Sports, Violence and Judaism

When do we excuse or overlook actions and when do we need to put our foot down?

Sports, Violence and Judaism
Kerr Street Cafe
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About the Author

Stephen Wise

Stephen Wise

Rabbi Wise has focused much of his rabbinate in striving passionately to connect Jews of all ages to their Judaism. Whether its through prayer services, learning or social action, each presents a gateway to stronger Jewish identity. Rabbi Wise has worked recently developing programming for young adults in their 20-30's, starting ongoing successful groups in NYC and Florida, reigniting their connections to Judaism. Rabbi Wise is the spiritual leader for Oakville's Jewish community, and his congregation is Shaarei Beth-El on Morrison Road.

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Usually when sports are in the news I’m interested, and mid-September is a great time, Baseball is headed to the playoffs, the football season begins and hockey and basketball training camps open. A bit of everything for every fan. Even God probably watches baseball, after all the first words in the Bible in Genesis are, “in the big inning”.

But these last few weeks have turned to the darker side of the sports. We have known for a while that athletes are not always the role models we want them to be. Perhaps decades ago it was not as visible but with new media and 24hr news cycles, nothing slips by anymore. We have seen the drug and cheating scandals. But now we are moving to the homes, where athletes are being accused and convicted of violent abuse and murder.

First, it was Oscar Pistorius, the blade runner from South Africa who was acquitted of premeditated murder, but is still guilty of the crime and will likely be convicted in some capacity for manslaughter of this girlfriend in his own house. How he was acquitted is reminiscent of OJ Simpson.

Now these past weeks have seen a rash of abusive football players.

  • Ray Rice, an all star running back for Baltimore was suspended from the league for beating is wife, captured on video for all to see.
  • 49ers lineman Ray McDonald, who was arrested last month on suspicions of domestic violence, and is being allowed to continue to play – this, despite the numerous calls, including from California’s lieutenant governor, to bench him.
  • Panthers’ defensive end Greg Hardy – found guilty of assaulting his girlfriend, and then he went on to play in the season opener.
  • Jonathan Dwyer found guilty of beating his wife.
  • Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who was indicted on charges of abusing his four year old son. Peterson had also been accused of abusing another son in 2013.

What I find hard to understand is how the athletes explain their violence. Peterson claimed hitting his 5 year old was similar to the beating he took from his own parents and was done out of love. Rice’s wife didn’t want to press charges against her husband for his violent actions.

The Bible has a passage about how to treat family members. In Deuteronomy we read the surprising and infamous passage about the rebellious son who is a drunkard and a glutton. His parents can take him out to a public place in the town and the townspeople can stone him to death. Scholars say that this represented a real reform over what was going on in the ancient Near East. Back in those days, they said, parents could kill their kids in private; now, they had to bring it out into the open. Of course the rabbis of ancient times took great pains to explain that this particular law was never enacted, and in fact it is only here as allegorical lesson about respect for parents.

Today where is the line between punishment or lovers quarrels vs abuse and breaking the law? When do we excuse or overlook actions and when do we need to put our foot down before the issue jumps up and bites us like it has over these past few weeks?

On the CBS pre-game show The NFL Today, NBA Hall of Fame recipient Charles Barkley defended Adrian Peterson and Ray Rice: “I’m from the South. Whipping — we do that all the time. Every black parent in the south is going to be in jail under those circumstances. We have to be careful letting people dictate how…”

To which interviewer Jim Rome responded: “It doesn’t matter where you’re from: Right is right and wrong is wrong.”

Is this a regional argument? A relativism between black and white? I don’t think so. I don’t think you can ever condone punishing a child through hitting, whether it’s with a switch or a hand, or though words or neglect. I was taught that it’s all abuse and there is no place for it. God would not stand for it, why should we?

Rabbi Jeff Salkin writes that perhaps the real god in North America these days is professional sports. Too many people are willing to avert their gazes, or to make excuses, or to ‘hem and haw’ about the violent proclivities of certain players. Because, after all, what do we call these players? Sports idols. They are not idols to be worshipped.

It’s time to have a proper conversation about the real lives of those who play professionally. We have already begun to talk about the potential risks of injury — long-term injury — that comes with certain sports. We have examined the effects of concussions on brain health. I think it has created a lot more safety standards in younger athletes and better protocols when injuries do happen. If Sidney Crosby can sit out a season with concussion symptoms, so can any athlete of any caliber in any sport.

Now that we have opened that conversation, can we broaden our scope and talk about the ethics of sports — that while, in the game, winning is the most important thing, in life there are other considerations. In sports each athlete needs aggression to compete at the highest levels. But can we tame that aggression off the field when we get home? In Judaism we call it yetzer tov (the inclination to do good) and yetzer rah (the inclination to do evil). We must keep the yetzer rah on the field, its part of the game, its part of life.

Each athlete wants to compete, to win, to do the best he or she can do. But this aggression must be left on the field. When it moves off the field to the home, there must be zero tolerance. Like performance enhancing drugs or gambling or cheating, there is no gray area. The athletes that have been suspended and punished for their aggression towards their own family members, whether out of love or their own upbringing, must be held accountable. They will not be permitted to be on the field, they cannot play in the leagues and they must be let go from their teams. This sends a message to every athlete and hopefully will trickle down to every sports fan.

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