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
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.
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 9/11, 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 9/11. 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.