Making a Football Stadium Holy

It’s football season once again. I was once a more rabid football fan (my team of choice was the Washington Redskins – which I now understand is named after a potato). Now, I’m not so sure. It is such a self-destructive game –and our fandom enables males of all ages to destroy their bodies and sanity in the name of a goalpost.

Then there are the fans – and the rituals associated with this pastime. You have probably never heard of Neto Villareal. He lived in Marsing, Idaho, where high school football is everything. Friday nights everyone came from miles around to cheer their Marsing Huskies. They had special cheers for the football players. If you were a Latino, the cheers were “Stupid Mexican!” and other profane statements.

Neto was a star Husky with a college scholarship in his future. The insults hurled at him and his fellow Latinos were too much to bear. He organized the other Hispanic players and they decided to stop playing until the insults stopped.

There was little support for him in the school. Because of this backlash some of the Hispanic players agreed to play. Alone, Neto approached the school board aware that at least one of its members was a guilty party. He did this so that “they can’t say nobody told them.”

While the coach and principal were not supportive, the student body president was. He wrote a letter on behalf of all the students, asking adults to stop the insults or be ejected from the stadium.
The next football game was homecoming. The students wanted the principal to read their letter before the game but the principal refused. The superintendent overruled the principal. A student was appointed to read the letter before the game – and the stadium dissolved into cheers.

There is obviously so much more to this tale than these few words can capture; anyone who has ever attended high school and lobbied for an ethical stand can attest to the dynamics presented here. But the story reminds me of a lesson I learned from Rabbi Harold Kushner years ago. He related that whenever he went into a classroom and asked the students to draw something holy they would inevitably draw a Torah scroll, the rabbi or some ritual object. When we teach our children that holiness resides in ritual and the synagogue, we exclude the potential for every act no matter how trivial to become holy as well.

Neto made that football stadium a holy place – and the game took on its aspects as well. If only we had the courage to require this attitude in all our endeavors.

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