Sports and the Military

An oped piece that ran in the Washington Post prior to the Super Bowl deserves another look.

The article, When we cheer for our team, do we have to cheer for America, too? raises a host of valid questions that we, as a viewing public, should have the ability to engage in civil conversation on.

Written by Tricia Jenkins, an assistant professor of film, television and digital media at Texas Christian University, the article calls in to question the odd relationship between the military and our sporting events. 

“Sports games — some of the only events that lead Americans to set their differences aside and sit down and watch together — have become stages for large-scale patriotic theater. This is no accident; many of the militaristic rituals we see in stadiums and arenas across the country were deliberately designed to promote unity during times of crisis. But they’ve stuck around far longer than needed, making sports feel less like pastimes than pep rallies for our military or a particular war.”

In her article, Ms. Jenkins cites several examples of how the athletes themselves take issue with the messaging taking place, to the chagrin of the team, the league, and/or the fans they perform for. 

“By refusing to participate in patriotic gimmickry because of their objections to U.S. policy, these athletes were exercising their constitutional right to dissent. Still, their teams, leagues and crowds tried to silence them. That’s their right, too, of course. But somehow, a country founded on rebellion finds not standing for an anthem or saluting a flag un-American.”

It’s easy to dismiss the views of individual gladiators that refuse to play along in the “gimmickry;” however, what should be examined is why is it there in the first place?

“During World War II, team owners introduced the national anthem and ceremonies honoring the armed forces as a way to win President Franklin Roosevelt’s support for continuing play amid the conflict. The weekend after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle inserted moments of silence and flag ceremonies into his league’s games.  The small flag decals on many athletes’ uniforms arose from basketball and football organizers’ desire to show unified support for the Persian Gulf War. And “God Bless America” has replaced or supplemented “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during baseball’s seventh inning stretch; the New York Yankees introduced this tradition after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.”

These “traditional” insertions of patriotic festivities in to our sporting events, often done not as a result of fan desires but foisted upon the viewers by club owners or league officials as a way to jerk at the heartstrings of viewers, appealing to their love of country and love of team, should be looked upon with a grain of cynicism, questioning the emotional manipulation taking place.

“[O]thers may end up cheering the military whether they want to or not because sporting rituals now conflate it with athletics. After all, it was hard to tell whether Fighting Irish and Crimson Tide fans were celebrating the arrival of the game ball or the paratroopers who delivered it. Likewise, when the San Diego Padres take the field on Sundays dressed in camouflage jerseys, are fans rooting for their home team or the military that inspired its outfits?


This militarized pageantry seems here to stay — sports franchises benefit too much from the cheap thrills and public relations opportunities it affords…What comes next? Navy SEALs sneaking through the bleachers to deliver free pizzas? Beer sold in combat-boot-shaped cups? Or maybe miniature drones dropping T-shirts onto the crowds below?

Responses to this article on the Washington Post have been overwhelmingly negative.  Most see Ms. Jenkins thesis, that patriotism and sports are not mutually inclusive, as unpatriotic and elite liberalism at its worst.  I think this is a flawed way of looking at the issue. 

Sporting events represent, whether we choose to admit it or not, a near primal instinct we’ve celebrated for thousands of years.  Everything about a National Football League game is a part and parcel reenactment of the Roman Coliseum, minus the killing (sometimes).  Even the language used to describe the action borrows heavily upon the gladiatorial experience.  Maybe these events do in fact represent the perfect venue to promote the military – or at the very least, acknowledge the sacrifices service members make so that the rest of America can enjoy a sporting event without actually doing anything more than cheering when we cut the camera to someone wearing BDUs or waving the flag.  In my opinion, it isn’t as much that the service of our men and women in uniform “allows” us to continue enjoying our sporting events by securing our “freedoms,” as it is that their service frees the vast majority of Americans from having to don a uniform and spend years away from our loved ones and our favorite teams. 

From the nationalistic/patriotism perspective, what other events brings tens of thousands of people together?  Concerts?  Megachurches on Sundays?  Would those be the appropriate venues to recognize the military and promote nationalism? 

I’ve never had an issue with opening a sporting event with the singing of the Star Spangled Banner – especially an Orioles game with the enthusiastic emphasis on “O” near the end.  When the anthem ends, the first words that come to mind is “play ball!”  On the other hand, do we really need to sing God Bless America during the 7th inning stretch?  That is overly gratuitous.  Bring back Take Me Out to the Ball Game any day.  But heaven forbid the suggestion to scrap God Bless America at a sporting event – that would be unpatriotic…

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3 Responses to Sports and the Military

  1. David Pan says:

    Agree. It’s really overdone. The only place where God Bless America belongs was when Kate Smith sang it for Flyers games decades ago.

  2. seanasbury says:

    Catherine, thanks for sharing your link! Just finished reading your take on the article.

    I may not have artfully articulated my thoughts on the topic. I’ve no issue whatsoever recognizing our service members at sporting events – pageantry and gala aside. As a veteran myself, I do not devalue the sacrifice our military members make every day on our behalf.

    The point I wanted to make is that I think we go overboard in the pageantry, most likely out of guilt.

    We, the collective we, in my opinion, often thank our military members for their service, not because we feel they keep us safe and secure, but that they, this ever shrinking segment of the public, so often disconnected from the rest of us, don their uniforms and provide a service to the nation that exempts the other 305+ million Americans from having to do anything more than buy the occasional beer or coffee for a soldier they meet in an airport, or putting an “I support our troops” metallic sticker on their car.

    Every time I see such a display of “support” I can’t help but think to myself, how is it that you actually support our troops? Is your son or daughter in uniform? Is it through the taxes you pay? Do you open your home to TDY soldiers, sailors, airmen, or marines? How exactly is your support quantified? Or was it simply buying the $5 sticker and slapping it on your bumper because you wish to display your patriotism?

    I didn’t take issue, as many did, with the point Ms. Jenkins was raising – I actually felt it worthwhile to examine our motives for the pageantry we display at our sporting events. Questioning it doesn’t mean that we need to do away with it. We should question everything we do in life — many of the answers we come away with will be self explanatory, or that we should indeed continue doing what we’re doing, but through that level of examination, we at least understand the “why” behind that which we do…Just my thoughts…

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