The increasing – and disturbing – militarization of U.S. sports

The NFL and other pro sports leagues don't celebrate the military as gestures of patriotism. The only motivating factor is money

America’s major professional sports leagues – most notably the National Football League – have increasingly teamed with the military and corporations to serve up ugly forms of paid and forced patriotism.

“The melding of sports and the military should be seen as inappropriate, if not insidious,” says William Astore, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant-colonel and history professor. “And I say that as both a lover of sports and a veteran.”

From 2011 to 2014, the U.S. Department of Defense and NFL implemented a phoney soldier salute. The Department of Defense paid 14 NFL teams $5.4 million for promotional salutes to military personnel.

Consider the New York Jets’ Hometown Heroes promotion. During timeouts, the Jumbotron camera would zoom in on a U.S. soldier who was strategically placed. The soldier smiled and waved to the crowd. Fans stood and cheered, bursting with patriotic feelings and happy that their favourite football team was honouring true American heroes.

In reality, the whole thing was a marketing and public relations scam, just another revenue stream for NFL owners, not a feel-good gesture at all.

Shameful.

“It almost feels like it’s a mandatory patriotism that is pushed down the throats of anybody who wants to attend a game,” says former Army Ranger and author Rory Fanning. “By trotting out veterans, patting them on the back, I don’t think it does justice to the actual experience of veterans, particularly over the last 18 years. There certainly isn’t an opportunity for veterans to talk about their experiences in combat. So many veterans don’t feel like the heroes the NFL wants to present them as.”

NFL owners have tried to wrap themselves in the flag for a long time, at least since the start of the Super Bowl era, when commissioner Pete Rozelle made a conscious effort to start marrying football, the military, corporate sponsors and patriotism. Efforts in this area picked up following 9/11 and seem to increase every year.

The whole thing is sad and hypocritical.

The reason the NFL takes any patriotic stance is for love of money, not love of country.

Along with the military and the league’s corporate sponsors, the NFL has marketed its version of patriotism, a version that’s terribly warped.

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),” writes Astore. “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.”

True patriotism requires speaking out, often critically, and getting involved, on a local and/or national basis, in an effort to make the country the best it can be. It certainly requires more than just standing and cheering choreographed ‘patriotic’ marketing and PR skits at stadiums and arenas around the country.

As Robert F. Kennedy once said, “The sharpest criticism often goes hand in hand with the deepest idealism and love of country.”

Perhaps the worst part of this increasing militarism in the NFL, and other pro sports leagues, is the way this jingoistic form of patriotism can sometimes cross over into the glorification of war. We’re not supposed to question what seem like ‘forever wars,’ or how they’ve been managed or mismanaged. We’re not supposed to talk about the reality of dead and maimed people, including thousands of innocents.

“War is horrific,” concludes Astore. “War features the worst of the human condition. When we blur sports and the military, adding corporate agendas in the mix, we’re not just doing a disservice to our troops and our athletes; we’re doing a disservice to ourselves.”

NFL owners decry players as unpatriotic for peacefully protesting during the national anthem in an effort to bring public attention to police brutality and social injustice.

But they don’t really give a damn about patriotism or what’s best for the country. They’re focused on worshipping the God of Greed.

Ken Reed is sports policy director for League of Fans (leagueoffans.org), a sports reform project. He is the author of The Sports ReformersEgo vs. Soul in Sports, and How We Can Save Sports.


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