January 31, 2020 // Shevat 5, 5780

January 31, 2020

Shevat 5, 5780


Dear Haverim

This weekend, America will be focused on professional football. For those who enjoy American football, the game is likely an excellent source of enjoyment.  For those who don’t care much about the game, the innovative ads and the half-time show draw viewers to one of the most watched TV shows of the year.  This Sunday, the likelihood is that you’re either watching the Super Bowl or avoiding it.

Football is America’s most popular sport.  For many, football is fun; however, it is also dangerous. The Boston University Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center has shown that every year spent playing football increases the risk of developing degenerative and fatal neurological condition by 30%. Sparking many labor disputes, football has been a locus of worker justice concerns for decades.

Football is also a source of disagreement about social responsibility. Former San Francisco 49er Colin Kaepernick and players that joined in national anthem protests against racism suffered professional consequences from their teams and the NFL that are inconsistent with their right to free speech, and the rebuilt 49er NFC champions were selected to be less vocal about systemic racism in the league and the country.

In another example, although the Kansas City Chiefs stopped using a caricature of an American Indian in the 1980s, they have been slow to discourage their non-Native fans from wearing tribal headdresses and face paint, and have not taken any action to eliminate the offensive Arrowhead chop and chant. And, of course, the name of the Washington NFL franchise is still an anti-Native slur, which its owner has insisted they will never change. You name the ethical issue; football likely struggles with it.

Football may seem trivial, but it is also a mirror allowing us to gauge how well we’re living up to our core values. An ongoing issue of ethics in professional football is that, even when we all agree on what our values are, teams will claim to be waiting for fans to drive change, and fans claim to wait for the team to lead them.  Meanwhile, the systems of oppression persist.

In this week’s Torah portion (Bo, Exodus 10:1-13:16), oppression takes on its own thrust independent of human intervention. Last week, when Moses asked Pharoah to let the Israelites go, Pharaoh was unwilling, hardening his heart. This week, in plagues 8-10, we learn that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Pharaoh seems to have been disallowed from acting his conscience (or not given the chance to act his conscience).

We live in a time characterized by ubiquitous systems of oppression, when we are constantly put into similar positions as Pharaoh is in this week’s Torah portion. We are not always able to rectify the harms we can identify. Of course, unlike Pharaoh’s example, we can insist on maintaining the values of our conscience. We must take action to shift power away from oppressive forces. 

The Sages of the Talmud provide us a path for doing so. In the famous story known as "the Oven of Akhnai" (Bava Metzia 59b), the rabbis assert the role of human justice even against Divine authority, citing that Torah “is not in Heaven” (Deut 30:12).  When we are confronted with issues of injustice that seem out of our control, the question is not whether we have the ability to act. The question is whether we will utilize that ability.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jay Stanton

PS: For further study of this issue, I've prepared a resource sheet on Sports, Exploitation and Activism. Click here to read it.