The Real Problem: The Militarization of the NFL

Before 2009, Colin Kaepernick would have had to find some other way to protest racism against African Americans.  That’s because until the height of the Iraq War, NFL football players weren’t even required to leave the locker room for the national anthem, much less stand for it.

That’s not to say that the national anthem didn’t take place before every game. The singing of “The Star Spangled Banner” was mandated during another war, World War II, when the NFL commissioner at the time mandated it for the league. The players were told to stand for it about the same time that the Department of Defense was ramping up massive recruitment and media operations around the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They began paying sports teams millions in U.S. tax dollars for what amounted to “paid patriotism,” or mega-military spectacles on the playing field before the games. It got so bad that there was a congressional investigation led by none other than Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a veteran and considered one of the most patriotic men in the Senate.

What McCain and Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) found was that between 2012 and 2015, the DOD shelled out $53 million to professional sports—including $10 million to the NFL—on “marketing and advertising” for military recruitment. To be sure, some of that was bona fide advertising. But many of those heart-tugging ceremonies honoring heroes and recreating drills and marches and flyovers are what the report denounced as propaganda.

Of course, this being government, no one is really sure how much has been spent or where the money went. As their report revealed:

Over the course of the effort, we discovered the startling fact that DOD cannot accurately account for how many contracts it has awarded or how much has been spent; its official response to our request only accounted for 62 percent of its 122 contracts with the major league teams that we were able to uncover and 70 percent of the more than $10 million it actually spent on these contracts. And, although DOD has indicated the purpose of these contracts is to support recruiting, the Department doesn’t uniformly measure how and whether the activities under contract are actually contributing to recruiting.

Although the senators claimed to have ended such paid patriotism in the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act, the NFL’s willing role as a top cheerleader and recruiter for the warfare state is unlikely to end anytime soon (one need look no farther than Hyundai’s homage to the military in the 2017 Super Bowl for evidence).

In fact it has not stopped the war liturgy from playing out on the gridiron at all, and yes, given when and how it was mandated for players to honor it, the national anthem has been used a prop in this near-religious convocation. In recent years, soldier parading, flag-waving, and jumbotron shout-outs to warriors have become de rigueur at NFL games. Consider the display put on at Super Bowl 50: A flyover by the Blue Angels fighter jets, and 50 representatives of all military branches singing “America the Beautiful” against a backdrop of a giant flag. During the game, a Northop Grumman advertisement  proudly announced America’s conceptual sixth-generation fighter jet “of the future” to an unsuspecting audience, a year after it presented its new long-range bomber during Super Bowl XLIX. How much that ad time cost the company is anyone’s guess, but it is no surprise that defense contractors are hawking their billion-dollar war wares between game play these days.

In truth, the post-WWII NFL has always been militaristic. As Colorado State University historian Robert Gudmestad explains:

Postwar affluence and the increase in white-collar jobs, when combined with concerns about the power of the Soviet Union, led many Americans to fear that men were too effeminate and weak. These anxieties created fertile soil for the growth of football, which became a way to affirm masculinity and fight the supposed “muscle gap.” If you didn’t embrace football—which seemed to embody Cold War ideas of containment—you might be suspected of deviant behavior like homosexuality or communism.

Little wonder that the NFL’s rise has tracked with the growth of the warfare state. During the 1950s, NFL football went from being just another sport to near dominance. It surpassed baseball as America’s most popular sport in 1968—the same year that Air Force jets put on a show for the Orange Bowl. (The fact that Nixon was elected on a supposedly antiwar platform in 1968, as one writer claims, hardly disproves the overall correlation.)

Feeling a need to defend football, Matthew Walther for The Week recently lavished unbridled praise on its all-encompassing superiority:

Football is a varied, engrossing, mentally and physically demanding pastime; it is tag, Risk, kickball, and the Commentarii de Bello Gallico all rolled into one. (For the non-Latinists, the Commentarii de Bello Gallico is Julius Caesar’s memoir of the Gallic Wars.)

But isn’t that the problem? “Football is a warlike game and we are now a warlike nation. Our love for football is a love, however self-aware, of ourselves as a fighting and (we hope) victorious people,” opines University of Virginia scholar Mark Edmundson. Slate has called NFL games “the American war game.” George Carlin compared quarterbacks to generals, their thrown footballs to bullets and bombs, and their teammates to advancing troops.

Such comic exaggeration points to a fundamental truth: football—with its obsessive territorialism, regimented hierarchy, and peculiar combination of strategic prowess with brute force—has always been at risk of militaristic co-option.

No, this isn’t an argument against football, nor the national anthem. But it is a plea that the NFL stop shilling for the warfare state and using Americans and their patriotism as unwilling—or even willing—participants. Kneeling or not kneeling, protesting or leaving one’s politics at home are valid points of debate. But the issue of militarized football appears too hot to touch, although it is clearly not going away.

Stephen Beale is a freelance writer based in Providence, R.I. Email him at[email protected], and follow him on Twitter @bealenews

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