Baseball is traditionally called America’s pastime, but it is the National Football League that has dominated the American consciousness for the better part of the past two decades and over the past fifty years has built its brand around the message that football and the American way of life are synonymous.
Football is a blue-collar game that came of age in the years when America itself was becoming a world power in the late 19th century. It blended east-coast elites whose families had ruled the country since its founding and Midwestern farm boys form immigrant families. The list of college rivalry games illustrate that pan-continental appeal. Harvard-Yale; first played in 1875 is one of the country’s oldest academic, let alone athletic, rivalries, Ohio State-Michigan; first played in 1897, is a battle of two great public universities, Notre Dame-USC; first played in 1926 and shows the growth westward of both academia and social influence in the early part of the 20th century.
While the college game may have the deeper tradition, the NFL has the brand. This brand has, over the decades, captured the essence of American masculinity to the tune of $9.5 billion in revenue for the 2011-2012 fiscal year. This is not my conclusion, nor is it a unique one. It is in fact the premise of Episode 3 of “Star Spangled Sundays”, a four-part documentary series on the history of the NFL released in January and produced by NFL Films. The episode is aptly entitled “Brand NFL”, and explains how the NFL has capitalized, especially since 9/11, on the imagery of the American flag and in doing so has made its patriotic and its militaristic parallels that much more explicit.
Military Terms Flying Everywhere
Football as a game lends itself to military euphemisms and symbiotic terminology. Again this is not an original or novel idea, beyond its more academic mention in “Star Spangled Sundays” it was my introduction to the late-great George Carlin. His comparison between football and baseball is timeless American comedy and if you have never seen this, or worse never heard of George Carlin, you are missing out. Carlin finishes his joke with is a laundry list of terms borrowed from war that are used in the game’s vernacular, like “blitz”, “air attack”, “ground attack” and a litany of others.
This use of military terms is generally harmless as long as there is an understanding that football is still just a game. In fact there is only one game where that sentiment is truly felt, and ironically it is the game with the strongest military undertones. One college rivalry I left out above is the annual Army-Navy game between the respective military academies. This is a game soaked in tradition, patriotism and honor and yet it is only once the players are future soldiers, sailors or marines that the veneer of faux-militarism is dropped, seemingly in respect for their sacrifice, and football returns to being “just a game”.
The rest of football though reflects the militarization of American society that has occurred over the past decade and which continues to seep between sports, primarily football, and the everyday. The examples of this are nearly endless. There is the recent “Hell Week” reality web-series produced by Dick’s Sporting Goods and ESPN, borrowing a term for the climax of SEAL training and imposing it on a high school football team’s preseason training. Weekly, military aircraft provide flyovers for both college and professional games. There are the militarized uniforms of college teams including the “American flag” uniform from Boston College and the “Black Ops” uniform from the University of Maryland. While the Boston College uniform was in support of the Wounded Warrior Project by UnderArmor, a point I will address below, the Black Ops uniforms were simple militarized masturbation, giving the uniform a militarized theme for the sake of style and coolness. This recent Pepsi commercial that seamlessly combines, the NFL, players, coaches, fans and owners with “the troops”, who are also fans, all of whom are or course drinking Pepsi. This blatant and shallow corporatism bleeds directly into the ever present “Support the Troops” movement on which Steven Salaita wrote a poignant article.
Salaita’s basic premise is that “compulsory patriotism does nothing for soldiers who risk their lives – but props up those who profit from war”. Widely apparent in those projects that “support the troops”, is the invariably corporatism, whose companies’ magnanimity is driven by the sole purpose of either increasing their revenue or reducing their taxes, both while garnering public good will. Salaita writes
“As in most areas of the American polity, we pay taxes that favor the private sector, which then refuses to contribute to any sustainable vision of the public good. The only serious welfare programs in the United States benefit the most powerful among us. Individual troops, who are made to preserve and perpetuate this system, rarely enjoy the spoils. The bonanza is reserved for those who exploit the profitability of warfare through the acquisition of foreign resources and the manufacture of weapons.”
What about the Vets?
I should qualify Salaita’s argument with a brief aside. For “the troops” themselves the “support” is not an entirely empty sentiment. I cannot speak for the entire military, nor can anyone, but feeling the support of the nearly every American must improve and support morale. The days of Vietnam, when military personnel were vilified or ignored by the public are over. Standing on the field while tens of thousands of fans applaud your service – as has become common across the pantheon of American sport – must be a pretty cool feeling.
However real help for veterans does not come through the corporations that sponsor professional sports but instead comes through medical support from the Veterans Affairs Administration and the reintegration of veterans to civilian life through well-paying civilian jobs. Unfortunately, neither the government bureaucracy nor the military – those with the true responsibility to these men and women – have successfully charted a path that would truly “support the troops”. Equally as unfortunate is the fact that the empty rhetoric from corporations masks these failures with shallow corporate goodwill.
There is a difference though, and an important one between supporting the individual members of the military, and the ubiquitous support for the “troops”. Supporting the troops makes a number of assumptions that, along with this militarized culture seen in the NFL brand, has placed American society in a dangerous place. Like the Romans who had their gladiators, Americans have our football players and the same martial traits are glorified in both. There’s a quote from the movie Gladiator where Marcus Aurelius, the elderly emperor who is murdered by his son, says, “There is always someone left to fight”. While this is a statement from modern culture, its simplicity is perhaps reminiscent of classic philosophers and could very well have been uttered by a Roman thinker. It paints a grave picture.
The NFL, Pepsi and various clothing brands are not the only corporations that have profited from the militarization of the American public. The defense industry has bound itself to the government and the blind acceptance of this by the American public has allowed the military-industrial complex to institutionalize itself in, and become an integral part of, the American economy. When an economy and a culture bases itself on a militarized society, it makes it more likely and close to inevitable that that society will go to war, that it will always find some one else to fight. The NFL, as an entertainment industry and the country’s most popular and profitable sport, is just the most transparent articulation of this society. Patriotism is not a negative characteristic in a society, militarism is.
Post script: This article was originally published on The Volterra, in 2013. In 2015, it came to light that the NFL had charged the Department of Defense $5.4 million to hold the immensely popular on-field ceremonies. With that story, a slew of articles and essays decrying the militarization of the NFL were published by liberal and progressive media outlets including The Guardian and Daily Kos. While there was little change to the patriotic program during the 2015 season, it will be interesting to see what, if any, changes will occur in 2016.