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William Astore, Make Sports, Not War

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

I can remember lying on my bed with a crumpled up piece of paper in my hand and throwing it at the wall while, in my mind, the announcer's voice carried on: "It's a long drive to right field... Furillo is going back, back, back... He leaps! He's got it!" And I would, of course, catch the paper as it bounced off that wall. It was perhaps the World Series year of 1955. The outfielder was Carl "the Reading Rifle" Furillo. His team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, was also my team until, in one of the tragedies of my young life, they absconded for Los Angeles. In those years, I dreamed endlessly about scooping up balls at second base with the dexterity of Jackie Robinson or at shortstop with the speed of Pee Wee Reese, even as, on any actual ball field, I didn't dare bend down far enough lest the ball bounce up and hit my chin, and so regularly watched it roll past me into the outfield. Furillo's camping grounds, right field, was where I so often ended up, even though I could never judge whether a fly ball was short or long and reflexively broke toward the infield as it came off the bat, often with sad consequences.

What kid of that era and those that followed, like TomDispatch regular William Astore, can't tell such tales of imagined prowess in the world of fandom versus real life on the field. But as Astore points out today, the very nature of the sports experience is now changing. Though professional sports in my childhood (the Korean War years) and my youth (the Vietnam War years) had next to nothing to do with the U.S. military, today, in a country that I've regularly described as being "unmade by war," the worlds of professional sports and youthful dreams about it are both being eerily militarized. Stranger yet, as with our forever (yet curiously forgotten) wars of this century, that process of militarization is getting next to no attention here, even as sports hits the political headlines almost daily and is a constant focus of attention from the White House on down. Football, in particular, is regularly in those headlines as (mostly black) players are endlessly accused of taking a knee to diss the flag, the National Anthem, and the troops (none of which is actually true), while that flag, that anthem, and those troops are, in fact, being grotesquely misused to create a miasma of kneejerk patriotism. But let Astore tell you more. Tom

Why Can't We Just Play Ball?
The Militarization of Sports and the Redefinition of Patriotism
By William J. Astore

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As long as I can remember, I've been a sports fan. As long as I can remember, I've been interested in the military. Until recently, I experienced those as two separate and distinct worlds. While I was in the military -- I served for 20 years as an officer in the U.S. Air Force -- I did, of course, play sports. As a young lieutenant, I was in a racquetball tournament at my base in Colorado. At Squadron Officer School in Alabama, I took part in volleyball and flickerball (a bizarre Air Force sport). At the Air Force Academy, I was on a softball team and when we finally won a game, all of us signed the ball. I also enjoyed being in a military bowling league. I even had my own ball with my name engraved on it.

Don't misunderstand me. I was never particularly skilled at any sport, but I did thoroughly enjoy playing partly because it was such a welcome break from work -- a reprieve from wearing a uniform, saluting, following orders, and all the rest. Sports were sports. Military service was military service. And never the twain shall meet.

Since 9/11, however, sports and the military have become increasingly fused in this country. Professional athletes now consider it perfectly natural to don uniforms that feature camouflage patterns. (They do this, teams say, as a form of "military appreciation.") Indeed, for only $39.99 you, too, can buy your own Major League Baseball-sanctioned camo cap at MLB's official site. And then, of course, you can use that cap in any stadium to shade your eyes as you watch flyovers, parades, reunions of service members returning from our country's war zones and their families, and a multitude of other increasingly militarized ceremonies that celebrate both veterans and troops in uniform at sports stadiums across what, in the post-9/11 years, has come to be known as "the homeland."

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These days, you can hardly miss moments when, for instance, playing fields are covered with gigantic American flags, often unfurled and held either by scores of military personnel or civilian defense contractors. Such ceremonies are invariably touted as natural expressions of patriotism, part of a continual public expression of gratitude for America's "warfighters" and "heroes." These are, in other words, uncontroversial displays of pride, even though a study ordered by Republican Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake revealed that the U.S. taxpayer, via the Pentagon, has regularly forked over tens of millions of dollars ($53 million between 2012 and 2015 alone) to corporate-owned teams to put on just such displays.

Paid patriotism should, of course, be an oxymoron. These days, however, it's anything but and even when the American taxpayer isn't covering displays like these, the melding of sports and the military should be seen as inappropriate, if not insidious. And I say that as both a lover of sports and a veteran.

I Went to a Military Parade and a Tennis Match Broke Out

Maybe you've heard the joke: I went to the fights and a hockey game broke out. It was meant to poke fun at the fisticuffs in National Hockey League games, though these days there are fewer of them than in the "glory days" of the 1970s. An updated version would, however, fit today's increasingly militarized sports events to a T: I went to a military parade and a baseball (football, hockey) game broke out.

Nowadays, it seems as if professional sports simply couldn't occur without some notice of and celebration of the U.S. military, each game being transformed in some way into yet another Memorial Day or Veterans Day lite.

Consider the pro-military hype that surrounded this year's Major League Baseball All-Star Game. Not so very long ago, when I watched such games I would be transported to my childhood and my fantasies of becoming the next Nolan Ryan or Carl Yastrzemski.

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When I watched this year's version of the game, however, I didn't relive my youth; I relived my military career. As a start, the previous night featured a televised home-run derby. Before it even began, about 50 airmen paraded out in camouflage uniforms, setting the stage for everything that would follow. (As they weren't on duty, I couldn't help wondering why they found it appropriate to don such outfits.) Part of T-Mobile's "HatsOff4Heroes" campaign, this mini-parade was justified in the name of raising money to support veterans, but T-Mobile could have simply given the money to charity without any of the militarized hoopla that this involved.

Highlighting the other pre-game ceremonies the next night was a celebration of Medal of Honor recipients. I have deep respect for such heroes, but what were they doing on a baseball diamond? The ceremony would have been appropriate on, say, Veterans Day in November.

Those same pre-game festivities included a militaristic montage narrated by Bradley Cooper (star of "American Sniper"), featuring war scenes and war monuments while highlighting the popular catchphrase "freedom isn't free." Martial music accompanied the montage along with a bevy of flag-waving images. It felt like watching a twisted version of the film Field of Dreams reshot so that soldiers, not baseball players, emerged early on from those rows of Iowa corn stalks and stepped onto the playing field.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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