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
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.
When it Comes to the NFL, Trump Should be Flagged and Ejected for Unnecessary Roughness
President Trump has once again attacked the NFL for exactly the wrong reasons. He wants NFL owners to fire players who take a knee during the national anthem. Their sin, according to Trump, is disrespecting the American flag. Trump also complains that the game has gotten soft, that big and exciting hits of the past are now penalized, so much so that today’s game is boring precisely because it’s insufficiently violent.
Nonsense. First, few players dare to use the game as a platform for protest, perhaps because they fear being blackballed like Colin Kaepernick, the talented quarterback who can’t find a job because he took a knee in protest against racism. Second, the NFL is awash in patriotic displays, everything from gigantic flags and military flyovers to special events to honor the troops. Just one example: During the opening game of this season, uniformed troops waving flags ran out on the field ahead of the New England Patriots as the team emerged from the tunnel. What are troops in camouflaged combat uniforms doing on the field of play?
With respect to violence, the NFL has only lately begun haltingly to address crippling injuries, especially brain abnormalities due to recurrent hits and concussions. Watching an NFL game is often an exercise in medical triage, as players are carted off the field with various injuries. A new feature this season is a tent on the sidelines that injured players may now enter to be treated away from the incessantly probing eyes of sideline cameras. Careers in the NFL are often cut short by crippling injuries, yet Trump claims the game is going down the tubes because it’s not violent enough.
Trump represents a minority view (I believe), but nevertheless a vocal one. Given his narcissism and the grudges he carries, one wonders if he attacks the NFL because of his failed bid to acquire the Buffalo Bills team back in 2014.
Football is the most popular sport in America. It speaks volumes about our culture. That Trump sees it as insufficiently violent and insufficiently patriotic — and that he’s cheered for making these claims — points to the gladiatorial nature of America’s imperial moment. Bread and circuses at home, wars abroad. And U.S. politicians who fiddle while the world burns.
Update: Trump’s comments have drawn a response during the first NFL game today (played in England). Here’s the headline at the Washington Post: NFL Week 3: Ravens, Jaguars respond to President Trump’s comments by linking arms, kneeling during anthem. It will be interesting to see how other teams respond today and during Monday night football.
Editor’s Intro: Linda Roller is a good friend who owns one of those used bookstores that bibliophiles dream about, complete with cats and books and ephemera and located in an old church in the middle of rural Pennsylvania. It’s an area that went for Trump in last year’s election; it’s not an area associated with political activism for progressive causes. Yet Linda’s community filled three buses of concerned citizens, all willing to sacrifice their time to make a statement in a March on Washington that was, in a word common to last year’s election, huge. Can the momentum for a true people’s movement be sustained? With powerful women like Linda on the march, I am hopeful. W.J. Astore
Check out Linda’s bookstore at this link. She has a great selection of used books at low prices.
I Went Down to The Demonstration…
The March on Washington can be seen — six hours of it — on You Tube. I almost tuned in the other day, but I resisted until I had a chance to write down what I saw there. For I never saw the speeches, heard the words. I never saw the jumbotrons. And I never got to the elliptical. But that’s okay. That was recorded, and what I saw was the stuff that is not covered by any media, but was important to me and will be with me forever.
Waiting on the World to Change…
Perhaps the first inkling that this was going to be far more than “a bus ride and a demonstration” was the early morning in a Sears parking lot in Muncy, Pennsylvania. A sea of cars was there, just waiting for the three buses from our rural, conservative, suspicious of outsiders (both people and ideas) area. It wasn’t just the people who demonstrate here, and who identify themselves as “true Progressives.” Frankly, that group wouldn’t fill a bus. It was really a diverse lot of folks, and although there were many older, white women, there were African-American women from Williamsport, and even a good percentage of people under 40. The women who organized this trip were not the “usual suspects,” which may account for the different people on the buses.
The trip started with a glitch. Two of the three buses were late — the buses organized through the national group. This could have led to defections, but … people waited. The local bus left to collect the women from down the Susquehanna valley. The other arrived an hour later.
The chief organizer here is a woman who owns her own little yarn and knitting shop, and has never done anything like this before. But the knitting connection was the catalyst for all members who wanted to get a “pussy hat.” She had hats from around the globe, the last shipment being from Australia. Mine was knitted by Lori in Indianapolis, and it warmed me to know that another woman from a conservative state felt strongly enough to knit for others. Both buses stopped at a rather small service station, with a small women’s restroom. We discovered that the men’s room was even smaller, as we commandeered it for the over 75 women who had to use it in less than 30 minutes. One guy tried to assert his rights, and we were apologetic but firm.
Normally, leaving from here at 5:20am on a weekend morning would get you to DC by 9:30 or so on a charter bus. But traffic was amazingly heavy, and we got in a little late. The bus captains went over safety tips, non-confrontation issues, how not to be arrested—and that the buses were leaving at 6:30pm, with or without us. And then we got off the bus.
Fired Up! — Ready to Go!!
Off the bus in an ocean of buses…from everywhere! The first woman I met was from San Francisco, visiting family in Delaware and marching. We had been told that the metro was too full, even though the Mayor of DC had brought all lines up to rush hour levels to accommodate the march. I saw an older woman in a walker headed to the metro stop at RFK stadium from the buses, with the kind of determination that moves mountains. And with that, our group of four headed to the National Mall, a little over two miles away. Although our group were the only people that I could locate from the bus at that moment, we were hardly alone. We were simply part of a river streaming ahead, north and west to the center. And we were not invisible. We were met early by DC traffic safety, who reminded us to mind the roads near RFK, to block some roads, and with a smile welcoming us to DC. “We’re glad you’re here!”
Indeed, it seemed as though all the good citizens of the District were out to welcome the marchers, as we blocked their streets and removed any way for these folks to move cars and go about a normal Saturday. They waved, said “Thank you for coming!” Members of Capitol Hill Seventh Day Adventist Church stood on the steps and chanted, and the minister came down and shook marchers’ hands, as we disrupted their day of worship. About halfway to the National Mall, the signs with quotes from Martin Luther King popped up everywhere, for MLK day was less than a week ago. Music poured out of windows for the marchers — “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”… (as in Fundamental Rights).
And with that it began to feel like something even bigger—it all began to take on echoes of other marches, other days, other people. By now, we were chanting, and really marching. Five blocks out, and we were already there, doing the work we came to DC to do. And then we got to the US Capitol Building, and the enormity of it all washed over our group of marchers. Before us, there was an ocean of people—people who were deeply concerned, and here to stand. To stand for Women’s Equality, for immigrants who feel threatened, for people of every race, creed, religion, sexual orientation, and for a sense of justice. And yes, to show concern and anger at President Trump’s statements and actions. But the overall feeling was that we stood in solidarity with one another, even if we did not totally agree on all the issues.
Before I left, I did a small piece on Facebook about why I marched, and one of the things that I said was that I marched for those who could not. Time and time again, people talked about a mother, a sister, a friend that was symbolically with the marcher. One woman I saw had a placard on her back with over 50 names of women she marched for. It was simply staggering.
Standing on the Side of Love
Like I said, I never saw the stage, or heard the addresses of the day. There was no chance that I could get there. I never saw the jumbotrons where proceedings were broadcast. That’s okay. I saw and talked to people just like me from all over the country, and people just like me but different. They had different clothes, different hair, different skin, different religion, different age—but the same heartfelt wishes, the same fears for the future, the same willingness to stand and be here today.
And those of us who made a march were kind to each other — all our Mommas had made polite people on this day. And that was tested—as there were few places to sit, no places to get a bite to eat or drink, and in many places on the National Mall, no place even to stand. At one point, the four of us were crushed against a barrier, and could not move. A woman in the crowd began to have a claustrophobic reaction, and the people made a tunnel for her and her people to get out of there, even when so many others would have liked to move. We apologized for stepping on toes, we allowed people in and around, and most importantly, we talked to each other, asked where we were from, and regarded each other as people. And at noon, a group of Muslim women unfolded blankets and prayed, while others gave them space and peace.
Sure, I saw some great signs. One person knitted a 4-5 foot uterus as a sign. That’s dedication. A group walked about with a 10-12 foot globe and chanted. That’s heavy lifting. Lots of humorous signs, signs of exasperation. Organized signs. Disorganized signs. Signs made by people for weeks, signs made by people after they got there, on scraps of cardboard. And the “official” signs were incredibly artistic and you could download them for free and print them.
There was some “cosplay” too. I marched beside Wonder Woman for about 3 minutes. WW must have been cold in the outfit, and I have no idea who it was. I saw a few Superwoman socks – the ones with the capes on them. Since most of us marched around 10 miles if we walked from RFK, I think we all were worthy of a set of those. I saw some Power Rangers get photographed, and on the top of pallet stacks, people climbed and tried to help the rest of us see where people were needed. People on lampposts tried to give directions, but that was mostly futile.
Tell Me What Democracy Looks Like…This is What Democracy Looks Like!!!
In some sense, the wheels had fallen off this wagon. The planned speeches and march were simply dwarfed by the numbers of people. We couldn’t march the planned route. It was full, as were many other streets. We couldn’t get to the Washington Monument. The way there was full of people – and in that sense, it was a complete, perpetual march around everything by all of us.
The most common chant was “This is what democracy looks like.” Indeed. It is the look of citizens– concerned, aroused citizens. It was a whole lot of a gentle, angry people. Some more gentle, some more angry—and all of them chanting for a country they all deeply believe in. That this march was so large had an impact that transcended the original plans. And while we marched, information about all the other marches all over the world swirled through the National Mall to waves of cheers.
Finally, it was the witching hour – the time to go back to the bus. We worked our way out of the mall and began the slog up to RFK. We were so hungry, with sore feet. A beer in a pub would have been heaven, but heaven was already claimed by others, and the wait was too long for us to meet the bus. We eventually found a coffee shop. Nancy got us a chai latte, and nothing ever tasted so good or felt so warm. I sat on the curb outside, just for a chance to sit. And I sat with others from the march, and we talked, waited for a little bit of food, took the chance to relax, and talked about the march – but not in a “processed” sort of way.
It was as if the event was too big to be contained inside us. Cars going by honked and waved. On the way to try for a beer, we crossed in front of a car, filled with people we did not know. But the windows rolled down, and we talked to each other. They were not even involved in the march, just locals. But the signs and buttons made us approachable, and the day of talking to so many people in the march had our skills oiled up, too. At the coffee shop, we all decided that if we could get a cab or uber, we would take a ride for the 2 miles. It wasn’t long before we had that cab, and then got up to RFK. And that move allowed some shirt buying, a round of great hot dogs, and then the ½ mile from the actual stadium to the bus.
Laura and Nancy had a much better idea of where our bus was than I did and there we were—near the back of the lot. All the people on our bus made it back by 6:30, but we waited for a couple people in the second bus, who ended up taking a taxi back. On the road by 7PM. Nancy organized a better bus stop at a different location, where there were two large gas/convenience store/restrooms. We talked a bit, but surprisingly we slept, even though we thought we were too excited to do that.
The days since have been “processing days”—time to think about what happened and time to begin the plan beyond the march. The march was a mountaintop moment. It was a place and time, a gathering of like-minded people, a time to feel connected, and a time to feel the power of the people. Now the hard work of creating and recreating the vision continues.
I have not been an activist for many years. I feel that demonstrations are performance art. I am more at home in the life of the mind. But as the sign says,
“Thank you, President Trump.
You have created an activist in me.”
Linda Roller is a writer and owner of a used bookstore in Avis, PA. Be sure to visit her shop (link here) and browse her selection of used books at great prices.