It’s no secret that American professional sports have an antisemitism problem. That’s why it is encouraging, though hardly sufficient, that both the National Football League (NFL) and the National Basketball Association (NBA) have become corporate sponsors of the “Shine a Light” initiative. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) launched the “Shine a Light” “to raise awareness about modern antisemitism through education, community partnerships, workplace engagement and advocacy[,]” working alongside over eighty other Jewish and non-Jewish organizations. This is a desperately needed remedy to America’s surging rates of antisemitic speech and criminal actions, with 2,717 antisemitic acts across the U.S. in 2021, a 34% increase from 2020 and the highest number on record since ADL began tracking antisemitic incidents in 1979.
The NBA’s struggle with treating Jews as human beings was highlighted by its failure to adequately reprimand Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving after Irving promoted a sensationalistic antisemitic propaganda film on social media. The film, outlandishly titled “Hebrews to Negroes: Wake Up Black America,” asserts that the Nazi Holocaust, which slaughtered six million European Jews in the 1940s, never occurred. The central premise of the film Irving promoted is that Black people are the true descendants of the biblical Israelites and that “modern Jews are imposters who stole the religious heritage of Black people and have engaged in a ‘cover-up’ to prevent Black people from knowing their ‘true’ identity.” The film Irving promoted further claims that Jews worship Satan and masterminded the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.
After Irving posted the film, both the NBA and its players’ union, of which Irving is a vice president, put out tepid statements condemning “hate speech” in general but not mentioning Irving. When asked to apologize at an October 29 press conference, Irving doubled down on his support for the film, stating: “History is not supposed to be hidden from anybody. I’m not going to stand down on anything I believe in. I’m only going to get stronger because I’m not alone. I have a whole army around me.” On November 2, Irving announced together with the ADL that he would donate $500,000 to “anti-hate” causes, though nothing specifically to combat antisemitism. On November 3, after Irving was asked if he had any antisemitic beliefs, he said: “I cannot be antisemitic if I know where I come from,” the NBA finally suspended him, but within days LeBron James and other players were publicly demanding that Irving be allowed to play again. On November 20, Irving was reinstated, despite not fully disavowing the antisemitic content or agreeing to the Nets’ demand that he meet with the leaders of Jewish organizations.
If only the NBA had the courage of some of its famous alumni. Retired superstar Shaquille O’Neal said: “I can tell he’s not conscious — he doesn’t really care what’s going on… Now, we’ve got to answer for what this idiot has done.” Charles Barkley was even stronger, specifically saying: “I think the NBA dropped the ball. I think he should’ve been suspended. They made a mistake. We have suspended people and fined people who have made homophobic slurs… This should’ve been handled already.” Well said, Charles.
The NFL’s problems are just as glaring. In July 2020, the Philadelphia Eagles’ DeSean Jackson used his immense social media reach to promote a quote falsely attributed to Nazi ruler Adolf Hitler, which read: “(white) Jews will blackmail America. (They) will extort America, their plan for world domination won’t work if the Negroes know who they were.” As Julian Edelman of the New England Patriots, one of the most prominent Jewish NFL players in history, rightly stated: “It’s just been very hard, especially as a Jew to hear these things that you heard back in the ’30s and the ’40s that transpired into the Holocaust. The same propaganda, the same thoughts, in modern-day time.” Just a handful of teams have shown a more humane face in the face of America’s antisemitism crisis, notably the Pittsburgh Steelers, who, after 11 people were murdered by an antisemitic gunman at the local Tree of Life Synagogue, altered their team logo to include a Star of David and the words “Stronger than Hate,” and donated $70,000 to families of the victims.
As one of America’s most important historic Jewish leaders, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis, notably wrote: “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” The Shine a Light initiative takes several important steps to highlight and combat the rising tide of anti-Jewish speech and hate crimes in the United States, critically with its promotion of Jewish Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) at America’s workplaces alongside ERGs of other federally recognized racial and ethnic minorities. The NBA and NFL, in their sponsorship of this work, have taken an important step to overcome their ugly recent history of coddling and tolerating antisemitism. The real test will come when – another of their highly compensated celebrity athletes decides to feed the flames of racism and bigotry by advocating hate speech against the Jewish people. Will the leagues show us then that, finally, they stand against the ugliness and for the rights of Jews, or will these critical social institutions again stand by and allow antisemitism to continue to be normalized in America, as it was in Germany decades ago?