Q. Isn’t the football hype idolatrous?
A. Sport in itself is a wonderful invention. Go back to the earliest pages of the Bible and you discover that the ancient Israelites were a hardy, energetic people involved, among other sports, in running, archery, ball-playing, dancing, swimming, weight lifting and sling shooting.
After the Biblical period other sports became popular, ranging from gladiatorial contests to juggling. The Talmud advises fathers to teach their children to swim. Tacitus, no admirer of Jews, observed that “the bodies of the Jews are sound and healthy, and hardy to bear burdens.” Yet the official Jewish attitude to sport was somewhat reserved because of the association of idolatry and nakedness with athletics. In addition, the rabbis felt that too much sport kept people away from school and synagogue.
Today a further distinction has to be made between sport in itself, with its rhythm, gracefulness, bodily co-ordination, and sheer zest, and the sporting industry, which turns sport into a commodity to be commercialised and exploited. Robert Boyle writes in his “Sport Mirror of American Life” (1963, pages 3-4), “Sport permeates any number of levels of contemporary society, and it touches upon and deeply influences such disparate elements as status, race relations, business life, automotive design, clothing styles, the concept of the hero, language, and ethical values”.
Gone is the sheer enjoyment and exhilaration of stretching one’s limbs and developing prowess and sportsmanship. Sport is now something to be exploited and used for ulterior motives. How can it be right for sportspeople to sell their talents to the highest bidder or for sport to become a pawn in politics and racial tensions? In South Africa sport used to be bound up with apartheid. In Australia, Aboriginal teams tend to be disadvantaged in terms of funds and facilities. Where is the equity when sport is not open or accessible to all? Sport needs its ethics just as any other human activity does.
But in itself neither sport nor any other major human interest is necessarily idolatrous. Some people worship money, others sex, others success, power and status. But provided one leads a balanced life and does not fiercely concentrate heart, mind and soul on any of these things - or on sport - they are not idolatry. From the Jewish point of view one would, however, like to see people not only playing or following sport but also davening at the appropriate times and also exercising their minds with Torah.