Football Fever

In this season of playoffs and super bowl, the thoughts of red-blooded Americans center on the most vital topic of the day: football. Even if we normally consider less crucial matters such as relationship with others or with Gd, the media tells us what really matters: who defeated whom, with its heroes and winners. A look at some of the heroes:

— Ray Rice, Baltimore Ravens running back, savagely battered his fiance in an elevator. Reinstated after a three- game suspension, he was given a standing ovation when he appeared on the field. (Had he fumbled a ball, of course, he would have been booed.)

— Adrian Peterson, mainstay of the Minnesota Vikings, was suspended for mercilessly beating his young child.

— Ray Lewis, former star of the Ravens, was exonerated from murder charges although the evidence clearly pointed to him as the murderer ( a la O.J. Simpson).

— Michael Vick, Atlanta Falcons quarterback commanding a long term contract for 90 million, was jailed for two years for killing dogs in a gambling operation.

— Alex Hernandez, former tight end for Boston Patriots, is in prison awaiting trial for premeditated murder.

— New Orleans Saints players were offered cash rewards for deliberately injuring opposing players. New Orleans fans were not shocked by this , and continued to cheer lustily for their saints.

— Weapons charges, assault, domestic violence, drunkenness are common throughout football.

Where do these heroes incubate? Naturally, in our colleges and universities. In days of yore, college sports were an adjunct to academics, supposedly developing character and discipline to prepare scholar-athletes to contribute to the general welfare. Today, many colleges are football factories, inculcating not only athletic skills, but also greed and narcissism. The overriding dream of so-called student-athletes is to make a million dollars if drafted by a pro team. Academics hardly enter the picture. One star player recently complained about taking a classroom examination: ” I came to college to play football, not to study.” Three U. of Georgia players, charged with theft, got off with a warning from the judge and a requirement to do “community service.” One player, charged with aggravated assault, was dismissed from the team, so he immediately transferred to U. of Alabama where he was readily welcomed. The judges don’t dare send players to jail, lest the judges themselves suffer ostracism. No wonder these young reprobates feel that the law is only for ordinary people.

A coach recently signed a seven year contract for some $40 million at the University of Michigan. Where does a college get such money ? While paying astronomical salaries, colleges constantly raise tuition fees, and are very miserly about their teacher salaries. How does a famous physics professor feel when his pay is less than 1% of that of the coach, or when he dare not give a failing grade to the star fullback who rarely attends classes and can hardly write a simple sentence?

But enough about these heroes. What about us, who create the heroes? Despite the thuggery of many of the athletes, over 90 million viewers watch the superbowl, and advertisers pay millions of dollars for a three-minute TV spot. ( A Shul in N.J. several years ago adjusted Mincha/Maariv schedules so that worshippers not miss that game…)

Granted, we admire the physical grace and discipline of a top player. That he may have no moral grace or discipline is irrelevant; we enjoy football because of its skill and talent. For football can be aesthetically appealing. The line of scrimmage just before the snap is a beautiful picture of action about to uncoil. The motion of the line , the fluid movements of the pass receiver, the pinpoint passing or broken-field running — these are what makes American football so massively riveting. As one player puts it: “Leave morality to religion; we are here to play football , period.”

Man seeks out something beyond himself. If he is fortunate, he worships Gd; less fortunate, he creates his own heroes and worships them. But a larger question looms: recognizing the ugliness, why are some religious people still interested in hometown teams? True, I personally would not cheer a Ray Rice, but why am I somewhat disappointed when they lose, and mildly pleased when they win? Am I different from the Golden Calf worshippers who cried Eileh elohecha Yisroel, or from the Roman throngs who cheered as the lions devoured the hapless slaves?

There are rehabs for alcoholics, for addicts of all kinds. Perhaps we need rehabs for religious people who are addicted to football despite its unsavory elements. There we might finally recognize that he who is able to renounces false heroes, he is the true hero.

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23 Responses

  1. Shua Cohen says:

    > “As one player puts it: “Leave morality to religion; we are here to play football, period.”

    >> Key phrases from a recent news report: Ponevezh Yeshiva; bouts of violence and brawling; fierce melee; students injured in the fighting; one faction called “the terrorists”, the other “the haters.”

    So much for leaving “morality to religion”: 15 years of Torah life and learning are reduced to total meaninglessness in one of the great Torah institutions of our day. If we add in the cases of abuse, business fraud, sinas chinam, etc. in the “frum” community both in the U.S. and Israel (Rachmana Litzlan), we must come to the conclusion, Reb Feldman, that this is NOT the time to throw stones at “the others” when the glass walls of our own houses are shattering.

    Although you didn’t state the words “Mi Kiamcha Yisrael” in your essay, they are certainly implied. But nowadays, when I see this phrase trumpeted all over the place, its hubris makes me tremble with acute embarrassment.

  2. Shades of Gray says:

    I am not a football fan, but I liked R. Feldman’s description of the sport:

    “For football can be aesthetically appealing. The line of scrimmage just before the snap is a beautiful picture of action about to uncoil. The motion of the line , the fluid movements of the pass receiver, the pinpoint passing or broken-field running “

    In a Spring, 1996 Tradition article about an Atlanta World Series game (“The Editor’s Notebook: Of Pennants and Penitents”), R. Feldman contrasted baseball with football:

    “…the sports juices of my youth began to stir within me, and the rationalizations fell quickly into place: It will be a study of Americana in the raw; it will be a moment of relaxation; you have always liked baseball, its non-violence, its patience, the solitary struggle of lonely pitcher against lonely batter. And consider its religious undertones: the goal is to circle the infield and then come back to the starting point, to return to beginnings. Unlike football or basketball, where the clock ultimately runs out, baseball is timeless: a tie game can theoretically continue until eternity.”

  3. Bob Miller says:

    We have our own unfortunate spectator sport, watching ostensibly religious Jewish factions trying to tear each other apart.

  4. Yirmiahu says:

    I can only speak for my self but I find nothing morally edifying about the ability to point out the moral or other character shortcoming in non-Jewish entertainers, a myopic attitude toward human pursuit of excellence in their talent, a dismissive attitude towards how others choose to spend their recreation time, nor an over-simplified kvetch about the economics of entertainment vs. more worthy professions.

  5. Raymond says:

    Actually, I think the explanation is rather simple for how religious Jews can possibly be interested in something like the Superbowl, or professional sports in general. To be a truly religious Jew takes an awful lot of self-discipline and character development. Frankly, unless one is raised that way and so is accustomed to such a lifestyle, I do not really see how any mere fallible human being, can live the life of a religious Jew. The rules involved seem endless, and the guilt one feels for not always following all those rules, has no bounds.

    And then there is the Superbowl. Those watching the game, do not have to do anything spiritually strenuous at all. All they have to do, is sit back, enjoy the game, eat fun foods to their heart’s and stomach’s content, and just have a relaxing, fun time. In other words, it provides such a contrast and relief from the constant internal stress involved in trying to follow G-d’s Will. And perhaps ignoring the frankly criminal activities of some of the football players involved, is part of the whole deal, of just letting go of reality for those few hours, of the constant challenges involved in living the life of a Torah Jew. At least that is my take on it.

  6. Yaakov Menken says:

    Shua, where do you think that sort of thing comes from, when it shows up in the frum community? To whatever extent deviant behaviors don’t come from within a person, they are, of course, learned from elsewhere. Is watching football truly harmless, or are viewers learning from a game with a great deal of organized violence, and whose leading lights seem all too often to take the violence with them off the field?

    If you are truly concerned about similar behaviors making their appearance in the frum community, you should be the first to cheer Rav Feldman for pointing out that football players are hardly those we should be watching and from whom we should be learning.

  7. Shades of Gray says:

    Re. violence and the Orthodox world, Jonathan Rosenblum wrote in May, 2006(“More on Orthodox Rioting”):

    “I’m currently translating Rabbi Shlomo Lorincz’s memoirs. He relates that in the early ’50s there was a group called Bris Kena’im, which would note the numbers of cars travelling through religious neighborhoods on Shabbos, and then set the cars on fire during the week. The Chazon Ish, zt”l, ordered Moshe Schonfeld to write a piece called “Violence is a Foreign Offshoot in Our Vineyard,” decrying all resort to violence as antithetical to Torah values.

    I assume the zealots of the Chazon Ish’s day paid no more heed to his words than would their successors today. But the position of the Chazon Ish still deserves to be known.”

  8. js36 says:

    Firstly, most football players are not bad people or violent. Many of them come from very difficult backgrounds and rose themselves out of it by dedicating themselves to be the best at their sport instead of joining gangs or hanging out on the streets. Second, there are over 1400 players in the NFL. Listing a handful of bad actors in such a large group hardly means that all NFL players are violent or a bad influence. I think we all can come up with a similiar laundry list of bad actions within the frum community that we wouldn’t somebody to use to reflect on us. I don’t think many sports fans, especially frum fans watch football to get a better view on life or to improve themselves spiritually. They simply watch it for the entertainment value of cheering on a team that satisfies many people innate competitive nature. Basic, we get out our competitiveness vicariously through football. I don’t see anything wrong with that as long as it is not done obsessively and it doesn’t take away from the important things in your life too much. Violence and unsavory actions were around in the world long before football existed and if anything football allows us to get out man’s somewhat violent nature on a football field and through sports instead of by pogroms or war.

  9. Eli Blum says:

    Rabbi Yaakov Menken – WADR, it way more likely that Israeli Ponevezh bochrim did not learn such actions from US football players. Rather, they probably see it in throwing stones and defacing pictures, name-calling others Reshaim and Apikorsim, and dehumanization of anyone who is not like themselves. I will not say that in America we don’t have issues with following sports players, but at least we have not been incited to violence against each other by others’ examples of violent acts.

    It is also quite well known that some American Gedolim have (or had ZTL Lehavdil) an affinity to the sports teams of their youth. Big picture, it did not stop them from becoming the Gedolim that they became.

  10. lawrence kaplan says:

    Rabbi Menken: Right. The students at Ponovezh learned to be violent from watching football or soccer games or otherwise being overly exposed to the malign effect of secular culture. Or perhaps they learned it closer to home.

  11. Yaakov Menken says:

    Sorry, Dr. Kaplan, or Eli, but did I say anywhere that there weren’t other bad influences? Did Shua reference what went on in Ponevezh? [Were any of us, in fact, discussing Israelis, who have a whole different set of outside influences?] Although I appreciate that you might want a strawman to help divert attention from Rabbi Feldman’s serious point, the simple fact remains that watching violence on TV is not without consequence, and in American football, the “biggest, baddest” team is the one that wins.

  12. Yirmiahu says:

    R’ Menken,

    Yes, Shua specifically and explicitly referenced what went on in Ponevezh.

    The entire problem with your reasoning is that your suggestion that such behavior is a result in external influence when they are disproportionately emanating from the communities that are the most restrictive regarding contact with the broader world. In my observation when it comes Orthodox Jewish communities there is an inverse relationship between watching football and using violence to further one’s point of view.

    There are many points to be discussed about Football. The very real halachic issues of moshav leitzim with regard to ANY sporting event. To debate about whether the level of aggression is a healthy release or improper habituation. Whether the long term risk posed is appropriate for the player to take, or for us to be entertained by. Whether it is appropriate for Universities to fill their coffers on the back of unpaid athletes under the facade that they are receiving an education. These would have all been more worthwhile discussions

    Or better yet we could do some introspection on bigger issues in our community than peoples choice of entertainment. When it comes to non-traffic related incidents I know more frum people with legal issues than non-frum people. It’s time to stop the triumphalism, and it is time to stop blaming the outside for our internal issues.

  13. Yehoshua D says:

    While I agree that football players should not be our heroes, I find this article to be disingenuous at best. The incidents listed here have taken place over the past 13 years. During that time, the NFL has employed between 8,000 to 10,000 players. Take any group of people granted riches in their early-mid 20’s (e.g., hotshot Wall Street hedge fund managers) and you will find a similar percentage of issues with crime, violence, and substance abuse. Cherry picking the worst of any group (even shomrei Torah) and ignoring the benign vast majority, as well as the minority who excel in their contributions to society, is not a valid way to advance an argument.

  14. Mark Richards says:

    You failed to point out what is really wrong with sports worship.
    We are human beings, we were given by our Creator brains and hearts capable of major undertakings. How does a person waste those gifts on foolishness like who got a ball into a net (ignoring the fact that it left the net almost immediately afterwards)? Of course, a person needs to unwind in order to continue living and accomplishing, but the ides of spending any effort or wasting huge blocks of time on something as foolish as ‘someone else’s game’ should pain any upstanding human being.

  15. Shades of Gray says:

    Re. violence in football, a former NFL cheerleader(now Frum) wrote on Chabad and Aish websites that one of the reasons she left was because “the ruthless carnage on the football field that didn’t seem right to me.” As she describes a Raiders game:

    “I pick up my pom-poms and hear the quarterback make the call: “East, near left, 94 in flair zero on two.” He’s going to run it! Whamm!The sound of bones cracking, and a scream. Was that his leg breaking? Uh-oh, the music’s starting. Time to dance. Five, six, seven, eight?…”

    A Times of Israel article last week discussed the topic as well:

    “Yet, even as NFL luminaries Mike Ditka and Brett Favre have gone on record saying they would no longer let their own children play football, Limbaugh, presumably speaking to and for his millions-strong audience, continues to rail against the “chickification” of football and what it means for American culture.”

  16. David says:

    A couple of minor quibbles first:

    1. It’s Aaron Hernandez, not Alex.
    2. New England Patriots, not Boston. They haven’t been called Boston since 1970 or so.

    As to the issue at hand:

    There is definitely much that is correct in what Rabbi Feldman states.

    However, I would point out two things:

    1. One can also look at good sportsmanship that does exist and can be a lesson to everyone (e.g. Russell Wilson’s praying and thanking God (and teammates) at the end of the NFC championship).
    2. More importantly, in many (if not all) of these cases, the NFL dealt with the issue. Sometimes it was viewed as too lenient, sometimes not, but the point is that it was subject to criticism. Unfortunately, much of what happens in our world is met with silence by those who matter, thus abandoning the scene to those who criticize out of hate rather than out of love.

  17. Shades of Gray says:

    Alan(Shlomo) Veingrad, a former NFL offensive lineman, wrote in “No Quick Fix To NFL Concussion Saga”(5/11/12):

    “As a rookie offensive lineman on the Green Bay Packers in 1986, I was awe struck by our coach, Forrest Gregg, a Hall of Fame offensive tackle whom the legendary Vince Lombardi called “the best player I ever coached.”…“This is a violent game,” Gregg would tell us players…. After seven years, I finished my pro football career with a Super Bowl ring from the 1992 Dallas Cowboys championship season. I walked away from the game – while I could still walk. Unfortunately, the same can not be said for many other NFL players…

    Pro football is a business. Hard hits sell the NFL, bringing $9.5 billion to the league during the regular season. Seats are filled by plays like a wide receiver being walloped after catching a ball while crossing the field, the quarterback being sacked, or kick off teams unloading high speed blocks on each other. Eliminating thunderous collisions, for fear of brain damaging concussions, would not fill seats. And the NFL wants to sell seats. So the unanswered question remains, what can the NFL do to keep the game popular, but safe? There appears to be no quick fix to the dilemma. The NFL should do a better job educating players on dangers of playing the game. It must also continue to lay down severe penalties if players – on their own initiative or at the direction of coaches — intentionally try to hurt other players.”

  18. Shades of Gray says:

    Alan Veingrad discusses hero worship in “The Passover Playbook”(American Jewish Spirit Magazine, Spring 2011 and Aish website):

    “The last symbol the Haggadah emphasizes is Pesach – the Pascal lamb. The lamb was worshipped as the god of the Egyptians. So the Jews took that very symbol of enslavement, tied it to the bedpost, slaughtered it, ate it, and smeared its blood on the doorpost. It was clear which “God” was in charge.

    In the world of professional sports, I got an insider’s look at the way athletes are worshipped. It’s good for kids to aspire to something and have a role model, but a famous athlete is not necessarily the kind of human being you want to become. Many times these guys appear one way for the media hype and endorsements, but are plagued by personal problems like drugs, anger, overweight. I think our role models need to be community leaders, teachers, rabbis, parents.

    Even better, aspire to become your own hero. Everyone has their own role to play. The quarterback may get the headlines, but the offensive lineman is just as crucial to the win. In 1992 when I played on the world champion Dallas Cowboys, every teammate got the same Super Bowl Ring. Take pride in the team. Find your own unique contribution. We all have a Super Bowl ring waiting to be earned. What’s yours?”

  19. tzippi says:

    Baseball has its own stories of unsavory players. (Honus and Me, the first of Dan Gutman’s Stosh baseball books, was okay, IIRC but I advise previewing the rest of them.) I do appreciate the moshav leitzim and bitul zeman aspects of organized sports, but there is the matter of people being entertained by a sport in which violence and possible long-term physical damage is endemic. I find that especially disturbing.

  20. SA says:

    One can’t help but wonder whether the general negative attitude toward professional sports (which may be totally justified) is also partially responsible for the prevailing attitude toward sports activities for older teens and adults as “bitul zeman.” Our community has a host of problems with overweight, diabetes and heart problems to show for this attitude. We must find a way to make this distinction and inculcate a sports and exercise habit in our youth.

  21. DF says:

    This seems like an article more for the sake of writing an article than for any genuine point or need it addresses. Jews, particularly orthodox Jews, are not given to worship athletes the way others supposedly do. [If anything, orthodox children are taught to worship an entirely different class of individuals, and as everyone already noted, that class has plenty of problems of its own.] We have yet to hear a single case of an orthodox child leaving his yeshiva to join the Crips because he saw an NFL player make a gang symbol, and thought it would be neat to emulate him. Maybe (emphasis, maybe) this could be used as a somewhat tired editorial on the pages of a mainstream paper, but the yetzer horas of orthodox Jews lie in an entirely different direction. Innocent sporting events is not what our community needs to address – not in the best of times, and certainly not now.

  22. tzippi says:

    DF, you really believe the Superbowl is irrelevant to Orthodox Jews? Those who viewed it may be a minute percentage of the significant portion of the world’s population who saw this year’s game, but there is definite awareness.
    I don’t think that this will discourage yeshiva boys from basketball, baseball, swimming, biking, or whatever they have access to. But perspective is nice.

  23. Shlomo r. says:

    Df,I think you succinctly and accurately nailed it.

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