Friday, February 5, 2016

The Sermon I Won’t be Giving This Shabbat

The Sermon I Won’t be Giving This Shabbat, But Wish I Was --
On Mishpatim, the NFL, “Concussion,” CTE, and Responsibility
Rabbi Steve Weisman – Temple Solel – Bowie MD – Feb. 5, 2016

To make perfectly clear – the reason I am not giving this sermon this Shabbat is NOT because I find it in any way inappropriate.  It is merely because I am not schedule to preach this evening at all.  To the contrary, I believe it IS worth preaching, which is why I wrote it anyway, so I could post it on my blog, and spread the message this way.  As a result, knowing I am not bound by time restrictions, it is a little longer than usual.  But the silence on these issues has also gone on far longer than it should have.  So….

Frame 1 – Setting the scene of Torah -- Last Shabbat, we all stood at the base of Mt. Sinai, and experienced God’s presence, as we heard the Ten Commandments spoken to us from on high.  Now, this Shabbat, in parshat Mishpatim, Moses is up on the mountain, and God is filling his head with lots of other ethical/legal statutes.  Most of these fall under the category that modern lawyers refer to as “tort law,” issues of responsibility and recompense for injuries or property loss suffered by one party by the actions or inactions of another.

Among the best known material in this portion are two bits.  The first, is the so-called lex talionis – the “law of retribution,” known better as “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.…”  The second, is a sequence of differentiated responses when a pregnant woman is injured accidentally by two men quarrelling with each other, which frequently serve as one of the foundation points for a Jewish “pro-choice” position on abortion rights.  All this Shabbat’s material – large or small, well known or not – combine to strengthen the ethical underpinnings upon which the Jewish community is supposed to operate in our dealings with each other and with our neighbors.

Frame 2 – Setting the Cultural Scene for the Weekend – For those who may not have been aware (LOL), this Sunday is the Super Bowl ™.  Oh, sorry, I am not allowed to refer to it as such in public, because I do not have the proper licensing from the NFL to use their trademarked name.  I should have said this Sunday is “the big championship professional football game.”  This is not merely a football game – this is a football game on a scale of a major game of what the rest of the world calls “football.”  People have seriously suggested, for some time now, that the scope of interest in this game is so large, that the Monday after should be a national holiday, so we have a day off to recover.  The two days of the year when Americans, as a whole, overeat the most, are Thanksgiving and the day of the “Big Game.”  And, with some fanfare this year, the ugly truth has emerged that the site of this game, each year, becomes one of the year’s biggest locations for human trafficking and prostitution activities.  So many reasons for national pride here – NOT!  And don’t even get me started on the unresolved issue of the trademarked name and mascot of the local team!

Frame 3 – Beginning to Raise the Issues with the Game Itself -- American professional football, right now, is a flawed product – far beyond the obscene drain on productivity caused by games, especially this Sunday’s, and the equally obscene advertising rates charged for air time before, during, and right after the “big game.”  It has become a televised spectacle, which uses instant replay to correct calls potentially made in error by part-time, untrained officials, who, as if that weren’t bad enough, after the first round of the playoffs, are put together as a team only for one game (albeit, a team of officials allegedly made up of those who rated the best during the regular season at their particular sub-specialty of officiating), with no practical opportunity to adjust to working together.

Under a claim of wanting to “get the calls right” to justify the microscopic critique of human calls made in real time, the NFL further damages its own product by creating a farce of a system for utilizing the replay technology, designed more to entertain viewers than get calls right, or provide fairness in the outcome of the game.  And, as a direct result of replay usage, the league has micro-defined certain elements of the game, such as what constitutes catching a pass, within an inch of their lives, far beyond either fan or player common sense recognition, and almost to a level of making the game impossible for referees to control in real time.

Rather than fixing the problems on the field of play, the league’s officials are also now overreacting, after years of willful ignorance, to inappropriate off-field player behavior.  In short, whether it is actually true or not, the average American AND the more involved true fan often believe that the league’s leadership is interested in profits and ratings first, good publicity second, making an entertaining show third, the integrity of the game on the field only fourth, and the health and safety of the players who make all of the above possible, last.

Frame 4 – Identifying the Real Issues -- And yet, like rats on crack, we Americans, many of whom have no interest in football on any other day of the year, will get together with friends, overeat, wager on the game, argue over the quality of the commercials, critique the quality of the halftime act, and generally turn the day into America’s version of the “bread and circuses” that symbolized the decline and fall of the Roman Empire under the weight of its own ethical lapses.  Even in this year in which the movie “Concussion” should have, once and for all, moved the NFL’s blatant disregard for the lives and safety of its players into the limelight!  Even this week, when the tragi-comedy that the life of former Heisman Trophy winner, now NFL failure, Johnny Manziel has moved from the football field to the point where his agent has dumped him and his father publicly fears for his long-term survival if he does not get himself help to deal with his issues.  Yet the NFL rules for not overshadowing “The Big Game” prohibit his team from releasing him until after the Game.  Even this week, when, despite the mountain of evidence against the league, their alleged leader, Commissioner Roger Goodell, who has never met a television camera he didn’t love, or a story he couldn’t spin to ignore the pack of elephants on the playing field, once again got up, and turned his “State of the Game” message into a glowing denial, in which everything is right with the game, a poor rip-off of the riot scene from the end of “Animal House,” in which an overmatched Kevin Bacon screams to the onrushing crowd “Remain calm, all is good,” just before being trampled by them into the ground.

Long before the biggest scandal connected to the movie “Concussion” was the failure of the Hollywood elite to extend a Best Actor nomination, richly deserved, to Will Smith for his portrayal of the African-born doctor who first identified the condition now called “chronic traumatic encephalopathy,” or CTE, and its role in early onset dementia, and an overly large number of other health problems and mental illness manifestations that have killed more than a few high profile football players prematurely, this movie should have made Americans sit up and take notice of what has been happening in professional and amateur football for too many years without appropriate response.  Sadly, the Oscar-related controversy seems to have derailed the REAL scandal of this movie – the true story it told of cover-up, willful denial and negligence on the part of billionaire owners and their minions in the league office, afraid to risk their profits, even for the sake of player safety and survival in the face of undeniable evidence.

The movie explains, in layman’s terms, the frightening long-term impact of multiple concussions, but even worse, the damage done by “the compilation of sub-concussive hits over time.”  It focuses on the very real, high-profile cases of the first few players to be confirmed with the condition.  The problem is, CTE can only be positively diagnosed in an autopsy, after the victim has already died, as was the case again this week with the announcement that Ken Stabler, former quarterback of the Oakland Raiders, who died a few months ago from cancer, also suffered from an extremely advanced form of CTE.

I remember sitting in the theater, sitting with both my kids, and my daughter’s boyfriend, a young man who is actually an (off-field) employee of a professional football franchise, watching “Concussion,” and who left the theater as disturbed with the dissonance between his lifelong love of the game and the reality portrayed so clearly on the screen as I was.  For me, hearing the descriptions of the damage, and the behaviors the condition could cause, reminded me that this was NOT the first time I had learned of this condition through pop culture sources.  So I went and looked it up.

Sure enough, in December of 2011, during their 13th season, Law and Order:  Special Victims Unit did an episode called “Spiralling Down.”  The guest star was Treat Williams, playing a popular retired NFL quarterback accused of a crime against a woman.  As the case plays out, it becomes clear that he is no longer always in control of his behaviors, and showing signs of advanced dementia as well, which may have resulted in his alleged attack happening without his awareness or control.

This was SVU taking on the headlines that went with the original public disclosure of CTE, and creating a case.  I remember watching the episode, thinking that Williams was playing a character based on Joe Namath.  In truth, the character’s name was Jake Stanton, which, in retrospect, and influenced by this week’s news about Ken Stabler, makes me believe the character was written based on Stabler, but played like Namath.

Frame 5 – The Bottom Line – A big part of the drama in the true-life story of “Concussion” was the sad truth that the “powers that be” that control professional football at first refused to admit that CTE was an actual condition, then claimed that it wasn’t a real problem.  Only when the evidence started to mount, were they forced to admit the truth.  But, at that point, rather than take responsibility, and work to improve conditions and save lives, they opted instead to simply control the spin on the issue.  I cringed hearing “Commissioner Goodell claim this week, with a straight face, that the league has made substantive changes to improve player safety.  Sure, more concussions were reported, and more players forced to sit if concussions were either suspected in game, or confirmed.  Perhaps some equipment has been improved.  Rules have been tinkered with off the field.  But, enforcement on the field is, at best, inconsistent.  Several high profile cases occurred this year in which players who should have been prevented from returning to play were not.  Rules “refinements” on the definition of a catch in the end zone for a touchdown now almost beg a defensive back, in a last ditch effort to prevent a score, to attempt to separate a receiver from the ball by separating him from his senses unnecessarily. 

In one particularly galling and egregious incident, the outcome of a playoff game turned when a runner was illegally hit and knocked out on the field, and in the process, quite understandably, lost control of the football before hitting the ground.  Not only did the officials fail to penalize the illegal hit that knocked out the runner, as they are supposed to do, but after also failing to note the fumble, the rules allowed the team that committed the felonious assault to challenge the ruling on the field.  The rules further prohibited the officials from acting to correct their failure to penalize the guilty player and his team, and prohibited them from “doing the right thing” and continuing to refuse to recognize the “fumble” that resulted.

But “Commissioner” Goodell and his talking head PR team think the game is great, and the rules are fine, and they are making the players safer.  Excuse me, but I am throwing a penalty flag and calling “BS” on them.  I, for one, refuse to be silent in the face of such self-serving nonsense and lies!

Not when, in the meantime, more professional players’ lives are being destroyed with each violent tackle or block – legal or illegal.  Worse, by failing to take any meaningful ameliorative action, despite claims of concern and action, they are continuing to endanger the lives of young children whose parents allow them to get involved in youth football.  The fact that for these young children and their parents, the willfully dangerous decision is often strongly influenced by an equally noxious truth that for many inner-city, lowest income kids and families, football represents the best, and often only, potential path out of poverty and away from crime infested neighborhoods, only makes the continued denial and failure to improve conditions that much more heinous.

And for those, like the “leadership” of the NFL, who claim that there is not more that can be done, I offer the case of the Seattle Seahawks, who, for the past two years, have focused on teaching their players a different way of tackling.  The techniques are used in professional rugby, a similar game that is played without protect helmets or heavy pads, and involve driving towards a tackle more directly, far less frequently placing one’s own head in the line of the contact, targeting the ball carrier in the safe middle zone of their body, which is, not coincidentally, also the most effective place to achieve the goal of stopping a runner. 

They are the only team taking this approach.  Not coincidentally, they have had one of the best defenses in the league the last couple of years.  And they have suffered among the fewest concussions in the league since they started this approach, despite the number of reported concussions rising significantly in that time, despite the commissioner’s claims that players are now safer!  And yet, no other teams are copying them.  The league has not stepped in to evaluate and learn.  Few, if any, mainstream sports media outlets are reporting on this phenomenon.  And no one in authority has yet made the obvious suggestion to look at rugby, and consider the impact of the “protective” helmets and pads on the damaging contacts, with an eye to getting rid of them, and making players far more accountable, through increased risk to themselves, for their contact with other players. THAT would be a change for the better!

Frame 6 – Tying It All Together – I find myself asking tonight, what Mishpatim would have said about the sordid reality that is professional football today?  IMHO, the ethical system upon which Judaism is built, much of it expressed in this week’s Torah portion, clearly obligates the powerful to act with awareness for and concern about the impact on the weak; clearly values life and health; clearly expects and requires justice and fairness, honest communication, and admission of responsibility at all times.

On ALL of these yardsticks, the behavior of the NFL leadership towards its players and its game falls woefully short.  That they leave themselves open to the interpretation that they are more interested in maintaining their own personal profits and power than they are about the health and safety of those who work for them, or the integrity of the game, and the impact they have upon American society as a whole, only makes this a bigger set of failures.

In other words, according to this week’s Torah portion, this IS a Jewish issue – or at least an issue that Judaism DOES speak to quite clearly.  And yes, there may be larger issues in the world today that also cry out for our outrage, our advocacy, and our action.  But try to convince the families of the several dozen players who have already died and been posthumously diagnosed, or of the far too many others whose behavior, or injury history, now raise warning flags that they, too, may have already been permanently damaged by CTE, that there are bigger issues.  Try to convince the growing number of parents, now up to 30%, who, when surveyed, say they would NOT let their children start to play football, because of the potential danger.  Or the too many parents who are ignoring the data, and riding their slim hope of athletic success in football as the vehicle to escaping their poverty and dangerous neighborhoods – but at what price?

Because, if we learn anything from Mishpatim, it is that, even as an ethical society must assign monetary values to many daily realities of life, there is no price that we can ethically place on the value of human life.  And, while football may be a game, it is also a big business, and, until the concussion issue, and other issues, are properly addressed, an engine of life endangerment.

So, no, I will NOT be watching the game on Sunday.  I have never been so thankful that my team did not win this year, making this an easy decision for me.  I do not expect that anyone of significance, or even any of you, will be influenced by my decision, that my personal boycott will change any of the issues for the better.  But I will sleep better, happier that I am living my ethical values.  And I will keep pointing out the hypocrisies, the moral aversions, the outright transgressions, but most importantly, the dangers connected to this sport, and inviting others to break themselves of their football “habit,” to speak out and act in support of their values and the value of life.  Because if I don’t, it is very possible that no one else will.  And I cannot live with the guilt on my conscience that will come from continued silence.

Because Mishpatim also teaches us, in words repeated by the Rabbis in Pirkei Avot, some 1700 years ago, that “All Israel is responsible, one for the other;” that in a community, everyone has responsibility for the well-being of everyone else.  And THAT is a teaching central to my self-identity as a Jew, one that I strive to live by every day.  One that makes the difference between our success and failure as a community.  And THAT is a result I AM willing to bet on, and DO care about making real.

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