here a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 10/11/14 –
I know in many ways this is a baseball weekend in Baltimore, but I’d like to think with you about football this morning for a few minutes. I’ve been a football fan for as long as I can remember, I remember watching the Colts on a small black and white TV with my dad in the late 60s in our small apartment in Mt. Washington. By the early 70s I was a diehard fan, watching games every Sunday, following news about the league, and keeping track of the players and their statistics. Like with many of the youngsters today, there was a time when on Monday morning you could ask me how many yards a running back had gained or how many TD passes a quarterback had thrown on Sunday, and I could tell you without even hesitating.
But I confess that for the very first time in my life I am feeling what I would probably call a strong ambivalence about football. I am still watching when I can, but some of the enjoyment of the game has been taken away from me, and as I watch I feel guilty in some way, as if I am complicit in something that I know is wrong, something that I should not allow myself to be sucked into. And I also wonder if by participating, even in such a passive way, I am contributing to something that I normally would never condone – namely the perpetuation, and also the celebration, the glorification – of violence.
For a number of years now this feeling has been growing. As the players have gotten both bigger and faster, and as the collisions on the field have grown more and more dangerous. Then over the last couple of years my discomfort has grown even stronger. It began to intensify with the information that has come out during that time about the number of football players who suffer from chronic brain trauma after their careers are over. The NFL itself now is saying that one in three players will be affected by CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease that results from repetitive blows to the head. New information has come out that early onset of this disease can begin as early as high school with some young players. The league has tried to cope with this by putting new rules into place about helmet to helmet contact, but it is not at all clear that these rules will make much of a difference.
So I have begun, on one level, to think of the NFL as a modern gladiator sport. In ancient Rome the gladiator games were held in large arenas, with the best athletes of the time competing against one another in contests that literally resulted in the death of one of the contestants. The fans lined the stadium, there were sponsors, the games made huge amounts of money, and the more violent and bloody the better. We look back on those games as barbarous, as the kind of thing a modern society would never condone, as amoral. But as we understand more and more about the long term effects of football, is it really that different? The players may not die right in front of us on the field, but later they do die, as young men, once they’ve retired, once they are out of the public eye. Is this really any better? When we actually think through it, when we admit to ourselves that what we are watching on the field does have a direct cause and effect for the suffering of these players down the road, can we really be comfortable with it? And I am not sure I can anymore.
The Talmudic rabbis were intimately familiar with Roman culture. As they put the Talmud together they lived in a Palestine that was controlled by the Romans, where cities like Ceasarea, now a spectacular archeological dig just north of Tel Aviv, hosted gladiatorial games. The rabbis knew what these games were about, probably many of them had attended gladiatorial competitions, and like with just about everything they decided they should make a statement about these events in the corpus of law they were constructing. In general the rabbis were distrustful of Roman culture and its emphasis on the body and on physical strength. In one particularly instructive rabbinic source dated to around the year 200 we find the following: היושב באסטרין הרי זה שופך דמים – one who goes to the stadium to watch gladiator competition is like one who has spilled blood. That is to say, the rabbis believed that a spectator to the games was accountable, was in some war responsible – for the blood that was spilled and for the deaths that occurred.
If we didn’t know, maybe it would be different for us. But we just can’t say we don’t know anymore. It is all right in front of our eyes. The statistics are available. Even the NFL itself is acknowledging this at this point. But the games go on, and the money keeps coming in, the fantasy leagues get more popular, and at the end of the day the sport is driven by the fans, and it gets bigger and bigger and bigger every year, despite what we know. And I guess what I am saying this morning is given what we know, shouldn’t we know better?
Of course what I am saying this morning is close to heresy, or possibly even worse, in a big football town like Baltimore. But there is a sense this season that the problem is spreading. Certainly in Baltimore we should be sensitive to that, with what happened with Ray Rice and his wife over the summer. And that public violent incident was followed very closely by a violent incident of a more private nature, the Minnesota Viking’s running back Adrian Peterson’s beating of his son. Or what about the fact that in the last 10 days three high school football players have died while playing the game – a 16 year old on Long Island, a 17 year old in Alabama, and another 17 year old in North Carolina. You have to begin to wonder at what point will we all take a ‘time out’ and have a serious discussion about this issue. Not just that the players need better equipment, that the rules need to be changed to protect players, that tackling techniques need to be better, but a real conversation about the moral and ethical implications of what is going on literally right in front of our eyes.
Demand for that conversation is finally beginning to grow. But we all need to make sure it happens, to be involved in it and take part in it. It is not an issue of a particular league, or even a single sport – it is an issue of culture, of societal expectations, of what we will accept and what we feel crosses a line. And that culture is something we create together, and that line is something we either step over together, or stop in front of. It seems to me the time of just walking blindly over that line is coming to an end. When enough people stop in front of it the conversation will begin. It is about time. And it is clearly needed. Lets make sure it happens soon.