Letters to the Editor
Ed. note: we have updated this page on Feb. 14th to add a letter from Jordan Soffer. Yoni Zolty’s letter below first appeared on Lehrhaus on Feb. 12th.
R. Jeffrey Fox recently authored an article in Lehrhaus outlining a potential halakhic prohibition against watching football. R. Fox is a talmid hakham, a mentsch, and an amazing example of Torah leadership. He is a mentor of mine who constantly seeks to illuminate the world with a Torah of lovingkindness. With regard to this particular piece, however, R. Fox has confused his own discomfort with an actual halakhic (or meta-halakhic) prohibition. He relies on flawed logic and misrepresentations of traditional texts.
The question of whether or not football is a prohibited activity (either for recreation or entertainment) hinges on two basic questions: 1) How much risk is prohibited (or framed positively, how much risk may one incur) in the name of entertainment? And, 2) How much risk to life is posed by modern American football? With answers to these two questions, one can understand the acceptability of football fandom. It seems to me that R. Fox has misrepresented the answer to the former and ignored entirely—or at the very least failed to contextualize—the answer to the latter.
To evaluate Judaism’s risk-tolerance, R. Fox draws a comparison between modern football players and ancient gladiators. However, as R. Yoni Zolty’s letter below points out, a key distinction is in the freedom and compensation of the two. Beyond that, the NFL has invested millions into making the game safer, changed several rules, and significantly updated helmets and pads. According to the source R. Fox cited, Judaism’s discomfort is with the pursuit of death. While both gladiators and hunters participated in that pursuit, football players do not.
As R. Fox mentions, weeks ago the world watched with horror as Buffalo Bills star Damar Hamlin laid motionless on the field. The heroic efforts of the team’s medical staff and the doctors at the hospital resuscitated him and ultimately saved his life. While a superficial understanding of this story may validate R. Fox’s depiction of football, the reality is quite to the contrary. When it appeared that a player may have died, the entire game was paused and ultimately canceled. This response contrasts sharply with the conduct of Roman amphitheaters. And while the NFL’s attempts to cover up the incidence of CTE were wrong and inexcusable, the NFL has responded with an astounding 44 rules changes to mitigate these effects. Furthermore, as R. Zolty points out, R. Fox does not contextualize the risk of football within the wider world of sports.
However, there is another reading of the Gemara that R. Fox glosses over, which is more problematic for American football. The prohibition, according to this read, is not on violence, but on activities that are either a waste of time or overly engaged with secular culture. In this understanding, the halftime show is as problematic as the game itself. Modern Orthodox Jews must contend with this concern.
R. Yitz Greenberg, a shared rebbe for both me and R. Fox, speaks about man’s partnership with God. The world, he teaches, was not created perfectly. Hashem’s design included human participation and partnership. The Torah believed in the potential of redemption and perfection, but also is written in the language of reality. The Torah, accordingly, pushes humanity to move towards goodness, rather than demanding it immediately. So too, football was and remains a flawed game. Rather than claiming it is prohibited, however, observant Jews ought to advocate for its movement towards improvement. Only then can we truly be called “רחמנים בני רחמנים – merciful the descendants of merciful.”
As a longtime football fan, I must admit that in his recent Lehrhaus article R. Jeffrey Fox (and those who have written similarly) raises some very disturbing points about the ethical issues of watching and thereby tacitly supporting a violent sport. The revelations over the past decade of the pervasive incidence of CTE amongst former players from repeated head trauma—as well as the NFL’s attempts to cover them up—are deeply troubling. Nevertheless, I believe four points need to be considered with regard to the substance of his argument:
1) R. Fox (and others) argue that football glorifies—or at least encourages—violence. As evidence, he quotes from a few prominent former players who embraced that aspect of football. Even if he is correct—and I’m not sure he is for most NFL players—is it true with respect to viewers? Perhaps I am in the minority, but I certainly do not watch football for its violence or the “big hits.” In fact, those are the parts where I cringe. Instead, I watch football for the impressive feats of athleticism, the various schemes and formations, the beauty of a well-coordinated RPO, and the highlight-worthy catches. My sense is that the same is true for most viewers and even most players. Of course, this doesn’t obviate the reality that the sport is violent and players are seriously injured, but it frames the discussion differently. Viewers of a gladiator match or a hunting chase watch for the violence—in the NFL, I suspect that most viewers watch despite the violence.
2) The issue of consent. In both models that R. Fox suggests—gladiators and animal hunting—the victims are coerced. In football, the players voluntarily choose their profession (and are handily rewarded for it), as is evidenced from the few players who have voluntarily retired early (like Andrew Luck). It is true that for many players born into a low socioeconomic class football is a means of escape and the financial allure is undeniable, but that is still a world apart from imprisoned gladiators or hunted animals.
3) The Halakhah is clear that while you are allowed to permit another to damage your property you cannot permit another to hurt your physical body (Rambam, Hovel u-Mazik 5:11). Less clear, though, is Halakhah’s response to an observer: what responsibility—monetarily and ethically—does a viewer have watching people voluntarily injure themselves for financial gain? Especially when the goal of the sport is not definitionally to injure (as it is in boxing) but is solely a byproduct of the way the game is played? Moreover, if there is an ethical problem in watching someone injure themselves, where do we draw the line? Almost every professional sport causes permanent and serious damage to one’s body due to the repeated aggressive and dynamic movements. (See, for instance, how many reparative surgeries are performed even on children(!) playing basketball and baseball. Should we not watch those sports as well?
4) In evaluating the costs of football, we must also admit its benefits. To list just a few: football provides an opportunity for thousands of young men to receive a college education, creating pathways out of poverty for them and their communities. It gives many an avenue to channel some of their aggression. It creates a sense of comradery and purpose amongst teammates and amongst fans who root for a common cause, encouraging social diversity and communication between diverse socioeconomic and racial groups. We must also consider what we would lose were we to stop supporting football.