Jews & Football

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


Football - The Jewish Experience


Last week I sent my publisher, The Haworth Press, a new manuscript entitled: The American Identity: What Football Means to U.S. Although there are now about 2,300 books concerning football in print, I decided to write another one because my book does not deal with the history of football or the careers of football players or the techniques of playing offense or defense. Instead, I wrote a social-psychology of football and therefore included the Jewish experience concerning this important game.

At present there are seventeen Jewish football players on the teams of major football universities, the Canadian Football League or the NFL.

Prior to 1948, when Israel became an independent country, Jews everywhere were suspected of having no fighting ability, no physical courage and no sports competence whatever. The reasons for these suspicions can be found in European Jewish history, which is best described by saying that the “Jews of Europe were treated in the same fashion as the blacks in Mississippi before the civil rights movement.”

It is not necessary to here refute these bigotries. Suffice it to say that behavior is learned and that the anti-Jewish beliefs and attitudes of American college administrators, faculties and students allowed Jewish students to enter American institutions of higher learning in very limited numbers until after World War II.

Therefore, Jewish students were seldom represented among the elite football playing colleges like Harvard, Yale or Princeton at a time when college football, and not professional football, received most of the attention of the American public.

At the eve of World War II, i.e. in 1939, the “Ivy League” elite colleges of the U.S. were almost totally closed to Jewish students. This had come about because in earlier years, i.e. during the ‘20’s and ‘30’s, these colleges selected their freshman classes by giving applicants an examination so that only those were admitted who scored high on such a test. However, by the middle of the 1920’s the examination system had been abolished because “too many” Jews and other ethnics had passed the examination with high marks. Therefore the three “Ivy League” colleges, Harvard, Yale and Princeton, and other colleges, decided in the 1920’s to abandon academics as the center of attention for their students and to substitute athletics. Indeed, scholarship was "looked down upon".

As scholarship declined, only those who lacked the financial resources and cultural values that marked the “gentleman” now achieved high grades and engaged in scholarship. These were the Jews, who looked upon college as an elevator for upward social mobility. Christians, overwhelmingly Protestants of English ancestry, opted for “a gentleman’s C”.

As the Jewish students entered Harvard, Yale and Princeton in ever greater numbers in the 1920’s, White, Anglo-Saxon Protestants feared that their dominance of the “Big Three” colleges was threatened. They therefore decided to impose a quota system restricting the number of Jews accepted each year.

That quota system was enforced until the Second World War produced so many veterans whose tuition was paid by the U.S. Veteran’s Administration that these prejudices could no longer be supported, as every “Tom, Dick and Harry” came to the Ivy League colleges and other schools at the expense of the government.

Nevertheless, the inclusion of Jews into the so-called “elite” colleges of America was not fully achieved until the revolutionary ‘60’s. In the 1950’s anti-Jewish discrimination continued in many schools, as depicted in the movie School Ties, which deals with the rejection of a Jewish student by his classmates when it became known that he, the star quarterback on the school team, was Jewish.

Inspection of a list of Jewish football players reveals at once that before and after the imposition of the anti-Jewish quota system, there were Jewish football players on the teams of Harvard, Yale and Princeton. For example, Phil King was an All-American in the 1890’s at Princeton. Israel Levine played for Pennsylvania in 1905-1906 and Ralph Horween played for Harvard in 1916. Thereafter, only the great Sid Luckman played for an “Ivy League” school before 1945. Luckman, however, played for Columbia University, a college which also tried to keep Jews out or at a minimum. However, because Columbia is in New York City with its large Jewish population, it was more difficult for Columbia to impose a Jewish quota on admissions than was true in other localities.

Luckman is now a member of the Columbia University Football Hall of Fame and of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. After playing halfback at Columbia, Luckman joined the Chicago Bears in 1939 and played quarterback.

Ron Mix, also Jewish, began his career in 1960. Ron Mix has been called “the greatest tackle who ever lived.” He was born in Los Angeles in 1938 and attended the University of Southern Calfornia on a football scholarship. He played for 12 years with the San Diego Chargers. His career as a lineman was so impressive that the Chargers retired his number, seventy-four. In 1969 Mix was named to the all-star AFL team and in 1979 he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Mix studied law at night during the football season and became known as “the intellectual assassin”. He practices law in San Diego and represents retired players in workmen’s compensation claims for athletic-related injuries. After Luckman and Mix, Jewish football players became commonplace in the NFL and in colleges throughout the country, including Jay Fiedler, an engineering graduate of Dartmouth College and starting quarterback for the Miami Dolphins.

Fiedler’s career statistics in the NFL are: Played 55 games, started in 42. He completed 720 passes for a 60.0 percentage. He has passed for 8,413 yards and achieved 50 passing touchdowns. His quarterback rating is 79.6. Consider also this: when Fiedler injured his thumb and could not play last year, the Dolphins played 6 games and compiled a 2-4 record. With Fiedler, Miami finished 7-3.

Mike Rosenthal is another successful NFL player. He was a star offensive lineman at Notre Dame and was drafted by the New York Giants in 1999. He is 6’7”, weighs 315 lbs. and is indeed a Giant. In March 2003 he became an unrestricted free agent and then signed with the Minnesota Vikings for $1.8 million.

There are also Hayden Epstein, Lennie Friedman, Antonio Garay, Ben Mahdavi, Josh Miller, Gus Ornstein, Sage Rosenfels, Mike Saffer, Mike Seidman, and Josh Taves, all NFL players. Noah Cantor, another professional, plays for Toronto in the Canadian Football League.

Is it not refreshing to read about these Jewish football players instead of hearing about yet more Jewish diploma chasers (present writer included)?

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including Grandparents:  A New Look at the Supporting Generation (with Dr. Ursula A., Falk, 2002), & Man's Ascent to Reason (2003).

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