The Morality of the NFL

The Super Bowl was the number one watched program of all time in the US with almost 115 million viewers.  Now this may be because you wanted to watch the ads or the halftime show with Katy Perry, but I would guess, that like me, many of you are football fans.

As you know, I am from Boston and a passionate New England sports fan.  So, I should be on cloud nine right now, as the Patriots just won their 4th Super Bowl.  I am pretty psyched – come on, an interception on the 1 yard line with 20 seconds to go – it was amazing.  Yet, it is with mixed emotions that I reflect on this year’s Super Bowl and really this entire NFL season.  How do I, as a moral person, continue to support as league that has disappointed me in so many ways.

The NFL has failed to uphold some of our society’s most basic ethical imperatives.  We actually read about many of them in this week’s parsha with the Ten Commandments.

I’ll be honest, my own New England Patriots are guilty of violating at least two of these top ten no-no’s:

Commandment #6 – “You shall not murder.”  On trial right now for double homicide is former Patriots tight end, Aaron Hernandez.  A young talented player with so much promise, Hernandez got caught up in the culture of violence bred by the NFL and committed the most heinous of crimes.

And the Patriots coach Bill Belichick violated Commandment #8 – “You shall not steal,” when back in 2007, the Pats were caught videotaping the New York Jets to steal their plays.  I think the jury is still out on Deflate-Gate so I will wait to make judgement on that one

Of course, it is not only the Patriots that have let us down.  The league leadership has missed the mark with Commandment #9 – “You shall not give false testimony.”  Commissioner Roger Goodell and league officials have lied to the public on numerous occasions, whether talking about how much they knew about Ray Rice or concussions.

Perhaps the most egregious sin though, is the way the NFL disregards the 2nd commandment –  “You shall have no other gods before me.”  Players, coaches and owners value money, fame and winning over the divinity in all of us.  The worship of these false idols leads the league to deny the severity of concussions, to refuse to change Washington’s blatantly racist team name, to create a culture where domestic violence is ok and where paying out bonuses, or “bounties”, for injuring opposing team players is seen as acceptable.

So what do we do about?

One answer would be to simply boycott the NFL.  Quite cold turkey, stop watching football and supporting them in any way.  If enough fans in America did this, it could have serious repercussions on the NFL’s finances through advertising dollars, merchandise and ticket sales.  Perhaps this a message that the owners, players and the commissioner would hear.  I have read numerous articles and blog posts from colleagues who have suggested this type of action.

For me however, this could never work.  Not just because I love kicking back after Berkman Mercaz Limud and watching football on Sundays, but because I would rather engage in a productive, positive way to support the NFL while still having my voice heard. For me, this is similar to how I relate to Israel.  Now, by no means am I saying that our relationship with the NFL is on the same caliber as Israel but I think it can help inform this situation.

There are those both within and outside the Jewish community that support the The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement (also known as BDS) a global campaign attempting to increase economic and political pressure on Israel.  My problem with the BDS movement is that it is disengaging.  When we withdraw, we no longer have a say.  As the famous sage Hillel once said, “Al tifros min hatzibur – do not separate yourself from the community.”

Instead of boycott and disengagement, I choose to love Israel and criticize her.  As Mark Twain once wrote, “Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.”  To be a true patriot of Israel is to engage – to always love and support her but not be afraid to criticize her if we do not agree with her current government’s policies.  Anat Hoffman, the head of the Israeli Religious Action Center often says that she shows Israel her love by suing her.

Just a quick plug – you can all have your voice heard in Israel by voting in the World Zionist Congress elections that are taking place right now.  By voting for the Reform Zionist slate – ARZA – you can help create a better Israel that reflects our progressive values.  An Israel that allows men and women to sit together on buses and pray together at the Western Wall, an Israel that gives funding to Reform synagogues, an Israel that is more tolerant of our LGBT community.  You can find information on how to vote at or on our Rodeph Shalom homepage.

Just as it is our obligation to make our voice heard in Israel, we must speak out about the ills of NFL.  Rather than boycotting and withdrawing from the conversation, lets help change it.

We can write letters to the owners of our favorite teams.  I personally have reached out to Robert Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots who I had the opportunity to met on several occasions including while working at the Kraft Center, the Columbia University Hillel, and while playing flag football in Israel at the Kraft Stadium.  I told Robert Kraft how I beleive it is his responsibility to create a culture in the Patriots organization in which cheating is not tolerated.

We can also support institutions that are working to solve some of the most pressing issues of the NFL like traumatic brain injury.  The CTE Center at Boston University is an example of such a place that conducts high-impact, innovative research on Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy and other long-term consequences of repetitive brain trauma in athletes.

We can also support the teams and players that are doing the right thing like Johnny Manziel, who after realizing that he had a substance abuse issue, voluntarily checked into rehab before becoming a danger to himself and his family and before become a bad influence on his younger fans.

In addition to the Ten Commandments, this weeks Torah portion, Yitro, recounts an important conversation between Moses and his father-in-law.  Yitro notices that Moses is single handedly acting as the judge for every dispute among the 600,000+ people and so he pulls him aside to offer some fatherly advice.  He basically says that this is not sustainable and that Moses can’t keep this up.  Yitro teaches Moses the importance of delegating, as he says in Exodus 18, “you [Moses] shall choose out of all the people capable men who fear God, men of truth, hating dishonest gain, and place these men over them, to be rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens.”

What I believe Yitro is essentially saying is that no one can be the moral compass of an entire people, it is up to all of us.  Whatever you may think of the NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell, he is only one man and can not be responsible for the moral failings of the entire NFL.  It is all of our responsibility.  Whether we are talking about the ancient Israelites, the modern State of Israel or the NFL, we all have an obligation to engage, to speak out and to be the change we wish to see in this world.

Shabbat Shalom.