After many long months without professional sports in America, Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, and the National Hockey League are all set to start, or restart, their seasons in the next few weeks. I am looking forward to watching my beloved San Antonio Spurs once again, even if they have little to no chance of making the playoffs after 22 straight years. It’s going to be wonderful having the distraction of sports bring some normalcy to our lives, even if athletes playing in empty stadiums and arenas will make for a weird sight.
Rather than focus on games, since March sports discussions have centered either on the necessary COVID protections athletes will need or social justice issues. There have been some inspiring stories, like the WNBA star Maya Moore, who took a hiatus from basketball to work on criminal justice reform. She recently got to witness the release of Jonathan Irons, whose conviction she helped overturn.
When the NBA restarts its season next week it will have the words Black Lives Matter on the court, and many of its players, coaches and staff have marched in protests against police brutality and spoken out.
There have also, unfortunately, been examples of anti-Semitism from athletes and other celebrities in the name of social justice. Philadelphia Eagles player DeSean Jackson posted a quote falsely attributed to Hitler stating that the Jews “will blackmail America”. Many condemned his social media post, but others defended him, leading to some difficult reckonings in my personal fandom.
Former NBA player Stephen Jackson, who helped the San Antonio win the 2003 NBA championship, initially defended DeSean Jackson until he too apologized. On the other hand, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, whose Lakers used to destroy the Spurs in the 1980s, wrote a piece in the Hollywood Reporter condemning these recent anti-Semitic incidents. Sometimes your heroes disappoint you, and sometimes your enemies make you reassess your hatred.
Abdul-Jabbar made a point that one undertone from the controversy over these statements is a certain apathy to the experiences of others. The writer Jemele Hill also argues that just because one may be part of an oppressed community does not automatically make one sensitive to the plight of others. Jews are guilty of this too: our own pain can sometimes blind us to the suffering of other groups.
One of the important principles of Judaism is kol Israel areivim zeh bezeh, “all Jews are responsible for one another”. We understand that ultimately, we must rely on each other because we cannot expect others to do so, but that doesn’t mean we should sink into pessimism about all non-Jews. While our first priority is to fight for ourselves, we have plenty of fight left over for anyone who is in need. We hope, and expect, that other groups will rise up to defend us in turn so that together we can work towards justice for all.