How Pro Sports Became Part of the U.S. Military’s War Machine

Since 9/11, public displays of patriotism have been built into major sporting events. Here’s why that’s so insidious.

William J. Astore August 20, 2018

Members of the US Air Force salute during the National Anthem and military appreciation day before the match between Sporting Kansas City and Atlanta United FC on Sunday August 6, 2017 at Children's Mercy Park in Kansas City, KS. (Photo by Nick Tre. Smith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

As long as I can remem­ber, I’ve been a sports fan. As long as I can remem­ber, I’ve been inter­est­ed in the mil­i­tary. Until recent­ly, I expe­ri­enced those as two sep­a­rate and dis­tinct worlds. While I was in the mil­i­tary – I served for 20 years as an offi­cer in the U.S. Air Force – I did, of course, play sports. As a young lieu­tenant, I was in a rac­quet­ball tour­na­ment at my base in Col­orado. At Squadron Offi­cer School in Alaba­ma, I took part in vol­ley­ball and flicker­ball (a bizarre Air Force sport). At the Air Force Acad­e­my, I was on a soft­ball team and when we final­ly won a game, all of us signed the ball. I also enjoyed being in a mil­i­tary bowl­ing league. I even had my own ball with my name engraved on it.

Since 9/11, however, sports and the military have become increasingly fused in this country.

Don’t mis­un­der­stand me. I was nev­er par­tic­u­lar­ly skilled at any sport, but I did thor­ough­ly enjoy play­ing part­ly because it was such a wel­come break from work – a reprieve from wear­ing a uni­form, salut­ing, fol­low­ing orders, and all the rest. Sports were sports. Mil­i­tary ser­vice was mil­i­tary ser­vice. And nev­er the twain shall meet.

Since 911, how­ev­er, sports and the mil­i­tary have become increas­ing­ly fused in this coun­try. Pro­fes­sion­al ath­letes now con­sid­er it per­fect­ly nat­ur­al to don uni­forms that fea­ture cam­ou­flage pat­terns. (They do this, teams say, as a form of mil­i­tary appre­ci­a­tion.”) Indeed, for only $39.99 you, too, can buy your own Major League Base­ball-sanc­tioned camo cap at MLB’s offi­cial site. And then, of course, you can use that cap in any sta­di­um to shade your eyes as you watch fly­overs, parades, reunions of ser­vice mem­bers return­ing from our country’s war zones and their fam­i­lies, and a mul­ti­tude of oth­er increas­ing­ly mil­i­ta­rized cer­e­monies that cel­e­brate both vet­er­ans and troops in uni­form at sports sta­di­ums across what, in the post‑9/​11 years, has come to be known as the homeland.” 

These days, you can hard­ly miss moments when, for instance, play­ing fields are cov­ered with gigan­tic Amer­i­can flags, often unfurled and held either by scores of mil­i­tary per­son­nel or civil­ian defense con­trac­tors. Such cer­e­monies are invari­ably tout­ed as nat­ur­al expres­sions of patri­o­tism, part of a con­tin­u­al pub­lic expres­sion of grat­i­tude for America’s warfight­ers” and heroes.” These are, in oth­er words, uncon­tro­ver­sial dis­plays of pride, even though a study ordered by Repub­li­can Sen­a­tors John McCain and Jeff Flake revealed that the U.S. tax­pay­er, via the Pen­ta­gon, has reg­u­lar­ly forked over tens of mil­lions of dol­lars ($53 mil­lion between 2012 and 2015 alone) to cor­po­rate-owned teams to put on just such displays.

Paid patri­o­tism should, of course, be an oxy­moron. These days, how­ev­er, it’s any­thing but and even when the Amer­i­can tax­pay­er isn’t cov­er­ing dis­plays like these, the meld­ing of sports and the mil­i­tary should be seen as inap­pro­pri­ate, if not insid­i­ous. And I say that as both a lover of sports and a veteran.

I Went to a Mil­i­tary Parade and a Ten­nis Match Broke Out

Maybe you’ve heard the joke: I went to the fights and a hock­ey game broke out. It was meant to poke fun at the fisticuffs in Nation­al Hock­ey League games, though these days there are few­er of them than in the glo­ry days” of the 1970s. An updat­ed ver­sion would, how­ev­er, fit today’s increas­ing­ly mil­i­ta­rized sports events to a T: I went to a mil­i­tary parade and a base­ball (foot­ball, hock­ey) game broke out. 

Nowa­days, it seems as if pro­fes­sion­al sports sim­ply couldn’t occur with­out some notice of and cel­e­bra­tion of the U.S. mil­i­tary, each game being trans­formed in some way into yet anoth­er Memo­r­i­al Day or Vet­er­ans Day lite.

Con­sid­er the pro-mil­i­tary hype that sur­round­ed this year’s Major League Base­ball All-Star Game. Not so very long ago, when I watched such games I would be trans­port­ed to my child­hood and my fan­tasies of becom­ing the next Nolan Ryan or Carl Yastrzemski. 

When I watched this year’s ver­sion of the game, how­ev­er, I didn’t relive my youth; I reliv­ed my mil­i­tary career. As a start, the pre­vi­ous night fea­tured a tele­vised home-run der­by. Before it even began, about 50 air­men parad­ed out in cam­ou­flage uni­forms, set­ting the stage for every­thing that would fol­low. (As they weren’t on duty, I couldn’t help won­der­ing why they found it appro­pri­ate to don such out­fits.) Part of T‑Mobile’s HatsOff4Heroes” cam­paign, this mini-parade was jus­ti­fied in the name of rais­ing mon­ey to sup­port vet­er­ans, but T‑Mobile could have sim­ply giv­en the mon­ey to char­i­ty with­out any of the mil­i­ta­rized hoopla that this involved. 

High­light­ing the oth­er pre-game cer­e­monies the next night was a cel­e­bra­tion of Medal of Hon­or recip­i­ents. I have deep respect for such heroes, but what were they doing on a base­ball dia­mond? The cer­e­mo­ny would have been appro­pri­ate on, say, Vet­er­ans Day in November.

Those same pre-game fes­tiv­i­ties includ­ed a mil­i­taris­tic mon­tage nar­rat­ed by Bradley Coop­er (star of Amer­i­can Sniper”), fea­tur­ing war scenes and war mon­u­ments while high­light­ing the pop­u­lar catch­phrase free­dom isn’t free.” Mar­tial music accom­pa­nied the mon­tage along with a bevy of flag-wav­ing images. It felt like watch­ing a twist­ed ver­sion of the film Field of Dreamsreshot so that sol­diers, not base­ball play­ers, emerged ear­ly on from those rows of Iowa corn stalks and stepped onto the play­ing field.

What fol­lowed was a sur­prise” reunion of an air­man, Staff Sergeant Cole Con­diff, and his wife and fam­i­ly. Such staged reunions have become a reg­u­lar aspect of major sport­ing events – con­sid­er this heart-melt­ing” exam­ple from a Mil­wau­kee Brew­ers game – and are obvi­ous­ly meant to tug at the heart­strings. They are, as retired Army Colonel Andrew Bace­vich wrote at TomDis­patch back in 2011, pro­pa­gan­dis­tic ver­sions of cheap grace.”

In addi­tion, Bud­weis­er used this year’s game to pro­mote free­dom” beer, again to raise mon­ey for vet­er­ans and, of course, to bur­nish its own rep. (Last year, the com­pa­ny was hyp­ing Amer­i­ca” beer.) 

And the All-Star game is hard­ly alone in its mil­i­ta­rized cel­e­bra­tions and hoopla. Take the 2017 U.S. Open ten­nis tour­na­ment in New York City, which I hap­pened to watch. With John McEn­roe in retire­ment, ten­nis is, gen­er­al­ly speak­ing, a qui­eter sport. Yet before the men’s final, a Marine Corps col­or guard joined a con­tin­gent of West Point cadets in a cer­e­mo­ny to remem­ber the vic­tims of 911. Nat­u­ral­ly, a by-now-oblig­a­tory over­sized Amer­i­can flag set the scene – here’s a com­pa­ra­ble cer­e­mo­ny from 2016 – capped by a per­for­mance of God Bless Amer­i­ca” and a loud fly­over by four com­bat jets. Admit­ted­ly, it was a dra­mat­ic way to begin any­thing, but why exact­ly an inter­na­tion­al ten­nis match that hap­pened to fea­ture final­ists from Spain and South Africa?

Blend­ing Sports With the Mil­i­tary Weak­ens Democracy

I’m hard­ly the first to warn about the dan­gers of mix­ing sports with the mil­i­tary, espe­cial­ly in cor­po­rate-con­trolled blenders. Ear­ly in 2003, pri­or to the kick off for the Iraq War (sports metaphor intend­ed), the writer Nor­man Mail­er issued this warning:

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.”

More than 14 years lat­er, that com­bi­na­tion – cor­po­ra­tions, the mil­i­tary, and mass spec­ta­tor sports, all wrapped in a gigan­tic ver­sion of the stars and stripes – has increas­ing­ly come to define what it means to be an Amer­i­can. Now that the coun­try also has its own self-styled strong­man pres­i­dent, enabled by a spine­less Con­gress and an increas­ing­ly reac­tionary judi­cia­ry, Mailer’s men­tion of a pre-fascis­tic atmos­phere” seems prescient.

What start­ed as a post‑9/​11 dri­ve to get an Amer­i­can pub­lic to thank” the troops end­less­ly for their ser­vice in dis­tant con­flicts – sti­fling crit­i­cism of those wars by link­ing it to ingrat­i­tude – has mor­phed into a new form of nation­al rev­er­ence. And much cred­it goes to pro­fes­sion­al sports for that trans­for­ma­tion. In con­junc­tion with the mil­i­tary and mar­ket­ed by cor­po­ra­tions, they have reshaped the very prac­tice of patri­o­tism in America. 

Today, thanks in part to tax­pay­er fund­ing, Amer­i­cans reg­u­lar­ly salute gross­ly over­sized flags, cel­e­brate or oth­er­wise appre­ci­ate” the troops (with­out mak­ing the slight­est mean­ing­ful sac­ri­fice them­selves), and applaud the cor­po­rate spon­sors that pull it all togeth­er (and prof­it from it). Mean­while, tak­ing a stand (or a knee), being an agent of dis­sent, protest­ing against injus­tice, is increas­ing­ly seen as the very def­i­n­i­tion of what it means to be unpa­tri­ot­ic. Indeed, play­ers with the guts to protest Amer­i­can life as it is are reg­u­lar­ly cas­ti­gat­ed as SOBs by our sports- and mil­i­tary-lov­ing president.

Pro­fes­sion­al sports own­ers cer­tain­ly know that this mil­i­ta­rized brand of patri­o­tism sells, while the ver­sion embod­ied in the kinds of con­tro­ver­sial stances tak­en by ath­letes like for­mer Nation­al Foot­ball League quar­ter­back Col­in Kaeper­nick (cashiered by his own league) angers and alien­ates many fans, ulti­mate­ly threat­en­ing profits. 

Mean­while, the military’s bot­tom line is recruit­ing new bod­ies for that all-vol­un­teer force while keep­ing those tax­pay­er dol­lars flow­ing into the Pen­ta­gon at increas­ing­ly stag­ger­ing lev­els. For cor­po­ra­tions, you won’t be sur­prised to learn, it’s all about prof­its and reputation. 

In the end, it comes down to one thing: who con­trols the nation­al narrative.

Think about it. A set of cor­po­rate-mil­i­tary part­ner­ships or, if you pre­fer, some ver­sion of Pres­i­dent Dwight D. Eisenhower’s old mil­i­tary-indus­tri­al com­plex has enlist­ed sports to make mil­i­tarism look good and nor­mal and even cool. In oth­er words, sports teams now have a pow­er­ful set of incen­tives to appear patri­ot­ic, which increas­ing­ly means slav­ish­ly pro-mil­i­tary. It’s get­ting hard to remem­ber that this coun­try ever had a cit­i­zen-sol­dier tra­di­tion as well as sports teams whose ath­letes actu­al­ly went almost en masse to serve in war. Con­sid­er it para­dox­i­cal that mil­i­tarism is today becom­ing as Amer­i­can as base­ball and apple pie, even as, like so many oth­er cit­i­zens, today’s ath­letes vote with their feet to stay out of the mil­i­tary. (The NFL’s Pat Till­man was a noble post‑9/​11 excep­tion.) Indeed, the wide­spread (if shal­low) sup­port of the mil­i­tary by so many ath­letes may, in some cas­es, be dri­ven by a kind of guilt.

Col­lu­sion” is a key word in this Trumpian moment. Even though Robert Mueller isn’t inves­ti­gat­ing them, cor­po­rate-owned sports teams are now active­ly col­lud­ing with the mil­i­tary to rede­fine patri­o­tism in ways that work to their mutu­al advan­tage. They are com­plic­it in tak­ing a select, jin­go­is­tic form of patri­o­tism and weaponiz­ing it to sup­press dis­sent, includ­ing against the mil­i­tary-indus­tri­al com­plex and America’s nev­er-end­ing wars.

Dri­ven by cor­po­rate agen­das and fea­tur­ing exag­ger­at­ed mil­i­tary dis­plays, mass-spec­ta­tor sports are help­ing to shape what Amer­i­cans per­ceive and believe. In sta­di­ums across the nation, on screens held in our hands or dom­i­nat­ing our liv­ing rooms, we wit­ness fine young men and women in uni­form unfurl­ing mas­sive flags on foot­ball fields and base­ball dia­monds, even on ten­nis courts, as com­bat jets scream over­head. What we don’t see – what is large­ly kept from us – are the mur­der­ous costs of empire: the dead and maimed sol­diers, the inno­cents slaugh­tered by those same com­bat jets.

The images we do absorb and the nar­ra­tive we’re encour­aged to embrace, immersed as we are in an end­less round of mil­i­ta­rized sport­ing events, sup­port the idea that mas­sive nation­al secu­ri­ty” invest­ments (to the tune of rough­ly a tril­lion dol­lars annu­al­ly) are good and right and patri­ot­ic. Ques­tion­ing the same – indeed, ques­tion­ing author­i­ty in any form – is, of course, bad and wrong and unpatriotic.

For all the appre­ci­a­tion of the mil­i­tary at sport­ing events, here’s what you’re not sup­posed to appre­ci­ate: why we’re in our for­ev­er wars; the extent to which they’ve been mis­man­aged for the last 17 years; how much peo­ple, espe­cial­ly in dis­tant lands, have suf­fered thanks to them; and who’s real­ly prof­it­ing from them.

Sports should be about hav­ing fun; about joy, pas­sion, and shar­ing; about the thrill of com­pe­ti­tion, the splen­dor of the human con­di­tion; and so much more. I still remem­ber the few home runs I hit in soft­ball. I still remem­ber break­ing 200 for the first time in bowl­ing. I still remem­ber the faces of my team­mates in soft­ball and the fun times I had with good people.

But let’s be clear: this is not what war is all about. War is hor­rif­ic. War fea­tures the worst of the human con­di­tion. When we blur sports and the mil­i­tary, adding cor­po­rate agen­das into the mix, we’re not just doing a dis­ser­vice to our troops and our ath­letes; we’re doing a dis­ser­vice to our­selves. We’re weak­en­ing the integri­ty of democ­ra­cy in America.

We can afford to lose a ball­game. We can’t afford to lose our country.

This arti­cle first appeared on Tom Dispatch.

William Astore is a retired Air Force lieu­tenant colonel and his­to­ry pro­fes­sor who blogs at Brac­ing Views.
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