A Super(bowl) Musing on Being a Good Fan

As you know it’s an ancient tradition that rabbis offer timely musings pertaining to the week’s Torah portion. I wouldn’t want to disappoint, so let’s talk about this week, Parashat ProBowl, with next week being the Shabbat HaSuperbowl.  And if you’re not a fan of football, then I promise to translate as best I can for the non-fans among us.

What does it mean, anyhow, to be a “fan”? What does the word “fan” even mean? In 16th century Latin, the word “fanaticus” meant an insane person, inspired by a god. But the word entered our vocabulary thanks to American baseball in the 19th century, in its abbreviated form: as the word “fan.” A sports enthusiast.

But anyone who’s been to a live sports game knows being a sports fan still conflates the modern context of devotion with ancient fanaticus of insanity.

In our Torah we see this dangerous conflation of devotion and insanity as well.  In the book of Numbers, for instance, we encounter a man named Pinhas.  Pinhas, out of a fanatical devotion to God, takes the law into his own hands and murders two individuals who betray God’s command against Israelite-Midianite comingling.

It’s after this debacle that the Torah uses the Hebrew word for fanaticism—kanaut—to describe Pinhas. He is, if you will, God’s biggest fan.” It’s worth noting, Kana, the word for being a zealot, not only describes Pinhas’ devotion, but elsewhere kana describes an attribute of God: God’s a die-hard fan too!

Now, confession time. I am a lifelong, diehard fan of the Philadelphia Eagles.

As my friends and colleagues know, I bleed Green. I wept in 2005, when the Patriots beat the Eagles in the Superbowl. And I rejoiced when I learned that a sports hero of mine, Jeffrey Lurie, the owner the Eagles, grew up at here at Temple Israel of Boston, and that his family is still a beloved part of our community.

This is all to say, my friends who are insanely devoted to the Patriots, with all of your kana’ut, zeal and fervor, we’ve got some business to deal with! It is “so on.”

But with every challenge, so too comes an opportunity. The ties between the Philadelphia and Boston are strong; they run far deeper than Lurie’s Temple Israel education. In fact, what these two teams share, and what we share as a faith community, is far more critical than the 4 quarters, the winning, the losing, and the bragging rights.

We are two cities, perhaps more than any other in the nation, that birthed American Patriotism. We are America.

Boston, home to the Freedom Trail and Faneuil Hall; the founder of American public education.

Philly, home to the Continental Congress, the signing of the Declaration of Independence and our Constitution; the largest city during the Revolution.

If the state of our current Democracy makes you sick, then it’s our two cities- and the values imbedded in our glorious threads of American history- that remind us of “the WHY” of the United States of America– and why we as Jews are so lucky to have settled and thrived here, in this nation that was established:

  • to fight against tyranny,
  • to stand up against kleptocracy,
  • and to constitutionally establish the most important office of the land as the office of CITIZEN.

That’s Boston Strong.  And that’s Philly Strong too.  And as these two teams construct their game plans for victory, our federal government is deconstructing the very democratic institutions that have kept us safe—a government that, in the words of George Washington, “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”

That is the distinct “game plan” drawn up centuries ago, which desperately needs the moral leadership of “good fans,” true citizens.  And that is the long game, to which our community is devoted.

But I know…there’s the short game too…. that small event, in two weeks, known as Superbowl 52… when all eyes will be on Philly and Boston, for the most widely viewed event in the nation.

Perhaps you saw one of the many playful media segments this week describing the friendly wager between Temple Israel of Boston and Rodeph Shalom in Philly.  It’s easy enough to find on social media, on Twitter or Facebook. We now have people’s attention, and the question is what do we want to do with it. Philly and Boston are two cities that can teach what it means to be a good, moral fan.

And leading up to that day we are obliged as well to recognize the moral crisis of fandom in the NFL, which the faith community would be negligent were we to ignore: That is the problem of violence—on the field.

It gets plenty of attention, it’s not a new problem, and the NFL has taken some steps to address it.  3 years ago, the NFL suspended and fined several its coaches and players on the New Orleans Saints for their so-called “bounty program.”  The Saints staff and players offered cash bonuses for violent hits that would injure opposing players so badly that they couldn’t return. They incentivized serious injuries.

And the dirty little secret was that the practice of rewarding violence has been done in sports for ages—they just happened to get caught.  This is the story of football, of boxing, of hockey.

This was also the story of Dave Duerson’s career. Duerson was a star for the Chicago Bears, who took his own life a few years ago. His last words came in the form of a text message he sent to his wife.  Just twelve words: “Please,” he texted her, “see that my brain is given to the NFL’s brain bank.” That’s it. Duerson suffered from what dozens of deceased NFL players, many hockey players, and countless boxers suffered from—a trauma-induced disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (or “CTE”).

This is also the story of former Patriots Linebacker Junior Seau, who died the same way.  And yes, this is also the same story as former Patriots Tight End, Aaron Hernandez, a convicted murderer, who took his life in prison.  He had the worst case of CTE ever seen in a human being his age.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention millions of brain injuries occur in sports in this country each year, including kids.  And the rate is rising. As Linda Carroll and David Rosner explore in their important book The Concussion Crisis, concussions have been systematically dismissed for far too long.

And it’s not just the coaches, players, medical staff, agents, and owners who share responsibility and the obligation to right the wrong.  It’s also fans.  Yesterday in the airport I saw a banner on CNN that saying, “Are Patriots fans willing to risk Gronk’s health for title 6.”  The question itself should give us chills.

When a linebacker lays a bone-crushing hit, the fans roar.  When a hockey player steps up to defends a teammate in a fight, the fans roar. The players back him up. The coaches give him more playing time, management gives him a sweet contract.  And the fans roar.

CTE can only be diagnosed post-mortem through a brain autopsy, and it’s been overlooked for far too long.  And now the most promising research center in the world on CTE is right here, at the CTE Center at Boston University, a cause worthy of support from all “good fans.”

Believe it or not, Judaism is pretty specific about what it means to be a good fan.  The Talmud tells us what it means to be a good fan!

In tractate Avoda Zara (18b) there’s a debate over whether a Jew can attend a match of Gladiators.  One Sage forbade it outright, with a commentator saying involves shedding blood, and that’s the bottom line.  But other sages permitted attendance, one argument saying that someone has to cheer for MERCY, to save a life.  Only a fan, only someone present and in the seats has that voice.

(Yes, I’m willing to accept your spare ticket to the Superbowl 52).

The point is clear: we have in Judaism an age-old anxiety around responsible fandom.  And when could this mitzvah possibly be more urgent for us to practice than right now, as all eyes are on Boston and Philly, leading up to Superbowl Sunday.  We may not be able to tackle the playbook of collusion and corruption that threaten our democracy—the unnecessary roughness of our President is unprecedented.  But we can do what Jews have been doing for millennia: mitzvah after mitzvah after mitzvah to make life safer for everyone, within and beyond our borders.  It is a mitzvah to be a good fan—of democracy and of fair play, on and off the field.  Leading up to Superbowl Sunday, it’s a mitzvah to cheer for safety, wellness, and all that is loving and life-affirming.

Perhaps no character in our tradition knows more about fandom than our Prophet Elijah.  Elijah himself declares, “kano kiniti Ladonai—I am fervently devoted to the Eternal.”  Or, if you will, “I am God’s fan.” As Elijah stands on Mount Horeb, God presents him with a mighty wind, and then an earthquake, and then a fire—but Elijah is surprised to find that within these life-threatening elements God’s Presence is nowhere to be found.  But then Elijah hears something—kol d’mamah dakah, a still small voice.

Being a good fan demands hearing beyond the raucous of the crowd, tuning into the steadfast, moral voices that demand attention and response– the voices of Dave Duerson’s text message; the voices that are fighting to reform rules and safety standards; the still small voices that care most about saving human lives.

Because what’s true in sports is true in life: that we find kanaut, extreme devotion, wherever we go.  And the Jewish question then calls out:

What does it mean to be good fan— of your company, your organization, or your political party?

What does it mean to be a fan of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”; a fan of justice and a fan of truth, a fan of safety and a fan of love?

In sports, and in life, being a good fan means listening for that still, small voice, and with moral purpose—with “clear eyes, full hearts”—cheering it on.

About the Author
Matthew Soffer is the Senior Associate Rabbi at Temple Israel of Boston, where he leads the social justice efforts, practicing congregation-based community organizing with the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO). Matt serves on the Advisory Council of the Pluralism Project at Harvard University, the Board of the Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action (JALSA), the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis, and the Rabbinic Council of Hand-in-Hand Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel.
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