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?
Every year, I watch a little of the NFL draft, one of America’s most revealing cultural displays. This year the draft was held in Nashville over two nights and one day. The NFL claimed 200,000 people showed up in Nashville for the draft, and indeed the outdoor audience resembled a mass political rally. Video boards and celebrities were everywhere. Last year, I wrote about the draft here, and so I won’t repeat those arguments. Suffice to say the draft is a massive commercial for the NFL and a massive exercise in nationalism.
Of course, the NFL is at pains to celebrate the military, and the military is at pains to boost recruitment, which lately has been disappointing. So predictably there was a prominent pro-military display during the draft. Early in the third round of the draft, there was a pause in the “auctioneering” of the athletes. Nine troops walked out in dress uniform: three Marines, two soldiers, two sailors, and two airmen. They stood at attention as the rally members chanted “USA! USA!” Then Lee Greenwood’s anthem came on: “God Bless the USA.” And the assembled masses sang along.
It was an exercise in pure, unadulterated, propaganda. “Proud to be an American,” indeed!
Last August, I wrote about sports and the military for TomDispatch.com, where I quoted this telling observation by Norman Mailer, which he made prior to the Iraq War in 2003:
“The dire prospect that opens, therefore, is that America is going to become a mega-banana republic where the army will have more and more importance in Americans’ lives… [D]emocracy is the special condition — a condition we will be called upon to defend in the coming years. That will be enormously difficult because the combination of the corporation, the military, and the complete investiture of the flag with mass spectator sports has set up a pre-fascistic atmosphere in America already.”
A pre-fascistic atmosphere: a mass rally of 200,000 fans (fanatics?), applauding troops in uniform and singing about how proud they are to be Americans, where at least they know they’re free, as college athletes get auctioned off to NFL mega-millionaire and billionaire owners, all captured on gigantic video boards on prime-time television. Talk about making America great again!
Speaking of the Donald, Trump naturally had to get involved with the draft. One pro-Trump player who was drafted (Nick Bosa) had criticized ex-NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who had taken a knee at several games to raise consciousness of violence against blacks. Bosa had tweeted various insults against Kaepernick, calling him “Crappernick” and “a clown.” Trump, showing his usual leadership skills, urged Bosa in a tweet to “always stay true to yourself,” concluding “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!”
Ah, “greatness” has so many different meanings, does it not? But something tells me America’s founders didn’t think “greatness” resided in the conjunction of sports, the military, corporations, and jingoistic shouts of “USA! USA!”
It’s a new year! And as we adjust to 2019, I thought I’d share a few random observations (hopefully of some import).
“Retirement”: Many Americans fear the concept of retirement. Part of the challenge is coming to grips with the word. In America, your identity often hinges on your title, your job, and your paycheck. Since retiring from teaching (after retiring from the military), I’m still mentally adjusting to not having a fixed schedule, to not having expectations on the job that have to be met. I’ve never been an especially driven person but I’ve always sought to do well. Now I have to do well on terms defined by me. It’s a mental adjustment.
One thing is certain: society is always trying to pigeonhole us. When I tell people I’m “retired,” the immediate response is “You’re too young” or “But what do you do?” said in an incredulous voice. To avoid this problem, sometimes I tell people I’m a writer or a historian, both true, though I currently have no salaried position as such. To state the obvious, American culture is job-centered. Look at our health care: lose your job, lose your health insurance. So much of our identity, as well as our ability to navigate American society, is based on our jobs.
People find meaning in work. But inspiration can be found elsewhere. Find something of value to you that’s inspiring and I don’t think you’ll ever be “retired.”
“A man’s home is his castle”: Is it good that men are encouraged to think of their homes as their castles? For what are castles but fortresses? And fortresses need defending, with guns and security alarms and fences and all the rest. And if a man is Lord of his Castle, then everyone else is his subject, including his wife and children. Perhaps especially his wife and children. We need to think of home as home, not as a castle, not as a fortress in which a man fortifies and actuates his own fears and aggression. (This observation was inspired by an article on male violence in the home.)
On Mourning America’s War Dead: A subject worthy of discussion is how we mourn our troops. When flag-draped caskets return to American soil, our troops are honored. But they are mourned mainly within family settings, or among neighbors in close-knit communities. Rarely are they mourned within wider communal settings. And I sense that some families are torn: there is little serenity for them, not only because they lost a loved one, but because there is a sense, a suspicion, that loved ones died for lesser causes, causes unrelated to ideals held sacred.
Of course, a soldier never dies in vain when he dies for his fellow troops. But that can be said of all soldiers on all sides in all wars. In a republic like the USA, or a polis as in ancient Greece, soldiers are supposed to die for something greater than the unit. That larger purpose is a communal ideal. Call it truth, justice, and the American way. Or call it something else, a sense of rightness if not righteousness.
But where is the rightness in America’s wars today?
On America’s Standing Military and Congressional Authority: The nation’s founders knew there’d be national emergencies that would require a larger “standing” military (i.e., not just state militias of “minutemen”), but they wanted to prevent a state of permanent war, which they attempted to do with the two-year appropriation clause. They were well familiar with history and all those hundred years’, thirty years’, and seven years’, wars. By giving the people (Congress) the power of the purse, they hoped to prevent those long wars by cutting off open-ended funding.
Of course, today that doesn’t apply. The AUMF (authorization for the use of military force) that dates from 2001 is used to justify a state of perpetual war and the funding of the same. Congress has abnegated its responsibility to check overweening Executive power for war-making, but actually it’s worse than that: Congress has joined the Executive branch in pursuing perpetual war. We no longer even bother with formal Congressional declarations; permanent war is considered to be the new normal in America: business as usual.
Not only have we created a permanent standing military — we devote the lion’s share of federal resources to it and brag about how great it is. That reality is antithetical to our national ideals as imagined and articulated by this nation’s founders.
Sports, Movies, and the Military in America: There’s a tendency for people to dismiss sports as “just sports” or movies as “just movies.” Yet astute people recognize the power of both. The classic case is Nazi Germany and the 1936 Olympics, and of course Leni Riefenstahl and spectacles like “The Triumph of the Will.” These, of course, were blatant, in-your-face, rallies. Today, U.S. sports/military celebrations may not be as blatant, but sports connects powerfully to feel-good patriotism as fanatical boosterism, which is precisely why the military is so eager to appropriate sports imagery (and to infiltrate sporting events). The corporate sponsors see it as a win-win: a win for profits, and a win for their image as “patriots.”
Hollywood is the dream factory. Sports too has a strong fantasy element. Speaking as an American male, who hasn’t dreamed of hitting the big home run like Big Papi or pitching a no-hitter like Matt Scherzer?
Man does not live by bread alone; to a certain extent, we live by dreams. Through our aspirations. And our dreams and aspirations are being channeled along certain lines: along more military lines, both at and by sporting events as well as at the movie theater.
It’s not just crass commercialism. It’s about shaping dreams, defining what’s appropriate (and what isn’t).
Thank you for indulging me as I cram into this article a few observations I’ve been kicking around. I’d also like as ever to thank all my readers and especially my faithful commenters and correspondents. Fire away in the comments section, readers!
(For an extended essay on sports and the military, please see my latest at TomDispatch.com: “Why Can’t We Just Play Ball? The Militarization of Sports and the Redefinition of Patriotism,” August 19, 2018, http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/176459.)
There’s a lot of blurring and blending of sports with the military in the USA today, but my service branch, the U.S. Air Force, has taken it to a new level. The Falcons football team at the USAF Academy has issued a new “alternate” uniform in honor of air power and specifically the AC-130 gunship. What this means is that cadets can now wear helmets that feature spooky, grim-reaper-like images together with images of the AC-130 firing on some indistinct enemy below. Check it out above and below:
The fog and the shark-like tailfin in the background are nice touches. Somebody probably got a promotion and/or a commendation medal for putting this campaign together.
Of course, the Air Force celebrates flight, using falcons as the team mascot, which makes sense. But uniforms dedicated to and celebrating a specific weapon system — really? The AC-130 gunship rains death from the sky; it’s a nasty weapon system and certainly one that I’d want on my side in a shooting war. But putting it on football helmets with images of screaming skeletons is a bit much.
How did military academies like West Point and Annapolis play football for so long with just regular uniforms? Without images of tanks or battleships adorning their uniforms?
I know: I’m an old fuddy-duddy. This is the new military — the military of warriors and warfighters. These new uniforms: so cool! So sexy! Dealing death is so much fun!
Why is it that these new “alternate” football uniforms of the AF Academy remind me, not of our citizen-airmen force of the past, but of some sinister, darker, force of the future? Why does the Star Trek episode, “Mirror, Mirror,” come to mind? (Hint: We’re no longer the “good” Federation.)
(You can go to https://twitter.com/hashtag/LetsFly and watch an Air Force video that links AC-130 combat footage with the new uniform, complete with lusty music and stoked players.)
Back in 2013, I wrote an article on U.S. wars and the absence of movie and sports stars in the ranks of those who serve. Hollywood and sports leagues such as the NFL and MLB celebrate the military today, but that celebration does not extend to service and sacrifice. Indeed, the main service is lip service: basically, cheap words to the effect that we celebrities “support” the troops. It’s not exactly the kind of service we associate with the Greatest Generation of World War II, is it?
Yet the absence of Hollywood celebrities and sports “heroes” in the ranks may be indicative of another, much more serious, issue. Maybe America’s wars simply aren’t vital to them — or to us? And if they’re not vital, why are they still in progress? Why can’t we end them?
Here is what I wrote in 2013:
The tradition of the citizen-soldier is still alive in this country — just look at our National Guard units. But the burden of military service is obviously not equally shared, with the affluent and famous tucked away safely at home. How many people remember that Jimmy Stewart, legendary Hollywood actor, flew dangerous combat missions in the skies over Europe during World War II? Stewart didn’t flaunt his combat service; in fact, playing against type, he stayed home as the unhallowed George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life, a movie that celebrated the heroism of the ordinary citizen. In the movie, Stewart’s quiet, home-based heroism, his powerful sense of fairness and decency, is even allowed to overshadow that of his younger brother, who returns from war with the Medal of Honor.
There’s an interesting lesson there. In World War II, celebrities often risked life and limb in real military service, then after the war played against type to celebrate the virtues of a homespun heroism. Today’s celebrities avoid military service altogether but play tough in action films where they pose as “heroes.”
Other than Pat Tillman, who gave up a promising NFL football career to join the military after 9/11, I can’t think of a single celebrity who answered the call to arms as a citizen-soldier.
Then again, that call was never issued. After 9/11, President George W. Bush famously told us to keep calm and carry on — carrying on shopping and patronizing Disney, that is. He did so because he already had a large standing professional military he could call on, drawn primarily from the middling orders of society. This “all volunteer military” is often described (especially in advertisements by defense contractors) as a collection of “warfighters” and “warriors.” In the field, they are supplemented by privatized militaries provided by companies like Academi (formerly Blackwater/Xe), Triple Canopy, and DynCorp International. In a word, mercenaries. These bring with them a corporate, for-profit, mindset to America’s wars.
If we as a country are going to keep fighting wars, we need a military drawn from the people. All the people. As a start, we need to draft young men (and women) from Hollywood, from the stage and screen. And we need to draft America’s sports stars (I shouldn’t think this would be an issue, since there are so many patriotic displays in favor of the troops at NFL stadiums and MLB parks).
Jimmy Stewart served in combat. So too did Ted Williams. So too did so many of their Hollywood and sporting generation.
Until today’s stars of stage and screen and sports join with the same sense of urgency as their counterparts of “The Greatest Generation,” I’ll remain deeply skeptical of all those Hollywood and sporting world patriotic displays of troop support.
If this whole line of argument sounds crazy to you, I have a modest suggestion. Rather a plea. If our celebrities who profit the most from America are unwilling to defend it the way Stewart and Williams did, perhaps that’s not just a sign of societal rot. Perhaps it’s a sign that our wars are simply not vital to us. And if that’s the case, shouldn’t we end them? Now?
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.
Nothing screams “USA!” like the NFL draft held yearly at the end of April, and I managed to watch a few minutes here and there across the three days of blanket coverage offered by ESPN and the NFL network (I also noticed the draft was in prime time on the Fox network). The National Football League (NFL) puts on an extravaganza for the draft. This year I caught a ceremony featuring the family of dead soldier; they “helped” to make a pick in the draft for the Dallas Cowboys. The huge video screen featured the soldier (Captain Ellery Ray Wallace) who’d been killed, and the fans in the dome started chanting “USA! USA!” in homage to a man who must have loved the Cowboys when he was alive. The spectacle of it all just made me sad, no matter how much the NFL tried to sell this and similar photo ops as exercises in helping grieving families to recover from the tragedy of losing a loved one in war.
As I wrote about last year’s draft, “I’m always dazed and amazed by the sheer work that goes into the NFL draft: the thoroughness of it all, the expertise on display, the active and informed involvement of the fans. Imagine if ESPN (or any media outlet, for that matter) covered America’s wars with the same commitment to detail and facts as is displayed yearly for American football!”
And as I wrote about the NFL draft two years ago:
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 …
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 [now five] 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).
In 2016, I made the following proposal, in jest of course, but I repeat it here because I still think it’s telling:
Let’s put ESPN in charge of intelligence gathering and coverage [of America’s wars]. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.