Ever since I first embraced the mad romance of sports’ fandom as a boy, a romance that I have never outgrown, I just assumed that the reason there weren’t more Jewish professional athletes is that Jews weren’t very good at sports. A genetic thing. Sure, there was an occasional Hank Greenberg or Al Rosen or the sainted Sandy Koufax, but they arrived with the frequency of Halley’s Comet. The squalid European shtetls from which most of our ancestors came, I figured, were not conducive to the brawny and the speedy. We Jews had to devise other talents.
It never occurred to me then that we might actually have been victims, yet again, of a conspiracy that denied Jewish athleticism. It never occurred to me that there might have been a subtle anti-Semitism at work.
And then came Josh Rosen aka “The Chosen One.”
In case you’ve never heard of Rosen, he is the tall (6’4”), lanky, rocket-armed, Jewish quarterback, late of the UCLA Bruins, and soon-to-be in the National Football League. Rosen was already a prodigy at St. John Bosco Prep in Bellflower, California, a Catholic school, where he led the team to the state championship and was named the California Player of the Year by the Los Angeles Times. He was also ranked the best high school quarterback in the country. College coaches salivated. He was that scarce a talent — a lock.
And Rosen fulfilled the prophecy. Starting at quarterback as a true freshman, the first ever for UCLA, he threw for 3669 yards and 23 touchdowns in his freshman year and completed 60% of his passes. Limited to six games by a shoulder injury in his sophomore year, he nevertheless threw for nearly 2000 yards, and in his junior year, he threw for a school-record 3756 yards with 26 touchdowns and a 62.6% accuracy rate. The kid was good — really good. He projected to be the first or second player chosen in the NFL draft to be held on April 26 and 27. A rare Jewish athletic success story. Finally.
But something has happened on Rosen’s way to draft day, and it has nothing to do with his physical gifts. It has to do with the perception of Rosen, or, rather, with the NFL’s perception of what an athlete should be. No fan needs to be reminded that the NFL is antediluvian. It lets its players get concussed and then fights remunerating them for the injury. It resists the establishment of a real union to defend the players as Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association’s unions do. And it discourages the free expression of ideas or any form of deviation from the norm. In short, the NFL encourages compliance, conservatism and cowardice. As every fan knows, former San Francisco 49er quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, who led a sit-down protest against police brutality, has been effectively banished from football, even though an ESPN survey last year ranked him as the eighth best quarterback in the league — a league desperate for quarterbacks. Just not so desperate that the need for talent outweighs the need for obedience.
This is the league toward which Josh Rosen was headed when he declared for the draft last year after his junior season. But Rosen, it seems, now has a big NFL problem. The problem? He is no stereotypical jock. Rosen’s father is an orthopedic surgeon who was on Obama’s short list for surgeon general, and his mother is a Princeton graduate and a journalist as well as the great great-granddaughter of Wharton of the Wharton Business School. Rosen isn’t accustomed to submissiveness. He has an attitude. He had the temerity to say that “student athlete” is an oxymoron and told Bleacher Report, “There are guys here who have no business being in school, but they’re here because this is the path to the NFL… Raise the SAT requirement at Alabama and see what kind of team they have.” One UCLA teammate marveled, “For God’s sake, he reads books on the plane.”
Nor was he afraid to talk politics. He posted a photo of himself on Instagram on a Trump golf course wearing a hat that proclaimed: “F—k Trump!” And in a Player’s Tribune interview he expatiated at length on Trump’s “demagoguery and bigotry.” He openly discussed how he would use the platform he hoped to gain on the field to change society off the field. And he committed a mortal football sin when he admitted that he preferred not to be drafted by the Cleveland Browns, the woeful franchise that owned the first choice. Even before his sophomore season, Sports Illustrated titled its cover story on Rosen: “Big Arm? Big Mouth?” A more recent interview in ESPN the Magazine was bannered, “Josh Rosen is Not Just Going to Shut Up and Throw.”
As the draft rolls around, it is clear that among football executives and the football press, Rosen has crossed a line most football players dare not cross for fear of hurting their draft stock, and Rosen may very well have hurt his. “Too smart for his own good?” one announcer asked during the Cactus Bowl, which Rosen missed due to a concussion. SI’s football insider Peter King reported that a lot of NFL brass didn’t like Rosen personally and hinted that the fact he came from wealth could affect his draft status. ESPN draft maven Todd McShay questioned whether Rosen was coachable and whether he “loved football” enough or had too many interests, then dropped him from second to fifteenth. One NFL executive was quoted as saying that Rosen might be better off doing humanitarian work. But the piece de resistance was his own coach, Jim Mora, telling ESPN that he thought the Browns should draft USC’s Sam Darnold first, not his own quarterback, because Darnold was more blue collar and a better fit for a town like Cleveland, while Rosen might be better off with one of the New York teams. Rosen was, said Mora, a “challenge.”
As much as this may sound like an animus toward Rosen for bucking the NFL’s vaunted regimentation, it has another unfortunate subtext that Jews know all too well. Too smart. Reads books. Not coachable. Liberal. Rich. Doesn’t love football. Might be better off doing humanitarian work. (Are you kidding me?) Big mouth. And belongs in New York! Mora might as well have said “Jew York.” With all these euphemisms swirling around him, Rosen was not being attacked for not being a stereotypical dumb jock. He was being attacked for being a stereotypical Jew. The not-so-hidden code was that the NFL with its button-down types and its militaristic discipline didn’t want to deal with an intelligent Jew who had a mind of his own and might damage the brand with the league’s largely conservative fan base.
Jemele Hill in “The Undefeated” commented that Rosen was getting a “taste of what outspoken black athletes experience all the time,” but Hill’s analogy while close was inexact. What Rosen was getting was a taste of what black athletes had suffered for years when they were precluded from being quarterbacks because they weren’t deemed smart enough to hold the position, or what blacks suffered when they were precluded from coaching a football team or managing a baseball team because, in the immortal words of the late Dodger executive Al Campanis, blacks may not have some of the “necessities” to do so –—meaning the smarts. In Rosen’s case, he was too smart to quarterback. And that’s what Hill didn’t reference — the underlying reasons for the NFL’s ostracism. It wasn’t about outspokenness. Players weren’t punished when they were outspoken against, say, gay rights. It was about being black or about being Jewish. It was about being uppity interlopers in the right-wing football world.
So, I wonder now how many other high school or college Jewish athletes might have been ostracized for their intelligence and assertiveness long before reaching the professional ranks, and how many might have been perceived as poor fits in the anachronistic, thick-headed, acquiescent sports culture of ours. Early in the last century, Jews seeking white-collar professional jobs had run into prejudice: Jews Need Not Apply. Thankfully, that has largely vanished. But not, apparently, in the National Football League, where Jews just might be too smart for its own good. If Josh Rosen plummets in the draft, you’ll know why. It’s not because he aspires to be a great humanitarian. It’s because he’s a Jew.
Is The NFL’S Anti-Semitism Hurting Josh Rosen’s Draft Stock?
Neal Gabler is the author of “An Empire Of Their Own: How The Jews Invented Hollywood.”
Is NFL Anti-Semitism Hurting Josh Rosen’s Draft Stock?