If Only Americans Followed Wars Like Sports

Score! Bobby Orr! One of my bedroom wall posters

W.J. Astore

I’m a big sports fan. I grew up in the Boston area and loved my local teams. When I was a kid, I had two big posters of Bobby Orr, the famed defenseman of the Boston Bruins, on my wall. I had a Boston Red Sox uniform. When I threw a baseball around, I imagined I was Luis Tiant, the mercurial and entertaining pitcher for the Red Sox, or Dwight Evans, the team’s rocket-armed right fielder. I collected baseball cards and studied the stats on the back for hours on end.

But I was also a kid who kept a scrapbook on the Yom Kippur War of 1973. I was ten years old yet I was attracted to war and its nitty-gritty details as much as I was to the sporting world. Who knows why. Temperament, I suppose. As I grew older, I built lots of military models and read more and more books about the military even as I kept an interest in sports (more as a fan than a participant, since my talent level was modest at best).

This was on my mind this AM as I read a detailed article on Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia, whose stellar career was cut short by injuries. The article focused on whether Pedroia deserved election to the Baseball Hall of Fame.* Highly detailed, well written, and showing an estimable command of statistics, the article impressed me even as it got me to thinking. What if Americans examined wars like they studied sports? What if Afghanistan was covered with the same detail as the forthcoming NFL draft? What if there was a channel like ESPN devoted to wars 24/7 rather than to sports? And what if the reporting was objective and honest?

You can’t fool a sophisticated sports fan with a bunch of home-team boosterism that’s disconnected from the facts on the ground (or on the baseball diamond, the football field, the ice hockey rink, etc.). Why are so many people so easily fooled about the need to continue the Afghan War, which is now in its 20th year and where the U.S.-led coalition is losing more than ever?

If the Afghan War were a U.S. sports team, it would be a team that spent more money than any other team even as it lost more games, cycling through a new losing coach every year and an unmemorable cast of players that changed each season. Despite the hiring of much-hyped “coaches” like David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, despite promises of pennant-winning “surges” by team presidents like Barack Obama, our imaginary Afghan War sports team was and remains a cellar dweller, forever mired in last place.

What red-blooded American sports fan would tolerate more of the same from such a loser team? What fan would keep cheering for such a team? What fan would say, “let’s stay the course,” even as more and more losses piled up?

Consider this article from yesterday’s New York Times:

*****

The Taliban Close In on Afghan Cities, Pushing the Country to the Brink

The Taliban have positioned themselves around several major population centers, including the capital of Kandahar Province, as the Biden administration weighs whether to withdraw or to stay.

*****

What should Team Biden do? “To stay” is to stay on the same losing course we’ve been on for 20 years. “To withdraw” is a new course that has the virtue of ending the bleeding (at least for the U.S.). Which action would you choose?

Any sports fan worth his or her salt would know the answer here. Call withdrawal a “rebuilding” year and most sports fans would accept it. It’s a far better choice than staying and losing with the same old tactics and cast of characters.

Just about every American sports fan has heard the saying: Winning isn’t everything–it’s the only thing. Well, we’re not winning in Afghanistan and we never will. So the only smart thing left to do is to leave.

*Pedroia gets my vote for the Hall of Fame. It’s not simply about stats. Pedey was a winner, a leader, a gutsy overachiever who played the game the right way. Rookie of the year, MVP, World Series winner, he gave it his all on every play. Sometimes, the so-called intangibles matter.

21 thoughts on “If Only Americans Followed Wars Like Sports

  1. I started out as a sportswriter and long thought – like you – that war and economics and politics should be covered like sports…until I realized it has always been Home v Visitor on Friday nights with gdp v do, red v blue, cutthroat commies vs honorable capitalists, this candidate raised more money than his opponent, polls of all kinds … bla bla bla bla argle bargle … but you’re right about the rebuilding year thing lol

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Well, Vietnam was covered like sports: on the news every night, LIFE Magazine doing center spreads of those killed the previous week … and we got our asses waxed and the lack of support at home got tagged for it and that’s never going to happen again. The “embedded reporters” concept of our Middle East expeditions was a joke, fluff pieces of good ol’ American guys and gals protecting our way of life against a joke of an “enemy.”
    But ever since the second Gulf War, you don’t see or hear anything. It’s become “The Job of War.” And I don’t think we’ll ever see coverage of the military’s escapades again, and the reason given will be “the safety of our troops.” The enemy can use even the smallest bit of information against our heroes. Loose lips sink ships!
    No, Professore, until war qualifies as prime time entertainment again, we’ll have to settle for corporate/plantation sports.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I had the same thought about Vietnam as you, Bill: intense coverage, but the lies were kept well hidden (Tonkin Gulf, My Lai).

      My guess is that if wars were now covered like sports, the vast majority of the population would ignore the broadcasts in favor of “reality” TV and so-called talent shows. Watching the war coverage would be that small minority waiting for scenes of bloodshed, and they would have no interest in ending conflicts.

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  3. Excellent article.

    In government, it is fully understood that people will not have access to complete information through everyday channels.

    In sports, there is no FOIA, or press secretary.

    Pro football coaches and quarterbacks are available to stand and answer questions from the press after every game.

    Sport fans care about rules.

    When the formal congressional declaration of war is tossed out & DOD develops a truly poor record for winning undeclared wars, many Americans look the other way.

    If The Troops were an NFL team, sports talk radio would feature comments like:

    The Dept. of Defense was nowhere to be found on 911. We haven’t won a war since.

    https://oakbaystarfish.com/2018/07/28/sports-culture-tends-to-be-open-and-honest/

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I never ‘was’ anyone and even less so now, as sports increasingly are about money – as is war.
      The primary thing in sports reporting seems to be how much prize money is involved and how much the winner will get. Google a top sports person and the first info you find is how many millions he/she already made. Sickening, so I avoid sports in the press.
      But I love your rooster and therefore hope you’ll comment more often 🙂 !

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Not in Chicago where there is a huge mural of CK covering the wall of a building near the major intersection of Lincoln Ave and Western Ave. Printed on it is “I know my rights” It pops, nobody could miss it and I wonder who paid for it.

          Liked by 1 person

      1. It didn’t used to be this way. But the money has gone crazy. Now it’s billionaire owners and millionaire players, with the money serving to separate fans from players. Nevertheless, sports at their best are a celebration of athleticism, teamwork, and the human spirit.

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  4. “Wait Till Next Year” and Ernie Banks newest Declaration of Independence from decades of futility… The Cubs will be great in ‘68… the Cubs will shine in ‘69…
    These were the mantras that got us Cub fans through another winter of piled up loses and another lost season of utter worthlessness …
    Boston knows baseball futility and so do the Chicago Cub fans. It’s a funny resiliency to look out from underneath our many years of failure and try and spot light on an increasingly distant horizon. Faith and love, heart and hope, and a certain strangely weird comfort of understanding loss so well, is what helped us motivate onwards to another season of predictable results. You get into a zone that’s not quite the same as a point of complacency, but losing seems so natural that one almost doesn’t even care that it’s still happening. It is almost expected; but every spring you roll the dice again expecting miraculous results. When they don’t come; sadly it just OK.
    We learned to accept defeat, and that compliance bordered on laziness. We took our eye off the ball early in the seasonal campaigns and almost expected loss as an OK norm. 100 years of defeat is not something every body gets to experience; but it does tend to warp normal perspectives.
    I often wonder if 20 years of hopeless outcomes and mounting defeat in our theatre’s of war has made our population numb. We still have that home team spirit that we trot out before the first pitch, and put our all into the national anthem. But it seems to be as reflexive as getting used to losing. That same spirit also rears it’s head when one engages in any form of critique about our american exceptionalities before the home team fandom. Cub fans were always defending the futility with less than a reasoned approach; and it seems that just a scant bit of objectivity would allow one to admit that maybe the battlefield expenditures are not warranted on any part of this earth ship. The similarities between these two forms of loss are worth meditating on; as we as a nation are now getting so deeply led astray in the fog of war and continuing to accept our losses as just another acceptable Cub outcome.
    Professor, I too loved the incomparable Mr. Orr. I remember as a youth sending you Phil Esposito and wondering, after he learned to score so prolifically, what was Chicago management thinking. I also couldn’t get enough Carl Yastrzemski news in the Windy City. I always had to choose another team to root for. As a young Cub fan it was some salve for the open wounds of loss upon loss. So I fell in love with the Red Sox in the mid ‘60’s and still say that in ‘67 they would have beaten the dastardly Cardinals from St. Louis if Tony C hadn’t been beaned in August. Tony Conigliaro was such a compelling story for me as a young star struck fan. Having his career cut short by getting his eyesight altered from a fastball was a tragedy, but as a Cub fan I was down, as I have stated, with loss. But I can still feel my heart going out to him and his family. I will also like to speculate that he would have been one of the more prolific home run hitters of all time; and probably would also be enshrined in Cooperstown.
    Bottom line, losing at sports breaks your heart and shatters dreams, but no one losses their future. Sadly such is not the case on the battlefields of our military. It is a life and death matter on so many levels. WAKE UP! Read the statistics and the budgetary scorecard. Our team sucks; demand radical change of ownership. How about public ownership of this team I am naming The National Nightmares. Changing that name will be the first order of business.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think your analysis of the numbing effect of loss is spot-on. I’ve never attached any importance to sports, but agree that enough losses of any type condition the mind to accept them without much thought.

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      1. It was a long strange journey; tripping along on that Cubs bandwagon. Innumerable memories that are birthed from childhood fantasies of glory days. The strangest thing about that journey was the year they recently went to the World Series and “won it all”. I was in self imposed exile; and would not attend or view it on any media. As I said before… the military/professional sports connection pipeline tarnished my child like fantasies. I would get “selfies” from friends sitting in the bleachers at Wrigley Field while they attended the playoff “Events”. I wouldn’t even respond. What was supposed to be the ultimate therapeutic cure for a century of losing was refused. I just couldn’t see any cause for celebrating when there were soldiers in harms way. How could tens of thousands of fans ignore the facts about our “crooked foreign policies” that kept guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children; while they were getting their “ya-ya’s” out at the big game. It just doesn’t seem right somehow.
        You know what; it wasn’t that big of a deal not relishing in the victory. It really barely registered on my meter. But truth be told…
        I really miss the hockey… there’s nothing quite like skating on a pond with your stick and a puck after the park closes, under a star lit sky on a cold frosty winter’s eve. Now that’s where the real victories are dreamed and won.

        Liked by 2 people

  5. My family moved down to Sarasota as I entered high school and dear old SHS was right next to Payne Park. It was then that my fandom switched from the Cubs to the Sox (yes, I am very old).

    Pedroia may be worthy of the Hall, but I came to be very annoyed during his plate appearances due to his stepping out of the box after each pitch to unstrap and restrap his gloves. Did he start that habit? Where his wrist muscles so big that they popped his velcro, even after taking a pitch?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. How sadly ironic, that almost the only ones (with the Turks & Belgians and possibly a few other smaller contingents such as the Greek) who behaved decently, are the ones to pull out their remaining nine (!) military. It is true that they got the cherry on the cake as they were based in Bamyan, mountainous Hazara country where any taliban who would dare to return after their earlier massacre, would immediately be spotted. Still, they were as peaceful as I suppose an occupying army could possibly be, playing cricket on the gravel runway – shared military and civilian, but civilian flights were at most a few a week – next to which their base was located and otherwise mercifully inobtrusive.
      Would share a picture of that rural outfit, but do not manage to insert anything.
      Those were the ‘good old times’. Now even in Bamyan province men are organising themselves in armed civil defense groups, as not only taliban but even far worse ISIS are attacking them. One more testimony to the ‘stabilising’ impact of almost 20 years of ‘civilised stabilisation’ …

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  6. In history wars have often preceded revolutions or brought about economic disaster. The full phrase of “status quo” is “status quo antebellum” and that is because things change beyond recognition after a war.

    But now we can blow trillions on Iraq and…so what? Hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis, yes, some dead Americans, but no big deal to the United States as we have cruised right on along.

    The comparison to sports is a good one, but it astounds me that this comparison is now so apt. We can’t fight wars with other major powers, so all we do is act as a major league team that only “plays” against minor league teams. We’re always the visiting team and they’re always playing at home. This works well for us because though we may stay a long time (Afghanistan) we know we can always return to a home untouched by what we have done.

    Let’s go a bit further. Both sports and the military in America are big money makers, industries that spread wealth. In sports the beneficiaries vary from the bars that surround Wrigley Field to the team owners and players to manufacturers of team paraphernalia, to TV networks and on and on including all the people they employ. For the military the beneficiaries are the thousands of contractors in all the states and the people those contractors employ including most of the members of Congress.

    Neither of these two existed as industries in times long past, though both professional sports and the armed forces have been around a very long time. One was low cost casual entertainment for the public and the other a necessary but wasteful use of national wealth (RIP, Ike). What’s changed is they have been made profit centers.

    Sports taps the pockets of fans, the military taps the unlimited pocket of Uncle Sam. They are standouts representative of what America does best: turn anything and everything into gold.

    With the military we’ve truly worked magic on something designed to destroy. We’ve combined the ability to tolerate (if we don’t completely ignore) that destruction in distant lands with “I’m all right, Jack!” here at home.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. When I was growing up; I remember professional football players working construction jobs or going to work as a farmhand to supplement the meager salaries and … to stay in shape…

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