Live Like We Play: A Rabbi's Perspective

Reposted from Rabbi Erez Sherman's January 15, 2024 article "Blacks, Jews and the Bond of Sport" on the important lessons of Martin Luther King Day, faith and sports.

Rabbi Erez Sherman shares his views about "The Spirituality of Sport" at the 2023 Sport At The Service of Humanity Conference hosted by Marquette University

“It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.”

This is the first sportsmanship lesson we teach our children. Play hard, shake hands, and make sure to say, “Good game.”

Earlier this month, there were no handshakes in a high school basketball game between The Leffell School, a Westchester Jewish day school, and Roosevelt High School in Yonkers.

The game was forfeited by Roosevelt due to antisemitic remarks made to the Leffell team. The aftermath: a coach fired, a student athlete kicked off the team, and headlines asking, “How did antisemitism enter the sacred sanctuary of sports?”

Today we celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  The 1965 picture of King marching arm in arm with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in Selma, Ala. depicts two leaders in two very different communities, with one goal of finding common humanity.

Yet, 59 years later, what have we learned if we cannot complete a basketball game without antisemitic slurs being tossed around as freely as three-point shots?

Unfortunately, this is not a new challenge.

While interviewing athletes, coaches, and journalists on my podcast, “Rabbi On the Sidelines,” I have asked each guest, “Do sports and faith intersect?” The answer is obvious: Yes!

No matter how hard we try, it is impossible to shed the essence of our core, on or off the court.

While sports should be a place of healthy competition uniting different religions and cultures, it can also be a space that when left unchecked, can release antisemitic tropes and other forms of bigotry.

A few examples of illustration:

ESPN’s college basketball analyst Dan Shulman, while playing basketball in the 1980s at a public school with a sizable Jewish population had money thrown at him during layup lines.

Seth Greenberg, of ESPN’s “College Gameday,” while coach of the Long Beach 49ers in 1996, found a message on a locker room board at New Mexico State calling him a “Jew bastard.” His post-game response? “Antisemitism is alive and well.”

As recently as last year, Kyrie Irving of the Nets, lit a firestorm with his antisemitic tweet and his non-apologetic apology.

Fortunately, sports also gives us transformational moments that create alliances and teach us lessons we must translate to our lives after we shake hands with our opponents.

In January 2022, when NBA player Meyers Leonard used antisemitic language during a live streamed video game, he took immediate action by apologizing and learning about the Jewish community firsthand.

I will never forget the tears in Leonard’s eyes when I invited him into my synagogue, Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. As he high fived the children whom he originally disappointed, Leonard told me his greatest mistake became his greatest blessing.

This MLK holiday, we can do better by discovering unifying stories to share that will inspire us to overcome the obstacles of the past. In this regard, the sports world is a treasure trove.

Just last week, I met Jenny Johnson Jordan, head coach of the UCLA beach volleyball team, UCLA volleyball national champion and a USA Olympian of the Sydney games. Her father, Rafer Johnson, was a 1960 gold medal Olympic decathlete.

When Johnson enrolled at UCLA, he was the first Black student to join a national fraternity. The one that welcomed him was a majority Jewish, Pi Lambda Phi. Almost three decades later, when Johnson lit the 1984 Olympic torch in Los Angeles, he wore a Jewish star, in solidarity with the community that stood by his side in challenging times.

For every despicable act we see highlighted on the court, we know there are hundreds of others that promote the values that we aspire the sports world to represent, a space where we can gather safely, get to know the other, and learn about the gifts we all have to offer.

This past fall, I attended the conference of Sport at the Service of Humanity Conference at Marquette University. Sports and faith leaders gathered under the leadership of Big East Commissioner Val Ackerman, who explained the charge: Sports must be a vehicle of unity to create a peaceful world through inspiration, inclusion and involvement. I witnessed Black and white, Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim unite because we all love the world of sports.

This moment must not be a stand-alone. Each moment two teams line up to compete must also be an opportunity to live out the values we believe.

Pope Francis teaches, “Live like you play.” With this in our hearts, we can be certain that every game will end with a handshake.

Sherman serves as co-senior rabbi at Sinai Temple, the largest Conservative synagogue in Los Angeles, and hosts the podcast “Rabbi on the Sidelines.”