Sports, War, Fairness, and Fate: Lessons from My Dad

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My dad (left) during armored desert maneuvers in California

W.J. Astore

Life isn’t fair: that’s a lesson my dad learned growing up during the Great Depression and working hard in the Civilian Conservation Corps and local factories in the 1930s.  He also learned it during World War II, when he was drafted and eventually assigned to an armored headquarters company at Fort Jackson, South Carolina.  In fact, before World War II, my dad tried to enlist in the Navy, only to discover he was too short to make the grade (he was just under 64″, the Navy minimum, and recruiters were picky before Pearl Harbor).  A half-inch or so probably saved my dad’s life.  After that experience, my dad vowed he wouldn’t volunteer for war; he’d wait until he was drafted, which he was in 1942 by the Army.

My dad was on track to be a surgical technician for the 7th Armored Division; he would have gone overseas and faced combat.  But another soldier on the dental technician track talked my dad into switching positions with him.  My dad agreed, only to learn a dental technician was limited to a corporal technician’s rating, whereas a surgical tech could become a sergeant with higher pay.  My dad was also “excess” on the table of organization when he finished training, so he was reassigned from the 7th Armored to the 15th Armored Group.

My dad had to transfer and got less pay, but he got lucky: his new unit didn’t go overseas, whereas the 7th Armored did.  A guy he knew, Danny Costellani, was transferred from medical battalion to armored infantry while in France and was killed in action.  My dad knew this could have been him.

While my dad was assigned to Fort Jackson, South Carolina, late in 1944, there was a frantic call for more soldiers to be sent overseas in response to high losses during the Battle of the Bulge, the last major German offensive of World War II.  Many “green” recruits were rushed through basic training and shipped overseas to fight the Germans.  But a few local Southerners noticed that highly qualified soldier-athletes at Fort Jackson weren’t being sent anywhere.  They just seemed to stay in place while playing baseball, football, tennis, and other sports.  I’ll let my dad take the story from here:

During the Battle of the Bulge some Southern civilians were wondering why their sons, after Basic Training were shipped overseas as replacements.  While the Post Commander had on station complement a group of about fifty soldiers who played sports for the Ft Jackson baseball, basketball, football and even tennis teams.  Well the general got an order from higher echelons to put all able bodied troops into a combat outfit.  Well fifty of our soldiers were shipped overseas and fifty of the general’s athletes were put into our company.  When that happened the rest of our company figured we would never go overseas.  As time showed 99% stayed state side.  The 15th Armored Group took all the athletic honors.  Very seldom did our sports teams lose.

My dad saved newspaper clippings that celebrated the athletic achievements of the 15th Armored Group.  One photo showed the 15th Headquarters and Headquarters Company orientation room, which included a prominent section on “The World of Sports” and a table showcasing all individual and team trophies.

My dad may have owed his life to a picky Navy recruiter and a fellow soldier who wanted sergeant’s stripes.  These athletes at Fort Jackson may have owed their lives to a post commander who preferred winning at sports to shipping the most able-bodied troops overseas to fight the enemy.

Yes, life isn’t fair.  And fate sure does have an odd sense of humor.

Debunking Spectator Sports: Confessions of an Anti-Sports Fan

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Are you not entertained?

Richard Sahn

I’ve never gotten excited about or interested in a particular sports team, whether professional or amateur. I don’t care whether a particular team wins or loses and I go out of my way not to watch games on TV or listen to a radio broadcast.

Prior to this year’s Super Bowl game, I listened to people chant, on the phone or in person, “Go Patriots” or “Go Eagles.” Even a Catholic priest at the end of a mass I attended recently couldn’t leave the altar before letting the parishioners know he was a Patriots fan.

Spectator sports have always been a secular religion in most developed countries but with no promise of any form of salvation, afterlife, or reincarnation. The most you can really expect from your team is winning a bet on the game. But  spectator sports  is a distraction with negative consequences, ultimately, to society and the individual sports fan—such as having no understanding of the actions of political parties.

And because each season of the year has its athletic contests there is no letup. A fan is deluged all year round with games as well as incessant commentaries on athletes and the points they score or might score.  Athletic contests and players, even on the high school level, are  a major topic of conversation, especially among adult males  I view such conversations as not only boring but irrelevant to my own life, to what I  would call meaningful concerns.

In fact, I would argue spectator sports discussions have no lasting therapeutic value in dealing with the real “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” Political philosopher Noam Chomsky recently said, probably somewhat sarcastically, that if as much mental energy was expended in solving the social and economic problems of the world as is expended in trying to explain why a given team wins or loses a game, much socially and politically induced suffering and death could be eliminated.

Eavesdrop on virtually any conversation, especially at World Series, Super Bowl, or NBA playoff times, and you’ll hear conversations that would make you believe you were in a think-tank rivaling the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton.

Now, as a sociologist, I realize the important function of sports in society. That function, of course, is a distraction from life’s existential problems and dilemmas. Death, loss of loved ones, nuclear war, global warming are certainly among those problems. And, most assuredly, being a spectator sports fanatic is a far better alternative than being a drug addict or engaging in anti-social behavior.  I also admit spectator sports have a limited psycho-therapeutic effect on some people.

My quarrel is with the level of energy spent watching and then discussing sports events. Even expressing one’s preference for one team or another I find disturbing, mainly because I feel there are more worthwhile causes to champion. Agonizing, so it seems, over the prowess of individual players and their team’s chances of winning playoffs or championships is a waste of time and energy. Simply put, I cannot empathize in the slightest with the sports fan. In that respect I guess I’m a type of sociopath since sociopaths can’t empathize with other human beings in general.

Arguably, spectator sports also contribute to the “us” versus “them” perspective toward social life, the belief that life is not interesting or worthwhile unless “us” is always trying to  defeat “them,” whether “them” be a rival team or country–in other words, not “us.”

The great (former) coach of the Green Bay Packers, Vince Lombardi once proclaimed, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” Could Lombardi’s philosophy be applied to our current president who is also an ardent sports fan?  Could Donald Trump’s insistence on America becoming “great again,” with all the dire consequences to minority groups and the underclass, not to mention the world in general, be the by-product of his obsessive interest in spectator sports? At one time our president wanted to be owner of an NFL team. What does that tell us?

Two psychological processes seem to account for the prevalence of the typical sports fan. These are vicarious identification and reification. Vicarious identification is thinking that one “IS” actually the team he or she is watching.  The team’s victory or defeat is his/her victory or defeat.  Being able to enjoy plays, movies, and novels entails the same process; for the moment, one is a character in a work of fiction. The ability of consciousness (mind, soul, brain, spirit, if you prefer) to immerse itself in a story or situation that is fictitious is, for sure, one of the great joys of life. From time to time I’ve watched certain films or videos multiple times and can still fool myself into thinking that I don’t really know the outcome.  Perhaps spectator sports allow male fans in particular to be the macho male, the alpha male they’re not in everyday life, without having to perform in any way. No need to resort to violent behavior if one vicariously identifies with a football team or professional wrestlers.

Reification is psychologically treating an abstract concept or mental construct as if it were real, as if it were empirical or tangible reality.  Semanticists will say “the word is not the thing” or “the map is not the territory.”  Nations, states, cities do not exist as realities (sui generis); they are only abstract concepts, in other words, words.  People exist, athletes exist, and games are played, but the sports fan wants his/her “team” to win because the name of the team itself is regarded as if it were a live person or group of people.

It doesn’t matter, usually, who the real life players are or even if there are any real life players. It’s the “team” itself—the word is the thing.  I once asked my students who were fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers whether they would still want the Steelers to defeat the Dallas Cowboys if the teams’ executives exchanged players and coaches. The Steelers fans said they would still support or root for the Steelers over the Cowboys. I tried to point out the error in their thinking, that there is no such reality as the “Steelers” or the “Cowboys,” that only players and their coaches exist. No, the Steelers fans would remain Steelers fans and want the team to win because they are “The Steelers.”

Existence precedes essence, say the existentialists.  Existence is what is tangibly real, for example, what could physically maim, hurt, kill. Essence refers to words, ideas, concepts. (For example, essence would be the “thoughts and prayers” for gun victims–what we hear so much these days from our politicians in the wake of shooting violence.) Scoring a touchdown is “existence.” The team that fans roots for is “essence,” in other words, nothing but an idea with no more substance than the number “5.” When one regards spectator sports existentially it becomes difficult to be a fan, although one may enjoy viewing brilliantly executed plays on the field or in the arena.

My argument here, then, is that the serious spectator sports fan is likely to be distracted from engaging in philosophical, political, aesthetic, critical thinking or reflection.  Now, I have no doubt that one could be a sports fan, even a fanatical sports fan, and be a social activist, an artist, a scholar, a reflective person capable of deep meditation.  I just see spectator sports as tending to obstruct or preclude intellectual and aesthetic development in the general population of a given country.

Professional and collegiate athletic events do benefit our economic system by creating all kinds of jobs and careers, and not just for the players. But spectator sports may also stand in the way of the fan being exposed to and contemplating the vital social and political issues of the times. It is reasonable to ask whether being a serious sports fan erodes participation in the democratic process. Why are most universities known for their teams and not for what their faculties teach? What’s the first thing an American thinks of when he or she thinks of “Ohio State” or “Notre Dame” or “Penn State”?  Is it higher learning?  Or football?

Richard Sahn teaches sociology at a college in Pennsylvania.

Frederick Douglass on Patriotism and Taking A Knee

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Colin Kaepernick (#7) takes a knee

M. Davout

A week after Super Bowl Sunday, I was reading Frederick Douglass’s “Fourth of July Address,” given by the intrepid abolitionist and eminent public intellectual on July 5, 1852 to several hundred spectators in Rochester, New York. It struck me then how contemporary Douglass’s antebellum insights into the nature of patriotism in America seemed, especially in the wake of an NFL season steeped in controversy over football players (mostly African-American) taking a knee during the national anthem.  Their symbolic protest, dismissed by some, notably including a tweeting president, as unpatriotic, was intended to highlight how police encounters with people of color in this country all too often and disproportionately end in unjustified uses of deadly force.

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Frederick Douglass near the time of the Rochester Speech, given on the 5th of July 1852

At the time of his Fourth of July Address, Douglass was about fifteen years removed from a state of enslavement he managed, against steep odds, to escape and had become an orator of note in abolitionist circles. Attesting to a sense of trepidation in accepting an invitation to speak before such a large audience on their august day of national celebration, Douglass praised the generation of 1776 (“your fathers,” he calls them) for “lov[ing] their country better than their own private interests” and for their “solid manhood” in “preferr[ing] revolution to peaceful submission to bondage.”

Douglass then reminded his audience that, while it is easy in present times to celebrate the founders for resisting British oppression, “to pronounce against England, and in favor of the cause of the colonies” in the 1770s meant being pilloried and browbeaten as “plotters of mischief, agitators and rebels, dangerous men.”  Moving beyond this critique of the easy and self-congratulatory patriotism of his contemporaries, Douglass raised the prospect that the founders’ great deeds might even be evoked by men of tyrannical intent: “The cause of liberty may be stabbed by the men who glory in the deeds of your fathers.”

Douglass went on to warn his listeners, and free citizens of the American republic generally, against shirking their own responsibility for carrying on the emancipatory tradition celebrated each Fourth of July–“You have no right to wear out and waste the hard-earned fame of your fathers to cover your indolence.”

While there is much more to Douglass’s powerful address, his opening discourse on the patriotic meaning of the Fourth of July provides a way of dousing the “fire and fury” that has been generated by the right-wing media around the symbolic protest started by Colin Kaepernick in 2016 and seeing the significance of that protest with a quiet clarity.

Douglass’s Fourth of July Address warns against the self-serving belief that routinized, programmed patriotic gesture is equivalent to a true love of liberty.  He daringly calls out those who would abuse patriotic gesture in order to control others. His words remind us that the struggle for freedom is always a work in progress and that it is too easy to celebrate its provisional achievement after the hard and risk-laden work is done by others.

Douglass’s speech is part of a tradition of exposing empty patriotic gesture and challenging citizens to live up to the emancipatory demands of true patriotism, a tradition which Colin Kaepernick and his emulators can be seen as stalwartly embracing.  His speech serves as a powerful rejoinder to those who would, like Donald J. Trump, attempt to shame NFL player-protesters into anthem-standing conformity with transparently cynical references to the sacrifices of US veterans and members of the armed forces.

M. Davout (pseudonym) is a professor of political science who teaches in the Deep South.

Wrapping Oneself in the Flag

W.J. Astore

As soon as American athletes win an Olympic medal, it’s seemingly obligatory for someone to give them a flag so they can wrap themselves in it.  Here’s Nick Goepper, who won a silver medal in skiing:

Freestyle Skiing - Winter Olympics Day 9

I’ve seen athletes from a few other countries do this, but not with the uniformity and urgency of U.S. athletes.  Maybe American athletes just love their country more?

I vaguely recall “wrapping oneself in the flag” moments from previous Olympics that seemed spontaneous.  What gets me today is how routine these moments have become.  The American snowboarder Shaun White, for example, wrapped himself in the flag for his photo op, after which he dragged it on the snowy ground as he walked away, a transgression for which he apologized afterwards.

I understand athletes are proud to represent their countries, and understandably pumped after winning a medal.  But do all U.S. medal-winners now have to pose with a flag draped about them?

The official medal ceremony features the flags of the medal winners, with the national anthem being played for the winner of the gold.  I always thought that ceremony was more than sufficient as a patriotic display, and more consistent with the idea of the Olympics as an international event of diverse athletes.

What would happen if athletes, after winning their respective medals, wrapped themselves not in the flag of their respective countries, but in the Olympic flag showing the five interlocked rings?  Would heads explode?

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Bread and Circuses in Rome and America

gladiator 4
Games are hell

W.J. Astore

Back in June 2013, I wrote the following article on “Bread and Circuses in Rome and America.”  It flashed through my mind this morning because of Robert Lipsyte’s post today at TomDispatch.com on Trump, the NFL, violence, race, brain injuries, and patriotism.  I urge you to read it as well as Tom Engelhardt’s introduction, which cites the bread and circuses of the Roman Empire.

A key insight in my article below came from a correspondent, Amy Scanlon, who keenly observed that the Roman Imperium saw compassion, not violence, as a vice.  The gladiatorial games were meant to keep Romans at a fever pitch for war (with the bloody, murderous games being the next best thing to war).  It’s not much of a stretch to think of NFL violence as keeping Americans at a similar feverish pitch; and, not just the NFL, but the commercials during the games, which are often saturated with guns and violence and war.

Here’s my article, unchanged from 2013:

Bread and Circuses in Rome and America

The expression “bread and circuses“ captures a certain cynical political view that the masses can be kept happy with fast food (think Cartman’s “Cheesy Poofs” on South Park) and faster entertainment (NASCAR races, NFL games, and the like). In the Roman Empire, it was bread and chariot races and gladiatorial games that filled the belly and distracted the mind, allowing emperors to rule as they saw fit.

There’s truth to the view that people can be kept tractable as long as you fill their bellies and give them violent spectacles to fill their free time. Heck, Americans are meekly compliant even when their government invades their privacy and spies upon them. But there’s a deeper, more ominous, sense to bread and circuses that is rarely mentioned in American discourse. It was pointed out to me by Amy Scanlon.

In her words:

Basically ancient Rome was a society that completely revolved around war, and where compassion was considered a vice rather than a virtue… [The] Romans saw gladiatorial contests not as a form of decadence but as a cure for decadence. And decadence to the Romans had little to do with sexual behavior or lack of a decent work ethic, but a lack of military-style honor and soldierly virtues. To a Roman compassion was a detestable vice, which was considered both decadent and feminine. Watching people and animals slaughtered brutally [in the arena] was seen as a way to keep the civilian population from this ‘weakness’ because they didn’t see combat…

Scanlon then provocatively asks, “Could our society be sliding towards those Roman attitudes in a bizarre sort of way?”

I often think that America suffers from an empathy gap. We are simply not encouraged to put ourselves in the place of others. For example, how many Americans fancy the idea of a foreign power operating drones in our sovereign skies, launching missiles at gun-toting Americans suspected by this foreign power of being “militants“? Yet we operate drones in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen, killing suspected militants with total impunity. Even when innocent women and children are killed, our emperors and our media don’t encourage us to have compassion for them. We are basically told to think of them as collateral damage, regrettable, perhaps, but otherwise inconsequential.

Certainly, our military in the last two decades has put new stress on American troops as “warriors” and “warfighters,” a view more consistent with the hardened professionals of the Roman Empire than with the citizen-soldiers of the Roman Republic. Without thinking too much about it, we’ve come to see our troops as an imperial guard, ever active on the ramparts of our empire. War, meanwhile, is seen not as a last course of defense but as a first course to preempt the evil designs of the many hidden enemies of America. Our troops, therefore, are our protectors, our heroes, the defenders of America, even though that “defense” treats the entire globe as a potential killing field.

Scanlon’s view of the Roman use of bread and circuses — as a way to kill compassion to ensure the brutalization of Roman civilians and thus their compliance (or at least their complacency) vis-à-vis Imperial expansion and domestic policing — is powerful and sobering.

At the same time, the Obama administration is increasingly couching violent military intervention in humanitarian terms. Deploying troops and tipping wars in our favor is done in the name of defeating petty tyrants (e.g. Khadafy in Libya; Is Assad of Syria next?). Think of it as our latest expression of “compassion.”

All things considered, perhaps our new national motto should be: When in America, do as the Roman Empire would do. Eat to your fill of food and violence, cheer on the warfighters, and dismiss expressions of doubt or dismay about military interventions and drone killings as “feminine” and “weak.”

At least we can applaud ourselves that we no longer torture and kill animals in the arena like the Romans did. See how civilized we’ve become?

Trump Tackles the NFL!

When it Comes to the NFL, Trump Should be Flagged and Ejected for Unnecessary Roughness

taking a knee
Taking a stand by taking a knee: NFL players, including Colin Kaepernick (#7)

W,J. Astore

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.

Put ESPN in Charge of the War on Terror

draft
Our wars are games and our games are wars

W.J. Astore

This weekend, I watched a few minutes of NFL draft coverage on ESPN.  If you’re not familiar with NFL football or ESPN coverage of the same in the USA, you should be, because it says much about the American moment.  The first round of the draft kicks off on Thursday night in prime time, followed by the second and third rounds on Friday night in prime time.  The draft concludes on Saturday with rounds four through seven, roughly 250 total picks if you include “supplemental” picks.

Yet this quick summary vastly understates the coverage devoted to the draft.  From the end of the Super Bowl early in February to the draft itself at the end of April, coverage of the draft on ESPN is virtually non-stop, with innumerable “mock” drafts for each team and a parade of “experts” speculating about the prospects of each player and team. Exhaustive (and exhausting) is the word to describe this coverage.  Interminable is another one.

When Round One finally kicks off, it’s essentially a parade of soon-to-be millionaires. These players, selected from various college football teams, can count on multi-year contracts and signing bonuses in the millions of dollars.  ESPN and the NFL stage manages the selection process, turning it into an extravaganza complete with musicians, cheering (or booing) fans, and plenty of past NFL greats, along with the draftees and their families and friends. Coverage also includes shots of the “war rooms” of the various NFL teams as they decide which players to pick, which draft picks to trade, and so on.  The war room — isn’t that a telling phrase?

Indeed, let’s push that further.  Most red-blooded NFL fans would be hard-pressed to find Iraq or Afghanistan on a map, but they can tell you all about their team’s draft picks, rattling off statistics such as times in the 40-yard dash, vertical leap, even the size of a player’s hands (considered especially pertinent if he’s a quarterback or wide receiver). What always astonishes me is the sheer wealth of detail gathered about each player, the human intelligence (or HUMINT in military terms).  Players, especially those projected to go in the first few rounds, are scrutinized from every angle: physical, mental, emotional, you name it.

With millions of dollars at stake, such an exhaustive approach is not terribly surprising. Yet even with a wealth of data, each year there are major draft busts (e.g. Ryan Leaf, selected #2 overall in the first round and a flop) and major surprises (e.g. Tom Brady, selected late in the 6th round as the 199th pick, meaning that not much was expected from him, after which he won four Super Bowls).  Results from the NFL draft should teach us something about the limits of data-driven “intelligence” in “wars,” yet our various military intelligence agencies continue to believe they can quantify, predict, and control events.

But again what wows me is the extent as well as the slickness of ESPN’s coverage of the draft.  As soon as a player is selected, ESPN instantly has video of that player’s college highlights, together with his vital statistics (height, weight, performance at the draft combine in various drills, and so on).  Video and stats are backed up by interviews with a draftee’s previous coaches, who extol his virtues, along with interviews with those “war rooms” again as to why they decided to draft that particular player and not another.  Once the draft is completed, teams are then awarded “grades” by various commentators, even though these players have yet to play a snap in the NFL.  (Imagine if your kid received an instant grade in college — before he attended a single class or completed a single assignment — based upon his performance in high school.)

But you have to hand it to ESPN: their coverage of the draft is an exercise in total information awareness.  It’s blanket coverage, an exercise in full-spectrum  dominance. It’s slick, professional, and driven by a relentless pursuit of victory by each team (and a relentless pursuit of ratings by ESPN).

So, a modest proposal: To win the war on terror, let’s put ESPN in charge of intelligence gathering and coverage.  Just imagine if your average red-blooded American devoted as much attention to foreign wars as they do to their favorite NFL team!  Just imagine if America’s leaders were held accountable for poor results as NFL coaches and staffs are! America still might not win its wars, but at least we’d squarely face the fact that we’re continuing to lose at incredibly high cost.  Indeed, someone high-up in the government might actually be held accountable for these losses.

I know: It’s a frivolous suggestion to treat war like a sport.  But is it?  After all, America currently treats the NFL draft with all the seriousness of a life-and-death struggle, even as it treats wars with comparative frivolity.

Our wars are games and our games are wars.  Small wonder America continues to lose its wars while fielding some winning NFL teams.