Of militarism’s wedding to sports—not an accidental match

People attending an NFL game these days expect a big homage to the flag and various displays of proud US militarism. Nobody questions it, at least not visibly. But although it may seem natural to many—given the heavy conditioning Americans receive in the schools via the pledge of alliance and other “patriotic” tools used to mould the young—the wedding of sports and the Military Industrial Complex is not the product of spontaneous evolution, but of something far less benign, the Pentagon’s desire to advertise its wares to an unsuspecting and impressionable public, and the insatiable greed of the NFL owners, as contemptible a bunch of plutocrats as one can find in a nation crawling with such vermin. That story is told in some detail in the two pieces I attach below, but before going to the main feature, so to speak, a word about the “pledge of alliance” itself.

This so preternaturally American cultural artifact was written in August 1892 by Francis Bellamy (1855-1931), then working for the Christian-influenced magazine The Youth’s Companion. It was originally published in The Youth’s Companion on September 8, 1892, as part of the publication’s big push for the “schoolhouse flag” movement, more interested in selling flags than patriotism, per se. Ironically, Bellamy had hoped that the pledge would be used by citizens in any country.

In its original form it read:

“I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

In 1923, the words, “the Flag of the United States of America” were added. At this time it read:

“I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

So far so good, but that was not the end of it, as we know.  One more chef sought to improve the recipe. And that was Eisenhower. (Ike enjoys to this day a rather undeserved reputation for progressivism, chiefly because of his very late warning about the military industrial complex. People forget he was a regular anticommunist who involved this country in Vietnam, rejecting Ho Chi Minh’s appeals to allow Vietnam to become an independent republic based on the principles of the American Constitution) and was toying with intervention in Cuba, among other sordid things. Compared to later monsters of imperialism perhaps Ike emerges—as JFK, too—as decent people, but, really not by much. All US presidents for over 200 years have been involved in imperialist crimes, of one sort or another).

In any case, in 1954, in what many believe was a response to “the Communist threat of the times,” President Eisenhower encouraged Congress to add the words “under God,” creating the 31-word pledge we say today. Bellamy’s daughter —surprisingly—objected to this alteration. Today it reads:

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

The story of the pledge has another curious and rather hilarious twist.

The original Bellamy salute, first described in 1892 by Francis Bellamy, who authored the original Pledge, began with a military salute, and after reciting the words “to the flag,” the arm was extended toward the flag.

At a signal from the Principal the pupils, in ordered ranks, hands to the side, face the Flag. Another signal is given; every pupil gives the flag the military salute — right hand lifted, palm downward, to a line with the forehead and close to it. Standing thus, all repeat together, slowly, “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands; one Nation indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all.” At the words, “to my Flag,” the right hand is extended gracefully, palm upward, toward the Flag, and remains in this gesture till the end of the affirmation; whereupon all hands immediately drop to the side.

The Youth’s Companion, 1892

Shortly thereafter, the pledge was begun with the right hand over the heart, and after reciting “to the Flag,” the arm was extended toward the Flag, palm-down.

In World War II, the salute too much resembled the Nazi salute, so it was changed to keep the right hand over the heart throughout.


How the NFL sold patriotism to the U.S. military for millions

Standing for the national anthem is a new concept that may have coincided with a government marketing campaign.

Army Lt. Col. Joe Edstrom holds an American flag before an NFL football game Sunday, November 13, 2011, in Chicago. (CREDIT: AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

President Donald Trump spent much of the weekend complaining to anyone who would listen about his disdain for the many NFL players protesting police brutality by taking a knee during the national anthem. Refusing to show respect for those shows of patriotism, he claimed, was abhorrent.

“If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL, or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem,” Trump tweeted on Saturday. “If not, YOU’RE FIRED. Find something else to do!”

He added that “sports fans should never condone players that do not stand proud for their National Anthem or their Country.”

“Courageous Patriots have fought and died for our great American Flag — we MUST honor and respect it! MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN,” he wrote.

What the president failed to acknowledge in his rant was that many of the military displays present at NFL games were, at one time, financed by the government. Rather than organic, wholesome expressions of patriotism — the kind Trump has claimed NFL players are disrespectfully protesting — the tradition of players standing for the national anthem is a recent tradition that may have coincided with a marketing ploy meant to sell cheap, manufactured nationalism.

As recently as 2015, the Department of Defense was doling out millions to the NFL for such things as military flyovers, flag unfurlings, emotional color guard ceremonies, enlistment campaigns, and — interestingly enough — national anthem performances. Additionally, according to Vice, the NFL’s policy on players standing for the national anthem also changed in 2009, with athletes “encouraged”thereafter to participate. Prior to that, teams were not given any specific instructions on the matter; some chose to remain in the locker room until after opening ceremonies were completed. (It’s unclear whether the policy change was implemented as a direct result of any Defense Department contracts.)

In 2015, Arizona Sens. Jeff Flake (R) and John McCain (R) revealed in a joint oversight report that nearly $5.4 million in taxpayer dollars had been paid out to 14 NFL teams between 2011 and 2014 to honor service members and put on elaborate, “patriotic salutes” to the military. Overall, they reported, “these displays of paid patriotism [were] included within the $6.8 million that the Department of Defense (DOD) [had] spent on sports marketing contracts since fiscal year 2012.”

Among the more wasteful expenditures were a payment to the Atlanta Falcons to have a National Guard member sing the national anthem and a payment to the Minnesota Vikings for the “‘opportunity’ to sponsor its military appreciation night.”

Overall, the Defense Department spent at least $10.4 million on “marketing and advertising contracts with professional sports teams” across the board between 2012 and 2015, although, the report noted, the department “[could not] accurately account” for the full number of contracts and payouts it had awarded. “It only reported 62 percent (76 of 122) of its contracts and 70 percent ($7.3 million) of its spending in its response to our inquiry,” the senators wrote.

“While well intentioned, we wonder just how many of these displays included a disclaimer that these events were in fact sponsored by the DOD at taxpayer expense,” they added. “Even with that disclosure, it is hard to understand how a team accepting taxpayer funds to sponsor a military appreciation game, or to recognize wounded warriors or returning troops, can be construed as anything other than paid patriotism.”

On Monday, actor and civil rights activist Jesse Williams took a similar tone, blasting the president for criticizing those players who had chosen to take a knee.

“This anthem thing is a scam. This is not actually part of football. This was invented in 2009 [by] the government paying the NFL to market military recruitment, to get more people to go off and fight wars to die,” he said in an interview with MSNBC. “This has nothing to do with the NFL or American pastime or tradition.” 

The NFL announced in May 2016 that it would refund $724,000 of the Defense Department payouts, which had been awarded for military “appreciate activities,” according to CNN Money. Defense Department spokespersons also confirmed that they had begun prohibiting military payouts for “patriotic ceremonies” in September 2015.

And this is our second selection, improbably, first run on The Guardian (UK).

The NFL and the military: a love affair as strange and cynical as ever

As another season kicks off for a league that charges the Pentagon to fund troop tributes, the NFL’s strange love affair with the military again takes center stage

This is the power of the NFL: it can brand something you respect into something nauseous. I have a lifelong fascination with the military: my grandfathers were pilots in WWII, one also in Korea. My stepfather, a man I love and respect, only retired from the Air Force this decade. I attended high school near Eglin Air Force Base, living out near Range Road, where you could sit on your roof at night and watch the bomb tests light up the underside of clouds. Most of my friends’ dads were in the service.

But just like that friend’s dad who got in your face all OORAH about how you could never dare question him (on anything) when you knew in reality that he ran Quicken for the 101st Chairborne, doing sorties on Excel columns, the NFL doesn’t have an off switch on its deployment of big words like battle and sacrifice. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell glad-handing veterans who’ve lost something, smirking under a flyover, is another avatar of the rear-echelon dudes who spent their Iraq War scanning the base doppler for tornados in the midwest and up-armoring their word rage to combat the “libturd” War on Christmas, daring you to question those who do their duty. The NFL is in the business of not being questioned, and the troops are its favorite accessory.

Complaints about the creeping militarization of the NFL are almost as old as complaints about how current finesse dynasties always get the defensive pass interference calls, and their ubiquity reduces them to the angsty hum of a punk band tuning all their guitars to drop-D. But this last year reified the issue as something worthy of consideration to more than just teens hoping to annoy dad. The NFL, which swaddles itself in camouflage to honor the troops, allowed 14 teams to charge the Department of Defense $5.4m for the privilege of their own honor, over four years.

That the NFL found a way to monetize patriotism shouldn’t surprise anyone; the only surprise is how efficiently and directly they did it. This sort of behavior is par for the course with the NFL. Every October, it puts its athletes in pink shoes, pink towels, gives refs pink penalty flags and sells “authentic” alternate pink jerseys to promote breast cancer awareness. The proceeds from these sales do not go breast cancer research, and what little escapes the wholesaler, distributor and retailer goes toward promoting screening and awareness. The NFL doesn’t directly profit, but its friends do.

Last year, facing tremendous blowback for suspending Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice a mere two games after knocking out his then-fiancée Janay on tape, the NFL rolled out No More, its domestic violence partner. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, No More does absolutely nothing, apart from vaguely aspirational things about “awareness”, which is corporate-speak for “results- and effort-free tax deduction”. Although you can buy merchandise!

Crossing the military-sports boundary is nothing new. George Carlin’s famous routine about the difference between baseball and football pays off so well because his description of football is laden with all the casual military metaphors self-important NFL commentators have injected into the game to make sure nobody dares take it anything less than deadly seriously.

Other sports have gotten in on the act for mercenary but at least more organic reasons. San Diego, a town dependent on its naval base for its prosperity, features regular troop acknowledgments at games, and Padres players take the field in camouflage uniforms. Tampa Bay, home to MacDill Air Force Base and CENTCOM, also sends out the Rays in camouflage uniforms and sets aside discount sections for active-duty servicemen. Both these teams struggle against the allure of the beach and vacation nightlife to fill seats, so their motives aren’t pure, but they are at least speaking to a significant local population that shapes the region.

Beyond teams with local military fanbases, Major League Baseball learned that releasing authentic camouflage jerseys and red-white-and-blue jerseys for Memorial Day and July 4th meant another vector for selling $140 garments that look and feel like grandpa’s old nightshirt designed to sweat out a fever.

But if these other developments are a bit mercenary, only the NFL feels like it’s fully embraced outright camouflage-washing. Take an embattled brand, wrap it up in Desert MARPAT and dare anyone to start jeering at it.

Goodell and company have – barring any generalized sense of competency that we’d ascribe to a functionally non-malignant business – proved that they are masters at a certain kind of craven canniness, and they and plenty of others have noticed the numerous opportunities for cynical capitalization. Far from the behavior of the founders (Washington, say, who deliberately patterned his life after Cincinnatus), or even of the Brokaw-dubbed Greatest Generation (in which roughly maybe one-sixteenth of personnel saw serious combat), we have nationally balked at applying any differentiation or critique to the roles of any active duty personnel in the Wars on Terror, Afghanistan, Iraq or ISIS. MSNBC’s Chris Hayes was broadly slammed for suggesting his discomfort at the overuse of hero, because that is the brand now.

What a boon environment for a “non-profit” cartel flush with billions that socializes the debts for new stadiums by plundering municipalities and then privatizing the profits, that threatens to lockout the laborers who give the sport its only reason for existence when they ask for a fraction more money to continue at jobs that give them potentially terminal brain damage. Yeah, that’s all bad, but what are you going to do, piss on troop Koop A Trooper from Camp McTrooperton? It’s hard to sneer at spectacle when it keeps being interrupted for guys with prosthetic legs surprising their families at midfield. “Dad!” “Hey, son! I’m not dead!” Or, to take a recent example, when the NFL arranges the heartwarming reunion of a soldier and his cheerleader wife. Nobody watching from the stands is likely to know that the former is a member of the obscenely wealthy Anheuser-Busch family, and the latter is a member of a well-connected political family.

The NFL is the only organization that responds to people’s wincing in awkward embarrassment as if it were some sort of cue that the embarrassing thing wasn’t done intensely or often enough, and they long ago went all-in on draping themselves in the blood and bones of others to attain some whiff of contact legitimacy. All the “FOOTBALL IS WAR” rhetoric might have started out as easy tropes for a lazy commentariat, but that stuff isn’t accidental anymore. That’s branding, and every flyover or unfurling of an America-shaped American flag by combat veterans is a deliberate, crass attempt to so wholly synonymize the fiscal upward-suction of the NFL with terms like valor, duty and honor. The more we salute the business’ use of soldiers, the more we render a predatory business unassailable. It’s brand synergy between the moneyed and profane and what we consider nationally sacred. It’s the same emotionally exploitative and cynical impulse that leads some fobbit to start waving his Green Zone Participation Medal in people’s faces to justify some hateful online rant about how the Brewton, Alabama, nativity scene is under attack by sharia disguised as liberals. There is no level of stupid that can’t be camowashed, and the NFL knows it.


About the author
Patrice Greanville is editor in chief and founding editor of The Greanville Post. Publisher of the first US radical media review, Cyrano’s Journal, he has been fighting corporate lies and confusion for almost five decades, and the job keeps getting worse.

The Greanville Post is one of the best edited political blogs in the anglophone world. No one surpasses our standards. 

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One thought on “Of militarism’s wedding to sports—not an accidental match

  1. Like most leftists, I dislike militarism. Unlike many leftists, I also dislike all competition, including all competitive sports, especially the ones involving brute force such as football. Competition is so deeply ingrained in the USA’s culture that most people, even most leftists, are unable to see how sick it is; they accept it as “normal” and maybe even “healthy.” It’s not healthy. Alfie Kohn has written brilliantly on this subject; I will link an hour lecture of his.


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