Memphis Grizzlies forward Omri Casspi, who was born in Israel, was early in his NBA career when he saw a picture of himself defaced with a swastika. Arizona Cardinals quarterback Josh Rosen grew up with kids who made fun of the size of his nose.
New England Patriots receiver Julian Edelman has heard anti-Semitic taunts during games, but he had been willing to write them off as opposing fans “just trying to get underneath your skin.”
“You’ve been called stuff here and here,” Edelman said. “But nothing to the extent where it’s got me feeling the way a lot of Jews are feeling right now.”
In the month since a massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh killed 11 and injured six others, Jewish athletes said they were shocked by the shooting yet not concerned for their own safety as they travel, train and compete.
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“There’s crazy people out there, and it is what it is,” Casspi said. “The notion is that anti-Semitism is dead – it’s always going to be (around). Some people are just like that. There’s going to be racist people, there’s going to be anti-Semites.”
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Robert Bowers has pleaded not guilty to murder and hate crime charges in the October 27 shooting during Shabbat morning services. He remains jailed without bail.
Americans of all religions have rallied in support for the victims of the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history. Hometown quarterback Ben Roethlisberger wore cleats integrating a Jewish star into the Steelers logo, along with the words “Stronger than Hate.”
But for Jewish athletes, the shooting hit especially hard.
“I’m horrified by it,” said Los Angeles Angels manager Brad Ausmus, who managed the Israeli team in the 2013 World Baseball Classic. “Just the callousness and the loss of life. It takes someone that’s unhuman to do something like that to innocent people.”
Jews in the United States have long cherished role models like Detroit Tigers slugger Hank Greenberg, Chicago Bears quarterback Sid Luckman or Olympic swimmer Mark Spitz. And any history of Jewish athletes includes the time Dodgers ace Sandy Koufax refused to pitch in the World Series because it conflicted with the holiday of Yom Kippur.
Other Jewish players remain scattered throughout sports – a point of pride for fellow Jews but also a potential target for anti-Semitism.
“Sometimes people don’t even think they’re being racist but they might be a little offensive,” Rosen said.
Casspi said he has always felt safe in the U.S., but while playing in Europe his Israeli team at times encountered violent protesters or played with no fans in the arena out of safety concerns.
Athletes speak often of worrying only about things within their control; as far as game preparation goes, racism and religious bigotry qualify as distractions. And so Edelman’s inclination was to “keep your head down” and not let it bother him.
“A lot of guys have got to deal with a lot of stuff when it comes to name calling,” he said. “You get so wrapped up in football and your assignment that you brush stuff off and don’t let it get to you. ... You take the high road, and you go from there.”
But after the synagogue shooting, Edelman decided it was time to go public.
Following the Patriots November 4 victory over the Green Bay Packers, he wore an Israeli baseball cap for his postgame interviews as a shoutout to those in Pittsburgh.
“It’s disgusting what happened. And I’m just backing them up,” he said in a follow-up interview. “I’m proud of who I am and what I am. Just to let these victims know: ‘We’re all with you. This is a very tough time for you. I can’t even imagine. But you have support.’
“It’s not like one of those things where you’re gonna put your head under the ground and kind of hide,” he said. “You’re gonna say, ‘Hey, that’s what makes us stronger.’”
Rosen has also embraced his Judaism, developing a celebration dance called “The Hebrew Hammer” in the hopes that he can be a role model for Jewish fans and also a leader in a locker room that includes a variety of races and religions.
“You can identify with any leader or role model you want. I’m just trying to be a good one,” he said. “It [Judaism] is a part of me that I’m proud of, culturally.”
Ausmus said many of the Jewish baseball players feel a kinship, some of it from being part of a minority in the sport and some from playing together in the World Baseball Classic. This “has kind of fostered that feeling of connection,” he said.
“They’re spread throughout ... 25 different organizations, they come together,” Ausmus said. “Every four years, you make that connection based on your heritage.”
A three-time Golden Glove catcher who went to Dartmouth and played 18 years for four major league clubs, Ausmus said he wasn’t particularly religious when growing up with a Jewish mother and Protestant father.
The only time he experienced anti-Semitism as a major leaguer was when a fan shouted things at a teammate.
The thing is: the teammate wasn’t even Jewish.
“His last name sounded Jewish,” Ausmus said. “So the fan was ignorant in a couple different areas.”