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Is Football Treyf?

Jerusalem Lions.

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 Be'er Sheva 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 Radio.  The future looks bright for football in the Holy Land.

Relevant Links
What Would the End of Football Look Like?  Tyler Cowen, Kevin Grier, Grantland. Two economists imagine how football-induced head injuries could lead to the demise of football as we know it.
American Football Gains Following in Israel  Ben Solomon, New York Times. “I sit and learn all day,” says the yeshiva student, replacing his cotton yarmulke with a polyester one for football practice. “I love to do this sport to stay healthy.”
The Israeli Football League  TMZ. Would you believe the league gets big funding from the owner of the Boston Patriots? (Video)
Judaism on Steriods  Micah Stein, Jewish Ideas Daily. Performance-enhancing drugs have a long history—both in baseball and in Judaism.

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 safety properly.  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.  Over 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 hits.

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.  CTE involves a wholesale breakdown of brain function marked by scar tissue, loss of neurons, attenuation of the corpus collosum, and neurofibrillary 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 syndrome.

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 Moshe.  "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 disagreed.  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 remarry."

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 entertainment.  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 Yom Kippur.

You get the sense that pro football—and its Jewish fans—aren't going anywhere.

Micah Stein is a fan of the Cleveland Browns. He is also a fellow at the Tikvah Fund.

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Christie Davies on March 30, 2012 at 9:55 am (Reply)
Of course it is treyf. It is the final victory of the Hellenizers over the frummies. Antiochus IV Epiphanes won after all.
I discuss this at great length in the section on Jewish jokes of my new book Jokes and Targets published by Indiana University Press. Jewish sons belong in sports medicine only.
DF on March 30, 2012 at 12:05 pm (Reply)
This is an ill-thought-out article. It attempts to put a religious spin on something obviously political. Such attempts are largely a phenomenon of our current century and reflect the hyper-regulatory society in which we live. Look at the attempts to turn smoking into a halachic issue, or the relinquishing of land in Israel. Has anyone changed his mind or practice because of supposed halacha? Of course not, because everyone knows these are not true halachic issues. The other problem is the enthusiastic support of the nanny-state, as in the phrase adding, incongruously, that athletes are "often from under-privileged backgrounds." There's no evidence for this, just the author's apparent assumption that since the majority of football players are black, they must perforce be poor. Surely the players in Israel, which I thought was the subject of the article, are not underprivileged. There's not much on which I agree with Teddy Roosevelt, but on this he was right. Leave football alone.
daveed on March 30, 2012 at 3:00 pm (Reply)
Isn't the regulation football made from pigskin? It's as kosher as a BLT!
zaydesvox on March 30, 2012 at 5:32 pm (Reply)
Let's face it, football is not Jewish. If Esau had gotten the covenant (heritage) from his father Isaac instead of Jacob the accountant, we Jews would have more NFL pro footballers.
Rich Rostrom on March 30, 2012 at 8:16 pm (Reply)
If American football is unacceptably hazardous due to chronic traumatic encephalopathy from repeated concussions or near-concussive head shocks, then so is soccer: Players routinely "head" the ball, sometimes off a long kick with substantial momentum. There are physicians looking into this practice as a cause of CTE.
Eric Golub on April 1, 2012 at 3:03 pm (Reply)
While a football is referred to as a "pigskin," it is actually not made from a pig--in the same way a hamburger is not ham. As a proud Jew and an NFL junkie, my biggest dilemma comes when the NFL playoffs conflict with Shabbos. Baruch Hashem for Tivo. Go Raiders!
eric aka the Tygrrrr Express
Charlie Hall on April 1, 2012 at 6:58 pm (Reply)
The article misrepresents Theodore Roosevelt's position on football. In fact, he intervened to force rules changes to eliminate most of the carnage:
Roni Z on April 2, 2012 at 1:53 pm (Reply)
It's articles like these that make Micah Stein one of my favorite writers. Go Browns!
Josh W on April 4, 2012 at 1:36 pm (Reply)
I enjoyed the nimble transition from criticizing the author for generalizing about African-Americans to generalizing about football players in Israel ("surely . . . not underprivileged"). Regarding what constitutes a "halachic issue," politics often touches on moral issues, which are indisputably the province of halacha. Otherwise, Judaism would have nothing to say about abortion, because abortion is a "political" issue.
Hilary Jenkins on April 4, 2012 at 5:51 pm (Reply)
The Americans play games peculiar to America so that they do not lose matches to lesser countries. New Zealand would beat them at rugby, South Africa at cricket, and Brazil at soccer. What is in it for Israel?
DF on April 5, 2012 at 12:15 pm (Reply)
You cannot move from America to Israel if you are poor. You cannnot buy football equiptment and insurance, as the article notes, if you are poor. So, if you're an American playing football in Israel, you're not poor. By contrast, there is no reason to generalize about football players generally and to patronizingly assume they are "underpriviliged."
Hilary Jenkins on April 5, 2012 at 6:29 pm (Reply)
Why don't the Israelis get the Arab lumpen to play American football for them? They are already the key soccer players. Who wants this goyische naches?
But would the Arabs agree for their women to be scantily clad cheerleaders?
Julian Tepper on April 12, 2012 at 10:13 am (Reply)
No, the pigskin is not treyf. Jews in football include:

Joe "Doc" Alexander, US, G, 2x All-Pro[6]
Lyle Alzado, US, DE, 2x All-Pro[47]
Harris Barton, US, OL, 2x All-Pro[109]
David Binn, US, Long Snapper, All-Pro (San Diego Chargers)[110]
Arthur Bluethenthal, US, C[6]
Greg Camarillo, US, WR (Minnesota Vikings)[13]
Noah Cantor, Canada, DT, Canadian Football League[111]
Gabe Carimi, US, OT, All-American and Outland Trophy (Chicago Bears)[112]
Brian de la Puente, US, G (New Orleans Saints)[113]
Hayden Epstein, US, K[29]
Jay Fiedler, US, QB[111]
John Frank, US, TE[109]
Benny Friedman, US, QB, 4x All-Pro, Hall of Fame[6]
Lennie Friedman, US, OL[6]
Antonio Garay, US, DT (San Diego Chargers)[114]
Adam Goldberg, US, OG (St. Louis Rams)[115]
Bill Goldberg, US, DT; professional wrestler (2x world champion)[47]
Marshall Goldberg, US, RB, All-Pro[6]
Al Goldstein, US, TE NY Titans
Charles "Buckets" Goldenberg, US, G & RB, All-Pro[6]
Randy Grossman, US, TE[116]
Phil Handler, US, G, 3x All-Pro[114]
Kyle Kosier, US, G (Dallas Cowboys)[114]
Erik Lorig, US, FB/TE (Tampa Bay Buccaneers)[117]
Sid Luckman, US, QB, 8x All-Pro, MVP, Hall of Fame[6]
Joe Magidsohn, Russia, Halfback[6]
Taylor Mays, US, S (Cincinnati Bengals)[109]
Sam McCullum, US, WR[118]
Josh Miller, US, punter[119]
Wayne Millner, Hall of Fame receiver for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Washington Redskins[120]
Ron "The Intellectual Assassin" Mix, US, OT, 9x All-Pro, Hall of Fame[6]
Ed Newman, US, G, All-Pro[6]
Harry Newman, US, QB, All-Pro[6]
Igor Olshansky, Ukraine, DL (Miami Dolphins)[109]
Merv Pregulman, US, T & C[87]
Adam Podlesh, US, P (Chicago Bears)[110]
Herb Rich, US, S, 2x All-Pro[114]
Sage Rosenfels, US, QB (Miami Dolphins)[110]
Mike Rosenthal, US, T[111]
Jack Sack (born "Jacob Sacklowsky"), US, G & T, All-Pro[114]
Geoff Schwartz, US, OT (Carolina Panthers)[121]
Mike Seidman, US, TE[122]
Allie Sherman, US, running back & coach[33]
Scott Slutzker, US, TE[111]
Josh Taves, US, DE[111]
Andre Tippett, US, LB, Hall of Fame[33]
Alan "Shlomo" Veingrad, US, OL[123]
Gary Wood, US, QB[33]

There are more, but not Tim Tebow.
Hilary Jenkins on April 12, 2012 at 2:14 pm (Reply)
The very fact that there are not many proves that football is treyf. Can anyone imagine anyone posting a parallel list on an Episcopalian website? Let us praise Jewish mathematicians, scholars,doctors, chess champions,entrepreneurs, and soldiers, not worthless footballers.

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