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Michael Neuman: Fighting Hate and Anti-Semitism In Sports

Michael Neuman, the first Orthodox Jew to defeat a professional athlete to win CBS’ “Million Dollar Mile” parkour competition, is now hosting a livestream titled “Jews in Sports with Michael.” Known for wearing his kippah to the finish line, Neuman has now turned toward bringing strong Jewish personalities into the spotlight and gathering Jewish athletes for meaningful conversations about the role Jews play in society. The show is Neuman’s brainchild, and is presented in conjunction with Aish.com and the nonprofit Jewish Inspire Foundation.

A July 12 livestream was scheduled to bring together the best current and former Jewish football players in its “biggest virtual summit.” As the date approached, however, a surprising event sent shockwaves through the football community and beyond, immediately changing the show’s planned focus.

Philadelphia Eagles player DeSean Jackson posted a quote falsely attributed to Adolf Hitler on Instagram, disturbing his 1.4 million followers, teammates and Jewish supporters worldwide.

Outrage against this anti-Semitic, yet seemingly misinformed, remark grew when ex-NBA star Stephen Jackson defended the claim. Stephen hosts a popular podcast, where he has emerged as a popular Black Lives Matter proponent since the death of George Floyd. Insisting on his public platform that DeSean was “speaking the truth,” he even doubled down on his assertion when that truth was contested. When they were finally admonished and even DeSean admitted his mistake, Stephen apologized.

The July 12 installment of “Jews in Sports with Michael” delved into this issue in the form of extremely thought-provoking discussions. Former Carolina Panthers player and current podcast host on ESPN Radio Geoff Schwartz explained, “People asked, ‘Why didn’t more players forcefully rebuke his comments?’ There are four or five Jews in the NFL; there is no connection between the players and Judaism because there aren’t a lot of us, whereas it is so easy to see the pain many Black NFL players are feeling because of George Floyd’s death.”

A current tight end for the Tennessee Titans, Anthony Firkser supposed that “the biggest thing we have to do is show people that Jews aren’t that different; we have a similar belief system and we’re normal humans.”

Neuman, who currently practices psychotherapy in Florida, offered a psychological angle: “Humans are not keen on letting nature take its course and letting bad things happen to them. We are mentally disposed to create an enemy and make sense of the persecution we feel.”

“As seen with the rhetoric of Hitler,” he continued, “Jews are the easy scapegoats because we are so different.”

Neuman continued to explain that our enemies take an active effort in making Jews feel different and secluded, emphasizing their differences and dehumanizing them. Hate has manifested itself as a universal language both within individual psychologies and across huge time spans in history. Therefore, while education remains a priority, Jews should not always remain on the defensive. Neuman asserted that they must be proud and proactive in the fight against hate, but “it starts with the tone you set,” he said, “because it’s more comfortable and easy to fall into a fear-based defensive reaction which does more harm than good.” Instead, one should fight from a strength of power and pride, making a positive impression and educating others in the process.

“I wear my kippah on every televised Spartan Race,” Neuman said, “because when the world sees me as a strong, Jewish victor, it leads them to question their prevailing preconceptions and stereotypes about our people.”

The virtual summits that Neuman hosts are a continuation of this positivity, where now the focal point is education, discourse and mutual understanding. He hopes to inspire people to actively stand up against hate, to take the education route whenever possible and to serve as an inspiration for others.

Schwartz commented on his decade in the NFL and the lack of discussions on and off the field about the Holocaust, Judaism and other religions. “It has never made more sense until now,” Schwartz said, for the NFL to become a leader in educating its players.

As former NFL offensive lineman Adam Bisnowaty pointed out, “Especially as an NFL athlete where everything is so magnified on these high-end prospects, in today’s society, someone’s always looking for the next big story,” so players need to think twice about what they’re saying. For a league that bands so many people together and elevates a substantial few to the global stage, the NFL is a place where tolerance, education and activism should be prioritized.

Current kicker for the Titans Greg Joseph elaborated on this, commending the New England Patriots’ Julian Edelman for “reaching out and saying that I’d like to help educate (Jackson) and understand you better.” Indeed, many of the players speaking in Neuman’s live conversation emphasized this need to understand one another.

Segueing into a more general conversation about common understanding and unity, Neuman posed a simple question: “What is the most spiritual moment you’ve had on the football field?” At first, this confounded the barely observant players, but Neuman clarified by pointing out his feeling of spirituality when he won “Million Dollar Mile” with his kippah on. The players soon related over times when they felt that they were contributing to a larger cause.

“We’re at our most spiritual when the team is celebrating,” Schwartz said, “when there’s a big play and we’re cheering together while we reach this common goal as a team.” In this way, spirituality is built into the foundation of football and athletics in general, in that everyone has a role within a greater whole. Thus, locker rooms should be a place where players can comfortably discuss their differences and find meaning in what unites them.

Member of the AFL All-Time Team and 1979 Pro Football Hall of Famer Ron Mix weighed in: “My belief is that DeSean Jackson should be admired for his willingness to learn the truth—that Jews have been the most valuable friends the Blacks have ever had in the fight for social and economic justice.”

94 year-old Holocaust survivor Edward Mosberg, who believes that the fight against racism and anti-Semitism are “highly connected,” has invited DeSean Jackson to visit Auschwitz with him. DeSean, who showed little or no knowledge about the Holocaust, immediately accepted the invitation. Over Zoom, Jackson expressed his eagerness to learn about the atrocities of the death camp, and Mosberg, who frequently speaks at schools across the country on the very subject, was keen on helping him out.

Josh Gindi is a graduate of Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston and is interning at The Jewish Link this summer.

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