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What (and who) we sacrifice on the gridiron

Judaism has something to say about what -- and who -- we sacrifice on the gridiron

On December 14, 2011, talk show host Rush Limbaugh revealed, no doubt to the alarm of his audience, that “The Left” had set its nefarious sights on the game of football:

The left is trying to take the risk out of everything. That’s where this is rooted. It’s too risky, and playing football is gonna end up being too risky. They’re doing studies on what players are like at age 40, 50, how many of them are dying and all this from probably head injuries…
I’m just telling you that these pantywaists who want to try to take the risk out of everything in life are gonna focus on football at some point and they’re gonna try to get it banned. Well, the players take the field knowing all this can happen. They’re willing to take the risk….I guarantee you, I know who I’m talking about; I know who the liberals are; I know how they want to control things, take the risk out of everything this life in life and under the premise that nobody will ever die. Guaranteed.

Since that monologue, the NFL was shaken by the book and documentary League of Denial, which alleged a massive mishandling of evidence concerning the effects of blows to the head sustained by professional football players. A massive lawsuit was filed against the NFL, and a federal judge will soon approve a $765 Million settlement with 25,000 retired players and 9,000 relatives of deceased players for damages related to concussions. In addition, the NFL Players Association and Harvard Medical School announced a 10 year, $100 Million study designed to diagnose, treat, and prevent injuries and illnesses in active and retired players. 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.

It seems clear that for many people, and despite the NFL’s own stated commitment to take concrete steps to maximize player safety, the seemingly inevitable damage that football inflicts on its players is a feature, not a bug. If the violence was “fake,” the game would not carry nearly as much urgency. Football is captivating precisely because, in a sea of “reality” television, it is actually real. We know that the players’ pain is genuine, and we know that they know how they are sacrificing their physical and mental health to triumph on the largest of stages. Their suffering, both in the moment and for the rest of their lives, gives heightened significance and meaning to what happens on the field.

In his incisive On Sacrifice, Professor Moshe Halbertal describes the transition from sacrificing to, as practiced in Biblical times, to sacrificing for, as we understand the term today, underlining throughout the connection between sacrifice and violence. He notes that because good causes deserve sacrifice, we tend to assume sacrifice, in and of itself, can justify or even ennoble a cause. “This is how,” he writes, “the spectacle of brave soldiers casting aside their own self-interest and putting themselves at risk leads to a form of moral self-deception that is difficult to avoid.” This is also why the NFL has never glossed over the violence inherent in football, but continues to glorify it. It is also why fans and analysts alike are so gripped by the game’s violence, especially as it comes packaged in high-definition accompanied by soaring music or gushing commentary. We are programmed to assume there is some nobler, higher purpose than simply violence for its own sake.

Perhaps aware that it would be crass and selfish to assert that the self-sacrifice of NFL players amounts to nothing more than a particularly absorbing form of entertainment, many try to project nobler, higher messages onto football. Daniel Flynn, a radio guest of Rush Limbaugh’s and author of The War on Football: Saving America’s Game, sees football as paradigmatic of a bygone era in American culture. As he puts it:

It’s not that football has grown particularly rough or hard. I think society has become particularly soft, and there are a lot of guys out there who are threatened by football, threatened by manly activities, because that’s not where they’re at.

Flynn sees the value in football as channeling “masculine” aggressiveness, instilling discipline, and promoting physical fitness. Some Christian and Jewish groups even produce alternate Super Bowl halftime shows featuring sports-themed inspirational messaging. In the words of Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Kenneth Brander:

A lot of people are watching the Super Bowl and the halftime show can be a time of reflection and introspection. Why not be able to cull from sports ideas that can be transformative for Americans’ lives?

Halbertal, though, warns that the notion of “sacrificing for” can move beyond giving up luxuries, goals, or even personal health and well-being, and towards the sacrifice of moral conscience. He cites Kierkegaard, who famously described the Binding of Isaac as Abraham’s sacrifice of his own moral obligation as a father to fulfill a Divine imperative. Poignantly, he observes that, although Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his morality, the real victim would have been Isaac. “More generally,” he comments, “when morality is depicted as a temptation to be surmounted in the name of a higher goal, it is always someone else who pays the price.” The stakes are high; for him, misguided self-sacrifice epitomizes modern-day idolatry.

Limbaugh is correct in that football — like life — will never be risk free, and that our choices will often put others in harm’s way. The question, though, when applied to football, is whether we as fans and supporters are sacrificing our own morality at the same time we are sacrificing the bodies and minds of the players. Alternatively, we can ponder whether any broader social and cultural benefits of professional football can ever justify the price we demand of those who provide it to us.

If we cannot answer those questions affirmatively, we should not be producing football-themed Torah messaging. In fact, we should not be watching at all.

About the Author
Avraham Bronstein is rabbi of The Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, NY.
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