kind of try out our contest of the ego in a sustainable, healthy way.”

Yonah Rosenfield, an 18-year-old high school senior, watches “NFL RedZone” — an NFL Network show designed for fantasy league players that rapidly switches between scoring plays of all the league’s different games — every Sunday with his friends from the Orthodox SAR school in New York. It’s the main way he stays in close contact with those friends after switching schools, and even during the pandemic, they constructed outdoor setups with a projector so they could watch together in a socially distanced way.

Yonah Rosenfield and friends watch football outside under a tarp. (Courtesy of Rosenfield via JTA)

On Sundays, Rosenfield doesn’t think twice about his love for the game. But during the week, when he sees “completely degrading” comments about football players on online forums, he feels the weight of the game’s moral conundrum.

“I want to preface my answer with — I am more morally and ideologically pure than my actual practice. But ideologically, I think that, you know, I would agree with the statement that it’s a brutal sport. And I think that is definitely intertwined with the racial component of the issues. Because the NFL is majority Black,” he said, “and you have a lot of fans who can kind of feel a disconnect from their humanity, in some ways, and can kind of root for them to be gladiators, and to put themselves in harm’s way and have a disconnect.”

The tensions inherent in the sport will be very much on Schiowitz’s mind as she watches the Super Bowl. She remains a devoted football fan, last year participating in three fantasy leagues and winning two of them. She said she likes drawing connections between the sport and her Jewishness in social media posts. In 2018, for example, she compared all of the players on the Eagles to Passover foods in an amusing Twitter thread.

But the 31-year-old mental health therapist has been speaking out against what she sees as the NFL’s mistakes, especially on social media, where she interacts with a large community of fellow Eagles fans. She’s especially distressed by the fact that Hill is still playing despite admitting to assaulting his pregnant girlfriend in 2014. (He was also later accused of breaking his 3-year-old son’s arm, but police never amassed evidence to prove that.)

“Certain events that have played out that just don’t align with what my values are as a Jewish person. So that has been a little bit difficult to reconcile,” she said.

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