Is Football Treyf?

By Micah Stein
Friday, March 30, 2012

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.

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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