It comes as a surprise to most people when they find out that I’m a diehard Baltimore Ravens fan.
Truth be told, I’m a little shocked myself. I never grew up watching sports unless it was the Olympics and the gallons of testosterone involved in games like football always made me gag. I also never had much of a passion for Baltimore and always joked that it’s a good place to leave.
So it’s a little bizarre that only when I moved 6,000 miles away from my hometown and became a hummus eating, hebrew speaking, line pushing Sabra I started getting into American football. Watching the games is not just a Sunday night pastime with my Anglo friends. I’m a hardcore Ravens fan. I bleed purple.
And this past week, while I watched the moment of silence held for Ezra Schwartz at Gillette Stadium before the start of the Patriots game, I was reminded of the powerful impact sports can have beyond the thrill or agony of dedicated fans.
Consider just a few examples of how competitive games have left a mark on history. Jesse Owens won four gold medals in the 1936 Olympic games, single handedly disproving Hitler’s racist myth of Aryan supremacy on the largest of international stages. In 1971 the US table tennis team went to compete in Beijing, paving the way for diplomatic meetings between Nixon and Mao Zedong. Nelson Mandela urged the long divided country of South Africa to unify behind their rugby team in the 1995 World Cup and presented the winning trophy himself to the team’s white captain, sending a message of national reconciliation to the entire world. Even Bobby Fischer’s 1972 chess match against Boris Spassky became an international sensation due to the backdrop of the Cold War.
Here in Israel the power of sports has also been felt in recent years. On July 13th 2014, during Operation Protective Edge, there was a break in rocket fire from Hamas during the international broadcast of the World Cup. Now obviously there was still a war, but this temporary pause in fighting shows how every now and then sports have the ability to transcend political and ideological differences and make a real-world impact on a political and international scale.
And for sports to make such an impact they don’t necessarily need to be on a professional level or on an Olympic stage.
Ten years ago a group of Israelis began playing American tackle football and formed what has become the Israel Football league (IFL), now starting its ninth regular season. The league is sponsored by Robert Kraft (the owner of the New England Patriots) and has grown to eight teams spread across the country who travel between cities to compete with one another. Kraft has sponsored an astroturf field in Jerusalem and is ready to start construction on a new full sized stadium. Over the years the Kraft family has led a number of delegations to Israel, bringing star NFL players to tour the country and interact with the Israeli league.
American football is a unique sport in Israel. Unlike already developed professional sports like basketball or soccer, that import athletes from around the world in order to win games, the IFL is a homegrown, grassroots movement with a far more level playing field (pun intended), allowing almost anyone physically fit and mentally willing to come try out for the league. To make a good team, football players need to come in all different shapes, sizes and with varied skills – lending naturally to far more pluralistic participation than other sports.
As such, the IFL has become a diverse platform for athletes, perfect for creating organic, bottom-up desegregation and cross culture dialogue. The league contains four hundred players (fifty per team), seventy percent of whom are Israelis with no American background (including Ethiopian and Russian immigrants). Twenty percent are American immigrants and about ten percent are non-citizens (embassy/consulate employees or students studying abroad). Roughly ten percent of the league isn’t Jewish, the majority of that number being Christian or Muslim Arabs and Druze.
Do I think that developing the IFL will end all of Israel’s conflicts with the historical, religious and cultural complexities they entail? Probably not. But I am convinced that a real investment (both monetary and cultural) in grassroots sport leagues like the IFL can have a positive impact on Israeli society in terms of coexistence and a release of cultural tensions.
So if you’re looking for a new activity over the weekends, consider checking out the nearest IFL game. Pull out any old sports jersey you have tucked away in the back of your closet, paint your face any shade of the rainbow and scream your lungs out from the sidelines for whichever team has the ball. Because in addition to more standard political and social initiatives, why not put a little more faith in sports?