What Can Sports Teach Us About Antisemitism?

Students in a football stadium holding signs that read "No to Hate"

© Chelsea Football Club

Sport is the setting of some of humanity’s greatest stories. Through the perspective of athletes, teams, fans, coaches, and others, we experience narratives filled with emotions and learn life lessons, like the fulfillment of success and the devastation of failure. Some of these stories are as short as an afternoon, like a pickup basketball game with friends, while others are lifelong journeys, such as unwavering fandom for a favorite team or the privilege of competing on the world’s greatest stages.    

We are mesmerized by our heroes, like Hank Greenberg or Aly Raisman. Yet, we also encounter villains; in sport, a dangerous villain arrives in the form of discrimination and oppression. 

The role of sports and organized athletics are most often considered a benefit to society and elevate a shared experience as a culture or nation. Throughout history, sport has been a means of recreation, social interaction, communal and national pride, and recently, a growing economic enterprise. These benefits and the place that sport often holds in our societies make athletics a force for positive change in the world. Athletes and teams are not just recognized for their success in their sports, but rather their ability to drive social change through advocacy. Sport offers the promise of social mobility and opportunity to immigrants and marginalized groups. Today, athletes, fans, coaches, and others connected to sport come from all stages of life, and are diverse in their ethnic, gender, religious and other social identities.  

Sports are often touted as a great equalizer, making sure that playing the game is open to all. However, sports can also be a vehicle for harmful elements in society like racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination.  

Sport has had an uncomfortable history with discrimination and oppression, such as baseball’s history of discrimination against African-American players and more recently American football’s reckoning with racial justice inspired by Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the National Anthem. Issues such as a lack of equal treatment and pay for women athletes and most recently, discrimination against transgender athletes have inhibited the otherwise positive role sport can play in society.  

Unfortunately, antisemitism has too often found sport as a willing vehicle for its hateful ideas. Antisemitism in sport follows the same template as we see across society. 

Antisemitic myths and tropes are used to justify the exclusion or oppression of Jewish athletes, coaches, and supporters; and antisemitic conspiracy theories are used to denigrate those same groups. Teams and organizations that are Jewish or perceived to be Jewish have also been targeted with antisemitic discrimination. In recent years, these antisemitic attitudes in sport have led to an increase in antisemitic incidents. This escalation of antisemitic incidents comes just as ADL has reported on Americans’ highest level of antisemitic attitudes in decades. According to ADL’s 2023 Report on Antisemitic Attitudes in America, 20% of Americans believe six or more antisemitic tropes, which is significantly more than the 11% that ADL recorded in 2019.  

Despite these challenges, sport remains a force for combatting discrimination and injustice. Athletes have been at the forefront of activism, often at great risk to their own careers. The fight against antisemitism has also found allies in the sports world through Chelsea FC’s campaign “Say No to Antisemitism”, Jewish athlete such as NHLer Zach Hyman speaking out against antisemitic speech, non-Jewish athletes like NFLer Zach Banner speaking out in the wake of the deadly shooting attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018 and NBA Hall of Famer Ray Allen’s commitment to Holocaust Education.  

What can sports teach us about antisemitism? By exploring the stories of Jews in sports, we can learn about their triumphs and tribulations but also, we can learn the story of the Jewish people. These stories illuminate Jewish peoplehood, religion and culture through the practices and values of these athletes and sports personalities whom we idolize for their performance on the field.  

Antisemitism relies on perpetuating false myths and stereotypes about the Jewish people. The athletes and teams that we look up to provide us with narratives to learn about and ultimately reject these false projections about the Jewish people. By examining manifestations of antisemitism as they appear in sports, learners have a connective vignette through which to examine the dangers of antisemitism. The intersection between sport and society further offers students the opportunity to analyze antisemitism as a complex system that harms society at large, not only the Jewish community. Learners can use this relationship to assess how antisemitism and other forms of oppression perpetuate injustice across society, not just in sport.  

Finally, the relationship between activism and sport has only increased in recent years. Athletes and the world of sport have made social change a priority. By engaging learners in thinking about championing justice, students can reflect on the role that the sporting world can play in combatting all forms of oppression, including antisemitism.  

Below are ADL’s mix of proactive and reactive resources designed to not only respond to incidents of antisemitism and bias in sport, but also to use sports as a vehicle to educate about antisemitism. Through ADL’s partnership with schools and communities, the story of antisemitism in sport can be one in which we discover ways to be champions in a more equitable and just society through education, advocacy and allyship. 

  1. A Guide for Responding to School Sports-Related Bias Incidents 

Athletic directors, coaches and school administrators play vital roles in creating an environment where all student-athletes can feel included and thrive. Just as schools expect staff, students and their families to uphold positive community values such as respect, inclusion and equity in the classroom and other places within the school, as well as in digital spaces, schools sometimes fall short of ensuring that these same values are upheld in their athletic programs. 

Educators and school administrators can actively challenge bias, cultivate inclusivity and model how students can do the same. By accessing the toolkit, educators and school administrators can gain resources and strategies for strengthening their approach and response to addressing incidents of bias in sport. 

  1. K-12 Lessons: Using Sports to Educate About Antisemitism        

ADL Education offers five unique lesson plans for educating about antisemitism through the lens of sports. These lessons follow ADL’s Unlearning Antisemitism educational framework and guide students to explore Jewish identity, examine and challenge antisemitism and ultimately, champion justice all through vignettes of sport. 

  1. Learn About the Work of ADL’s Sports Leadership Council 

ADL’s Sports Leadership Council is an executive council comprised of the most senior leaders in sports whose mission is to use the unifying power of sports to promote and achieve positive social change; not just on the field and in the locker room, but also in broader communities around the country and the world.