Society / October 16, 2023

The NFL Prays for Israel and Ignores Palestine

A few football fans started chanting “Free Palestine” during a moment of silence for the Israeli dead. It was a cry for Palestinian lives to matter as much as Israeli ones.

Dave Zirin
stadium NFL tottenham ravens played titans took a moment of silence to "stand with israel"

An interior view during the NFL football game between the Tennessee Titans and the Baltimore Ravens at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London, on October 15, 2023.

(Steve Luciano / AP)

The National Football League took its operation to Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London on Sunday, where the Baltimore Ravens were playing against the Tennessee Titans. Before the opening kickoff, the stadium announcer instructed fans to obey a moment of silence for the Israeli dead and pray for the safety of “innocent civilians throughout the Middle East.” At which point, a cohort of fans started to chant, “Free Palestine!” As the volume intensified, the “moment” of silence ended up being cut conspicuously shorter than the ones programmed for later that day in the states, although the NFL has denied pulling the plug early. The Daily Mail immediately posted that this chanting amid the league’s corporate-controlled political messaging “marred” the moment. But it marred nothing.

I am not sure there was much demand to hear what Commissioner Roger Goodell and the NFL think about the horrific events in Israel/Palestine. And yet the league, with its pompous belief that it matters far more than it does, decided to weigh in. First, it issued a statement, writing that it mourns “the loss of innocent lives in Israel and strongly condemns all forms of terrorism.” (Hamas is surely reeling at the thoughts of disapproval from Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.) Then, starting Thursday night and continuing through Sunday, the league held more pregame moments of silence. Major League Baseball went even further: The Philadelphia Phillies, before their playoff game last week, lit up the stadium in powder blue and white while displaying the Israeli flag on the jumbotron.

All the dead deserve to be mourned. That should be obvious. But it’s not obvious to the professional sports leagues. In NFL and MLB stadiums, the absence of words like “Palestinian” or “Gaza” in any of the carefully crafted statements preceding these moments of silence was striking. Even Tom Brady, in his post on the Middle East, mentioned “the people of Gaza” along with Israelis and mourned the loss of all their lives. (While acknowledging Palestinians was welcome, was anyone really asking for Tom Brady’s thoughts on this? We are a weird country. Does Boomer Esiason have a hot take on Azerbaijan?)

I am not arguing that Goodell is sitting around thinking, “I’m going to be a part of a project to exploit Israeli/Jewish pain in order to help justify the shelling of Palestinian civilians.” I cannot confirm that Goodell could even find Gaza on a map. But I do believe that the NFL is picking up on the pervasive sense that Palestinian life is just worth less. It’s not just the anti-Palestinian exterminationists on the hate platform formerly known as Twitter. It’s not just the Pulitzer Prize winners deciding that now is the moment to justify slaughter. It’s a New York Times editorial board that gallingly led with a column on Sunday originally titled, “Israel Is Fighting to Defend a Society That Values Human Life.” Innocents are being massacred from the sky; Gaza’s hospitals are bursting at the seams; UN facilities for the hundreds of thousands displaced are saying they lack water; and we are told this constitutes valuing human life. As Lenny Bruce said, “It’s a shanda, man.”

With the indifference toward Palestinian life being pumped throughout the mediasphere and NFL owners generally being to the right of Jim Jordan, it is not surprising they would fall in line and call for vengeance. Yet those voices in London are what should be remembered today. The media, the right-wing hordes, and the liberal left have found common cause in wanting the people of Gaza to die in numbers so high it will deter future Hamas attacks. (They have clearly never read a history book and thus believe that killing civilians won’t feed more violent revolt.) This is what they want, but there are voices saying no. Jews are getting arrested in cities throughout the United States, calling for a cease-fire. Thousands marched in D.C. on Saturday in the rain. The protest was diverse, vibrant, angry, full of families, and, based upon signs, included a significant Jewish presence. There was no “celebrating” Israeli civilian death. There was no “cheerleading Hamas.” There was fear and fury over the people of Gaza being killed and expelled from their homes, another Nakba taking place right in front of their eyes. This may have just been London, but the NFL had to at least hear that while it might play the tune, others are refusing to dance.

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Dave Zirin

Dave Zirin is the sports editor at The Nation. He is the author of 11 books on the politics of sports. He is also the coproducer and writer of the new documentary Behind the Shield: The Power and Politics of the NFL.

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