Sports should sow unity, not devolve into hatred

Last week, a high school championship soccer game between a Miami Jewish day school and a local Catholic school ended with an ugly on-field brawl. There have been reports that the brawl started after Catholic students made antisemitic slurs against the Jewish players, with one parent alleging students were using slurs such as “Hitler was right.”

Throughout history, sports have inspired the world, uniting seemingly opposite walks of life, easing tensions in the process. Like a knife, though, sporting events can cut both ways. They can be used for evil purposes, such as at the 1936 Olympics held in Berlin, when Hitler banned all Jews from the German team and used the event to promote Nazism. There was also the 1972 Munich Massacre, when terrorists viciously murdered 11 innocent Israeli athletes.

By the same token, sports has the rare ability to serve as a common denominator, as a source of reconciliation and mutual understanding. First held in 1932, the Maccabiah Games, often called the Jewish Olympics, are the third largest international sporting event in the world, after the Olympic Games and Pan American Games. Last year, President Biden became the first U.S. president to attend the Maccabiah Games in Israel. His presence not only showcased Jews in sports, but also highlighted American support for Israel.

“What you’ve done is you’ve demonstrated to the world that you can do anything, and I’m so damn proud,” Biden told the crowd at the opening ceremony. “You think I’m kidding you, but I’m not.”

Then there is the famous Sandy Koufax story, when he opted not to pitch in Game One of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur. To this day, Koufax’s act of religious commitment has transcended sports. It has come to symbolize the power of embracing our differences; how these differences should be celebrated, not denigrated. “A man is entitled to his belief and I should not work on Yom Kippur. It’s as simple as all that,” he said to the press at the time.

Another example of sports opening the door to mutual understanding and dialogue occurred in 1971, when China invited the U.S. to take part in table tennis exhibition matches. The event would later be known as “ping-pong diplomacy” because it helped ease Sino-American relations and paved the way for Richard Nixon to visit China the following year.

Athletic competition should never devolve into an ugly forum to express hate and antisemitism. It should be a space where people of all backgrounds can express love, creativity, and friendly competition. What happened on that Miami soccer field is abhorrent and should never be repeated. There is no tolerance for such a disgusting display. Hopefully, those involved can learn more from their mistakes and learn to celebrate all of our differences through the positive nature of friendly competition.

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