The War of Sport

By Brian P. Dunleavy
Oct. 10, 2012

Eleven years ago this past Sunday, then-President George Bush announced the beginning of what eventually became the U.S.-led "War on Terror" in Afghanistan.

On that day, I was at the Meadowlands, covering the New York Giants football game for the newspaper I was freelancing with at the time. The announcement was posted on the stadium’s video board during the game, along with an image of the American flag, and a loud cheer erupted from the crowd.

Afterwards, Jim Fassel, who was the Giants’ coach then, was asked for his thoughts on the news.

"I had my mind on another war," he said.

He was referring, of course, to the game.

Looking back, it is easy to see the absurdity of Fassel's comment. Our military recently sustained its 2,000th casualty in Afghanistan, and the conflict there is now the longest in U.S. history (thanks to a technicality in how we view our involvement in Vietnam). Losses have been even greater in nearby Iraq, and the death tolls from the World Wars, Korea and Vietnam make the ongoing fighting in the Middle East seem like a stroll in the park, albeit a very dangerous one.

And that's not even taking into account the lives lost on the "other sides" in these conflicts.

But Fassel was not the first to compare his sport to war and, unfortunately, nor was he the last. American athletes and coaches constantly employ military metaphors in pregame pep talks and postgame press conferences, particularly in American football. Players are "warriors." They don’t play games they "battle." And games, like Fassel said, are "wars"—"shootouts" or "firefights" if they are high-scoring affairs.

I’m sure none of these red-blooded American males intend to belittle the risks our servicemen and women face on real battlefields, but they do so just the same. Yet, these verbal offenses pale in comparison to the "patriotic pandering" done by so many of the sports teams and leagues in which they play or coach—both college and professional. The American flag should be a cherished symbol of our nation, but far too many sports organizations drape themselves in it, literally and figuratively. The "USA! USA!" chant has become just another way to fire up the crowd. So-called "Military Appreciation Days" at sporting events are glorified marketing gimmicks, designed to increase sales of tickets and customized "camouflage" jerseys.

Of course, at the same time, our real warriors are facing some serious issues, even after they return from combat. PTSD is at an all-time high, as is unemployment among veterans. Meanwhile, in 2004, not long after he declared war in the Middle East, Bush cut veterans’ health benefits by $2 billion and housing benefits by $1.5 billion.

Somehow, that wasn't mentioned during the halftime show at that year's Super Bowl.

I'm not calling for sports organizations to get political here—although by being so quick to trumpet war from the safety of their skyboxes one could argue they already are. But the least they could do is tone down the rhetoric a little bit.

Or, to paraphrase John Lennon, give peace equal time.


About the author: Brian P. Dunleavy is a writer who lives in New York.



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