The Military and Sports

Back in July 2011, I wrote an article on how sports were being militarized in American life.  On this subject as well as protest by (mostly) Black athletes, there’s a new book out, The Heritage, written by Howard Bryant, a journalist for ESPN.  The book is excellent and is truly required reading for all sports fans, and indeed for all concerned Americans.
Sports have become infected by often pro forma, often coerced, often empty displays of “patriotism” that consist of gigantic flags, flyovers by combat jets, the wearing of faux camouflage uniforms by players, and similar displays.  (There’s nothing wrong, I should add, with teams and players supporting military charities and the like.)  These so-called patriotic displays are celebrated and applauded even as rare and respectful protests by players are attacked as unpatriotic and un-American.
Every military member knows that our oath of office is to support and defend the U.S. Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.  The enemies of our Constitution are not those players who take a knee in protest when they know it’ll prove unpopular; the enemies are those who attack those players while hiding behind the military and the troops.
Dissent and protest is American; it’s what our founders dared to do against long odds when in 1776 they declared their independence from a powerful empire.  Isn’t it astonishing that in these days so many Americans need to be reminded of this vital fact?  W.J. Astore, 6/10/18


The Militarization of Sports — And the Sportiness of Military Service

Originally posted in July 2011.

Connecting sports to military service and vice versa has a venerable history. The Battle of Waterloo (1815) was won on the playing fields of Eton, Wellington allegedly said. Going over the top at the Battle of the Somme (1916), a few British soldiers kicked soccer balls in the general direction of the German lines. American service academies have historically placed a high value on sports (especially football) for their ability to generate and instill leadership, teamwork and toughness under pressure.

But in today’s America, we are witnessing an unprecedented militarization of sports, and a concomitant emphasis on the sportiness of military service. With respect to the latter, take a close look at recent Army recruitment ads (which I happen to see while watching baseball). These ads show soldiers lifting weights, playing volleyball, climbing mountains and similar sporty activities. The voice-over stresses that army service promotes teamwork and toughness (“There’s strong. Then there’s army strong.”) There are, of course, no shots of soldiers under direct fire, of wounded soldiers crying for help, of disabled veterans. Army service in these ads is celebrated as (and reduced to) an action-filled sequence of sporting events.

Today’s militarization of sports is even more blatant. Consider this excellent article by U.S. Army Colonel (retired) Andrew Bacevich, which highlights the “cheap grace” available to crowds at major sporting events. For-profit sports corporations and the Pentagon join hands to orchestrate pageants that encourage (manipulate?) us to cheer and celebrate our flag, our troops and our sports and military heroes, as the obligatory fighter jets roar overhead.

Now, I’m sure there are well-meaning people who see such pageantry as an uncontroversial celebration of love of country, as well as a gesture of generosity and thanks to our military. And this retired veteran admits to feeling my heart swell when I see our flag flying proudly and our troops marching smartly. But the co-joining of corporate-owned sports teams and events (which are ultimately about entertainment and making a buck) with the military (which is ultimately in the deadly business of winning wars) strikes me as more than disturbing.

To cite only one example: The San Diego Padres baseball team takes “tremendous pride” in being “the first team in professional sports to have a dedicated military affairs department,” according to a team press release quoting Tom Garfinkel, the Padres president and chief operating officer. But is it truly “tremendous” for sports teams to be creating “military affairs” departments? As our sporting “heroes” celebrate our military ones, does not a dangerous blurring take place, especially in the minds of America’s youth?

War is not a sport; it’s not entertainment; it’s not fun. And blurring the lines between sport and war is not in the best interests of our youth, who should not be sold on military service based on stadium pageantry or team marketing, however well-intentioned it may be.

We’ve created a dangerous dynamic in this country: one in which sporting events are exploited to sell military service for some while providing cheap grace for all, even as military service is sold as providing the thrill of (sporting) victory while elevating our troops to the status of “heroes” (a status too often assigned by our society to well-paid professional athletes).

Which brings me to a humble request: At our sporting events, is it too much to ask that we simply “Play Ball?” In our appeals for military recruits, is it too much for us to tell them that war is not a sport?

Think of these questions the next time those military warplanes roar over the coliseum of your corporate-owned team.

9 thoughts on “The Military and Sports

  1. I’m not a sports fan, but the most important impetus in this sports militarization is to aid recruiting, isn’t it? The military is expanding while facing a shrinking pool of eligible recruits, since over seventy percent of America’s youth is unfit for military service for various reasons. This has led to waivers and excessive promises that can’t be kept, and also expensive bonuses for young people to sign up and then sit around the barracks reflecting on the promises they were given.
    The “bread and circuses” with the war-based national anthem and fighter flyovers are great shows also designed to distract ordinary folks from their mundane lives in the midst of rampant crime, homelessness, unemployment, fake news and ridiculous politicians.
    After all, the USA has been a national security state since at least 1947, a place where Job-1 for the government is to keep us safe, especially now with the worsening of relations with our neighbors to the north and south, as well as the presence of dastardly “terrorists” in Africa and such far away places, not to mention the “revisionists” in Russia and China.


  2. A few weeks ago, in a familiar routine, the Marine recruiters came to our high school. They bring a chin up bar. They bring lots of swag–water bottles, key chains, t-shirts. The boys stand in a circle and alternate chanting encouragement or derision as the gym rats pound out pull-ups. The girls stand in a bigger circle and watch. I don’t pretend to know what the girls are thinking, but I do know that for some of these boys, this is the first time girls are noticing them. Many women serve in the armed forces, but you wouldn’t know it from this display–it’s a testoterone-fest. The Marines award t-shirts and fist bumps to those who can do lots of pull-ups– as if modern warfare depended primarily on athletic ability. This scene plays out in high schools around the country– although probably not so much in Newton, MA or Palo Alto, CA.

    They also bring a few boys who, just a year or two ago were ordinary high school students– not necessarily the best students and probably not the best athletes, either. They are now transformed into American “heroes” complete with military bearing and the best looking dress uniform in the armed forces.

    I feel profoundly uncomfortable with this atmosphere. It feels like an exploitation of adolescence, to take advantage of all those hormones coursing around– all that shaky body image and self doubt–to offer transformation into an object of worship. High school boys feel ordinary, perhaps even invisible–by junior year it’s obvious that professional sports is not in their future. If you can’t be Tom Brady, you can be the next best thing– an American hero who will be honored at half-time.

    Indeed, as you point out, “War is not a sport; it’s not entertainment; it’s not fun. And blurring the lines between sport and war is not in the best interests of our youth, who should not be sold on military service based on stadium pageantry or team marketing.” This style of high school recruiting is in the same category and should end.

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    1. Yes. Exploitation is the right word. When I was in Pennsylvania, I remember military display vans at the Little League World Series. Kids played military-related video games in these vans. I suppose they were too young to sign up at 12, but the military was looking ahead to high school and generating that spark of interest in all the “cool” toys the military has.

      Junior ROTC and military recruitment in high school: I would forbid both. If people want to send their kids to military schools, that’s another matter. Trump apparently attended one for “discipline,” and look what he achieved … what a man he’s become.


    2. @ CS
      Some random comments
      >What a shame that this can happen in our schools.
      > War still does depend upon physical strength and endurance. Heavy weapons, ammunition and fellow soldiers might have to be carried distances, for example.
      >The Marines are especially active in getting them very young for recruiting. The Young Marines is a national non-profit 501c(3) youth education and service program for boys and girls, age eight through the completion of high school. Young Marines do events like decorating graves with flags for Memorial Day as here which I believe is sick.
      > It’s too bad such displays of militarism with impressionable children at least can’t be balanced with peace studies, to include presentations from veterans against war: Vietnam Veterans Against War, Iraq Veterans Against War, Veterans For Peace, etc.


    3. Cathleen:

      Sometime in 2004, my younger brother Jack, the high school history and English teacher, football coach, and U.S. Army veteran, challenged me, a U.S. Navy Vietnam veteran, to write an anti-war poem that he and his fellow teachers might use as counter-recruiting material whenever the Army and Marine Corps came around looking for more replacement bullet-catchers. He provided me the poetic stanza format — the same one he had given to his English classes — and I still haven’t stopped looking for new rhyme schemes fourteen years later. Anyway, for you and your fellow teachers, my first two attempts:

      Bread and Circuses
      (in the Gaelic Bardic verse style)

      Mired in heat and dust and sand
      Gallant band of brothers true
      Country’s service is their aim
      Death and maiming is their due

      In where angels fear to tread
      Foolish, dreaded leaders rush
      Bringing power’s fearsome groan
      Leaving only graveyard’s hush

      “By the pricking of my thumbs”
      This way comes the wicked pawn
      Drunk with drinking conquest’s draught
      Juggernaut goes crushing on

      Won with honest trifles’ lure
      Still so sure in dwindling light
      Now betrayed in consequence
      Of the senseless, needless fight

      Can this be the path they chose?
      How can those who serve inquire?
      Why has this rough beast come ’round,
      To be drowned and born in fire?

      Stillborn monster, undead thing!
      How we sing your praises high!
      Those whom we’ve made destitute
      Still salute and fight and die

      Hear the crowd’s roar! Feel the heat:
      Sizzling meat now roasting slow
      Do they die for reasons known?
      Or for only pomp and show?

      Who has wavered; who stands fast
      ‘Till the last good soul goes free?
      Who says “he” and who says “she”?
      Who but thee and who but me

      Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright © 2004

      … and …

      They Also Serve
      (in the Gaelic Bardic verse style)

      Gone to soldiers every one
      Mother’s son so brave and true
      Looked his duty in the eye
      Saying, “I will serve for you.”

      Father’s daughter: joy and pride
      Did not hide from duty’s due
      Serving in this grievous time
      Saying, “I’m a soldier, too.”

      Not for them to choose the fight
      Others might who stay behind
      Handing out the new bank notes
      To the votes that never mind

      Country’s man and woman strong
      Right or wrong prepared to serve
      Told to go and save the cause
      Not the laws that they deserve

      Flung into the grinding maw
      What they saw no words describe
      Still, Valhalla’s maids rejoice
      At the choice blood they imbibe

      Shocked and hurt and staring blank
      Missing ankles, wrists, and knees
      Howling moans from Cruelty’s whelp
      Help him! Help her! Help me! Please!

      Reeling, falling souls set free
      What they see no song can sing
      Reaping not what they have sown
      Giving only everything

      Stinging Furies! Noisome hags!
      Penance gags the prideful throat
      Tried to dam the River Styx
      Wound up fixing Charon’s boat

      Patient Death in silence waits
      Near the gates of Fear and Dread
      Judging not; forgiving none
      Merely one who greets the dead

      Having watched the short parade
      Summer’s shade to winter’s frost
      Comes now time to pack and close
      Tasks for those who count the cost

      Adding up the fearful sum
      Heavy numbers weighted down
      No reprieve; no second chance
      No romance; just war’s grim clown

      Fading glory; fleeting fame
      Once the game of battle ends
      Left to shattered lives of care
      Lovers, parents, wives, and friends

      Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright © 2004

      Good luck,

      Mike Murry — Kaohsiung, Taiwan


    4. Speaking of war and truth, saw a great movie last night: “Land of Mine.” It’s about German POWs who were required to clear land mines from Denmark when the war ended in 1945. Of the 2000 or so German soldiers who were tasked with this mission, about half of them were killed or injured. Many of those tasked were quite young, really in their late teens, just like those high school students doing pull ups for the Marines.

      The film is a perfect antidote to the “wonders” of military service and war. There’s one graphic scene of a young German maimed by a mine that is especially powerful. As my wife noted, we get to know this character before he’s maimed, and the maiming is shown in a way that few if any American films would ever show. Finally, this young man’s brother is haunted by this in a way that is entirely understandable, grim though it proves to be.


  3. Thanks to the greater and greater celebrity that the military enjoys, I have noticed that there is also a greater and greater disconnect between military personnel and civilians. I once got into an argument with a late friend and co-worker about the Second Ammendment, when I maintained that “no rebellion of armed citizens would stand a chance against the highly militarised police, much less the National Guard or the Army.” He fired back by telling me that he did not believe that US soldiers would ever unquestioningly turn their weapons on US citizens, and there would be mass defiance and desertion if ever such orders were given. That was certainly true at one time, but I do not believe it is anymore. The citizen-soldier, drafted to fight in a war and then discharged back into civilian life when the war is over, is a thing of the past. The introduction of celebrity to the US military via sports seems to be the most likely culprit for this phenomenon, as multi-millionaire professional athletes have absolutely no connection to their fans, and that’s what the military has turned into. Perhaps most still join today because they genuinely feel a need to serve their country, but a lot join for the freebies – free education, free training, free housing, free food, and preferential treatment when they get out, especially when they look for another job.

    On the subject of war movies, I would have to say my favourite (in terms of historical accuracy, though it isn’t “fun,” in fact it makes me cry) is Attack on Leningrad. It hardly depicts the soldiers at all, focusing instead on the deteriorating conditions in the city during the two-and-a-half-year siege. To quote Bronn from Game of Thrones, “it’s not the fighting that kills people, it’s the starving.” He also added “noble ladies sell their diamonds for a sack of potatoes,” something that was depicted in the film quite prominently. Americans have always had a disconnect from the true horrors of war; Russians, not so much.


    1. @KAJA
      Yes, citizen-soldiers since the abolishment of the draft have been transformed into “warriors,” and the cost has gone up. In 1980, the annual cost of maintaining an American soldier hovered around $30,000; today that cost is $170,000 and growing.
      These expensive “warriors” wear their warrior-duds everywhere. I was in a major US airport recently, and these ragamuffins came by in their grubby cammy PJs which would have been forbidden before for citizen-soldiers, who always wore good-looking Class A uniforms in public. Even the generals who never ever get near any hostility wear their cammies for their photo-ops.
      Unfortunately a great number of these warriors, it they do live through their pointless military experience, are physically and/or mentally messed up even if they never see combat, military life is that debilitating. Then they are labeled “wounded warriors” subject to the noncaring whims of the mal-administered Veteran Administration, and they soon learn that when they are beyond their use-by date they are unfortunate parts of a Mike Murry poem:
      //Fading glory; fleeting fame
      Once the game of battle ends
      Left to shattered lives of care
      Lovers, parents, wives, and friends//
      The suicide rate of veterans is twice the national average.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Kaja @ June 11, 2018 at 6:47 PM. I gather your friend ignored Kent State, Waco and the calling out of the guard and police during the 1960’s to “restore” law and order to the inner city.

    It was also necessary for the Chicago Police Department to shoot and kill ten unarmed demonstrators in Chicago, on May 30, 1937. The incident took place during the Little Steel strike in the United States. Nine people were permanently disabled and another 28 had serious head injuries from police clubbing. A Coroner’s Jury declared the killings to be “justifiable homicide”.

    Traits of authoritarian personalities:
    1. Rigid, unthinking adherence to conventional, middle-class ideas of right and wrong.

    2. Respect for and submission to authority – parents, teachers, religion, bosses, or any leader. This includes a desire for a strong leader and for followers to revere the leader, following him (seldom her) blindly. There is an emphasis on following rules and regulations, on law and order. Everyone has a proper role to play, including gender role.

    3. They take their anger out on someone safe. In an authoritarian environment (family, religion, school, peer group, government), the compliant, subservient, unquestioning follower stores up unexpressed anger at the authority. The hostility can’t be expressed towards the authority, however, so it is displaced to an outsider who is different – a scapegoat.

    4. They can’t trust people. They believe “people who are different are no good.” Such a negative view of people leads to the conclusion that harsh laws and a strong police or army are necessary.

    5. Because they feel weak, authoritarian personalities believe it is important to have a powerful leader and to be part of a powerful group. The successful, the powerful, the leaders are to be held in awe.

    6. Over-simplified thinking. If our great leaders and our enormous government tells us what to do, if our God and our religion directs our lives, then we don’t have to take responsibility for thinking or deciding. We just do what we are told.

    7. Guard against dangerous ideas. They believe an original thinker is dangerous; he/she will think differently.

    8. I’m pure, others are evil. They become paranoid, believing many people want to hurt them. >>Side Bar – I guess this why civilians need assault rifles or variants of them. <<<

    9. Ethnocentrism: Everything of mine is better than yours – my country, my religion, my kind of people, my family, my self. Research has also shown the authoritarian is more prejudiced and more prone to punish people (including their own children) to get them to work harder or to do “right” (Byrne & Kelley, 1981).
    I was going to say the Elements of Authoritarianism is a thread in our American History, but it is more like a steel cable, which lurks in our society.

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