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.

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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.

Why I Still Watch NFL Football

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Nothing screams “America!” like huge stadiums, big bombers, and giant flags 

W.J. Astore

A few weeks ago, a reader asked me a fair question: Why do I continue to watch football, given my comments on violence in the sport and the militarization of the game, including camouflage uniforms (even for coaches and cheerleaders!).  I could have hedged and said I don’t watch much football.  I don’t watch college games, and the only NFL game I regularly watch features my home team.  In short, I watch about three hours a week, and a little more during the playoffs.  Nevertheless, I still watch, so why do I do it?

I wrote back and identified four reasons: Because I’ve watched football since I was a kid (habit) and I enjoy the sport.  Because I put my mind in neutral during the game and just enjoy the action (a form of denial, I suppose).  Because, like so many Americans, I get caught up in the spectacle of it all, its ritualistic nature.  Because it’s often unpredictable and real in a way that “reality” shows are not.

After sending that answer along, another reader noted how my reasons could be made to serve as partial justification for supporting America’s wars, and to be honest the thought had occurred to me before I sent my answer.  So, you could say I’ve watched wars since I was a kid and on some level “enjoyed” them (the action, the drama, the spectacle of it all, the way things are “played for keeps”).  Perhaps I put my mind in neutral as well (TV trance) while enjoying the “reality” and rooting for the home team (America!).  Sports and war are connected in complex ways, and I’m only scratching the surface here.

I’d like to add two more reasons why I watch football.  I enjoy rooting for “my” team, and when they win, I’m pleased.  When they don’t, I’m bummed.  I get over it quickly (after all, it’s just a game, right?), but on some level the games have meaning to me.  I identify with “my” team, simple as that.

One more reason: nostalgia.  These games recall a simpler time, when we threw a ball around with friends or our dad, then quit for the day to watch a game and scream and shout at the stadium or in our living rooms.  (Such nostalgia is not unknown among combat veterans, who look back on war with mixed feelings of horror but also of love, or at least attraction in the sense of a powerful camaraderie and sense of belonging shared by those who were there.  It’s one reason for war’s peculiar attraction and perhaps its endurance as well.)

What say you, readers?  Do you watch football and, if so, why?