The Israeli Football League – American football, not soccer – is a curiosity.
For starters, it’s popular: While the sport has mostly flopped overseas, the IFL
has an invested fan base and committed, reasonably talented players. Despite
material obstacles (it took two seasons to get pads) and financial hurdles
(players buy their own equipment and insurance), the league has doubled in size
over five years and now has teams from Beersheba to Haifa. If you can’t make it
to the games – they’re also nationally televised – check out the highlights on
the IFL YouTube channel, or follow the action live on Israeli Sports
The future looks bright for football in the Holy
However, when the fifth season wraps up this Friday at Israel Bowl
V, the league may face a basic question: Should we be doing this? You see,
football is really dangerous.
Since the game involves large men striking
each other with extreme force, this should not come as a surprise; but the
extent of the danger is only now becoming fully apparent.
There is ample
evidence to suggest that the sport is morally troubling at best, criminally
unsafe at worst. The New Orleans Saints were recently sanctioned by the National
Football League for operating a “bounty” fund: Players were paid $1,000 for
inflicting an injury that removed an opponent from the game, $1,500 if he had to
be carted off the field.
Bounty funds are apparently endemic to the NFL;
the Saints merely had the misfortune of getting caught.
The NFL is
currently defending itself against class action lawsuits by hundreds of former
athletes and their families alleging that the league failed to monitor player
Congress has also gotten involved. Representative Linda
Sanchez, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, has likened the league’s
safety behavior to the tobacco industry’s past denials of the link between
cigarettes and cancer.
Yet in some ways, football has never been safer.
The sport’s early days of minimal padding were marked by extreme violence –
peaking in 1905, when 19 college players died on the field. This was not seen as
necessarily a bad thing: For many fans, violence was football’s greatest asset,
a means of promoting masculinity in America’s youth. President Teddy Roosevelt
remarked, “I would a hundred-fold rather keep the game as it is now, with the
brutality, than give it up.”
In time Roosevelt was overruled.
the years, a number of particularly dangerous moves have been outlawed,
including the ominous sounding – and in all likelihood accurately- named – leg
whip, head slap, chop block, flying wedge, crack-back block and horse-collar
tackle. The NFL has begun to penalize players for especially violent
But modified rules and state-of-the-art protective padding can go
only so far. According to new research, a disconcerting number of current and
former football players suffer from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a
degenerative brain condition caused by repeated head trauma.
a wholesale breakdown of brain function marked by scar tissue, loss of neurons,
attenuation of the corpus collosum, and neuro-fibrillary tangles, a primary
marker of Alzheimer’s. The symptoms, intensifying over time, include depression,
memory loss, confusion, aggression, speech impediments and muscle deterioration.
The disease typically culminates in full-blown dementia or Parkinson’s
Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic
Encephalopathy has diagnosed eleven former football players with CTE, including
University of Pennsylvania lineman Owen Thompson, who committed suicide at age
21. Thompson’s age (he was the youngest person with a confirmed case of CTE) and
medical history (he never sustained a concussion) suggest that CTE may be an
unavoidable consequence of football.
If so, could playing football
violate Jewish law? What about watching it? These are not new questions. Rabbi
Moshe Feinstein (1895–1986), a prominent halachic authority, addressed a similar
issue in a book of responsa. “I was asked if it is permitted to earn a living
playing sports... as there is an element of danger,” he wrote in Igrot
“And I believe it is permitted, because... one may work in a field
that entails some risk.” However, the danger threshold acceptable to Feinstein
was only “one in a thousand.”
Judaism knew about the lure of risky sports
much earlier. Consider the talmudic figure of Resh Lakish, who began his career
as a bandit and gladiator before redirecting his energy to Torah study under the
tutelage of Rabbi Yohanan. Like many former athletes, Resh Lakish couldn’t stay
away for long. In tractate Gittin he returns to the arena, signing a lucrative
deal with an ancient sports agent.
For the athletically challenged,
tractate Avodah Zarah addresses a more relevant question: Can a Jew attend a
gladiatorial match? One opinion considers gladiatorial games prohibited because
of their “frivolity” (or worse: the medieval commentator Bach (1561–1640) reads
the line as, “because they are shedders of blood”). Surprisingly, other rabbis
Rabbi Nathan “permitted it, because the spectator may cheer
[for leniency] and save the life of the defeated gladiator.” If that didn’t
work, a fan could still come in handy: If a Jewish gladiator was killed, “the
spectator may verify the death in court so that his widow can
Of course, football players are not gladiators: They choose to
play and are well compensated for their efforts. But consent only goes so far.
For enough money, talented athletes, often from underprivileged backgrounds,
will continue to sacrifice their physical and neurological well-being for our
Should we let them? At what point does the fan become
complicit? Yet any movement to ban or change football will face severe
resistance. Consider the following: (1) On February 5, 2012, 111 million people
watched Super Bowl XLVI, the most-watched television show in American history.
(2) On September 27, 2009, after a flood of phone calls from angry fans, the NFL
changed the starting time of a New York Jets game so it would not conflict with
You get the sense that pro football – and its Jewish fans –
aren’t going anywhere.The writer is a fan of the Cleveland Browns. He is
also a fellow at the Tikvah Fund.This article was first published by
Jewish Ideas Daily (www.jewishideasdaily.com) and is reprinted with