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Posts Tagged ‘Who are real heroes?’

Those who know me know I am an inveterate sports fan.  Specifically I am a great football fan, being very loyal to the Philadelphia Eagles as well as my alma mater, the Pitt Panthers.  It was with chagrin but real admiration that I watched Jameis Winston take Pitt apart in the first game of this season.  It was clear that he is a player of great talent, truly a first rate quarterback.  As is often said in sports, Winston is the “real deal.”

But, this fall has been a football season in which I am rethinking my devotion to football.  On the pro level, there have been revelations about the long term effects of football on pro players.  With sadness I learned how former Pitt player and Dallas Cowboy Tony Dorsett is suffering permanent brain damage marked by memory loss, from the years of taking a constant pounding in the NFL.  The league is not adequately addressing either this or the frequency of players suffering concussions.  I am left wondering if football is really just as bad as boxing – nothing but gratuitous violence.

As to high school football, I have been reading some articles showing that high school education would benefit if varsity sports, especially football, were removed from school culture.  We are one of the few countries that connect competitive sports to our public education system.  All of the benefits of competitive sports could be had through participation in club sports.  The presence of varsity sports in high schools is appearing to be detrimental to creating a positive learning environment in high schools.  School districts that have eliminated varsity sports, particularly football (admittedly a small sample) have seen an increase in their students academic scores.

The grossest expressions of football culture, however, occur on the college level.  There are multiple problems: the inferior education given black players compared to white players, the veracity of the athletes truly being students, grade fixing…the list seems endless.  But perhaps the worst part of football in colleges is idol worship of the players, i.e. the elevation of players to hero status and subsequently forgiving the awful behavior of players needed to keep the team winning.  I saw this with Dorsett at Pitt in the 1970’s.  We are seeing it again with Jameis Winston at FSU right now.  This has become most apparent now that Winston has won the Heisman Trophy – college football’s highest award – last Saturday.  Look at the Facebook postings regarding Winston.  Countless posted how proud they were of Winston.  All of this was accompanied by the requisite “Go Noles!” along with the wish he leads the team to a national championship.  He is garnering accolades as a leader.  His success on the field, coupled with the award and all of the accolades declaring how proud people are of him, make Winston an example to young men all over the country.  He is now showered with fame and praise.

I have to ask if this is appropriate.  Why?  Well consider Winston’s escape from prosecution for a sexual abuse charge.  The whole affair is sordid no matter what the outcome.  The worst case scenario is this:  Winston escaped prosecution because State Attorney Willie Megg’s office could not or would not piece together enough of a case to charge him.  Once Meggs announced there would be no case brought against Winston. His exoneration caused a palpable sigh of relief in the football world.  That freed Heisman voters to cast their ballots for him (although there were 113 voters who did not even list him, which means they had moral difficulties with even considering him).  This leads us to the best case scenario surrounding Winston’s sexual episode.  He and the young woman had consensual sex, both of them as part of serial sexual behavior with multiple partners. Winston’s roommates watched them have sex through the open door to his bedroom because that is “what football players do.”  This is whom we wish to laud?

Do not get me wrong.  I am not a prude nor do I blame Winston.  He is merely the product of a culture that empowers those participating in football to play by different rules because of their contribution to the team’s success.  Absent such an obvious crime that conviction is inescapable, there are few moral consequences for football players.  All college players have to do is see the list of NFL players who get passes for behavior which would result in real punishment for the rest of us.  Few people really cared if the woman in the incident was truly abused.  Some even saw this as a plot to sabotage Winston’s Heisman hopes and FSU’s quest for a national title.  In addition, there were those who immediately vilified the young woman.

Most of all, I just cannot be proud of someone whose most noteworthy trait is the ability to throw and run with a football – no matter what kind of a fan I am.  I cannot be proud of someone who operates under this moral cloud.  Football would just be a trivial game if not for the dollars it generates.  The elevation of its players to hero status is a form of idolatry of the worse kind when it happens in the absence of admirable moral behavior.

All of this brings me to another point – who do I really admire?  Who is worthy of our pride?  Who should we look to for providing leadership?

Well, the same day Winston won the Heisman Trophy, a little 8 year old boy died after a long fight with leukemia – Sam Sommer – known to many as “Superman Sam.”  His parents are two rabbis, Phyllis and Michael Sommer.  I do not know them, but all you have to do is read Phyllis’s blog about their journey with Sam to share their grief, to have empathy with them as parents and to admire Sam’s courage as he faced death as well as their courage as they wrestled with their loss and shared this pain with the world.  You can read Phyllis’s entry the day of Sam’s death here:  http://supermansamuel.blogspot.com/2013/12/what-im-missing.html

Needless to say I am proud of my colleagues Phyllis and Michael Sommer even though I have never met them.  Needless to say I am proud of Sam for demonstrating the beautiful lessons a child can teach us in the face of the harshest of tragedies.  And I am also quite proud of 36 of my rabbinic colleagues, many of whom I do know, for taking part in a special event at the upcoming rabbinic convention in March.  They will shave their heads as part of a fundraiser for battling childhood cancer.  See the details at this link:  http://www.stbaldricks.org/events/mypage/10921/2014

Who is it that makes me proud?  Yes, it is a little boy who taught us with his courage as he lost his struggle with death.  Yes, it is his parents whose words will help other parents cope with their grief.  Yes, it is 36 rabbis who demonstrate real leadership by rallying around the Sommer family to tangibly contribute to a cure for children’s cancer.  I hope you will join me in supporting their cause.

As to Jameis Winston, the Heisman Trophy, and football in general, none of it has ever seemed more trivial than now.

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