The military-sports complex in all its glory

It is routine to see overt and ostentatious displays of patriotism at sporting events in the US. Of course, these days ‘patriotism’ means symbolic acts like singing the national anthem and God Bless America, praising the military and the police forces by having them involved in ceremonies such as hauling out a massive American flag onto the field, military flyovers, the cameras panning to service members in the crowds and thanking them for their service, and even reunions where service members returning from one of the many never-ending wars are shown meeting their family members at the game.

In his book The Heritage, Howard Bryant says that most of these fervent displays began in the wake of the events of 9/11.

A cultural shift was occurring, but Americans were too comfortable to speak up or even think about it. Support grew not just for the cops, firefighters, and Port Authority workers but also for more shadowy authoritarian gestures, not only from Congress in the form of the invasiveness of the Patriot Act but through tacit approval shown by the public’s fashion statements. Americans and tourists alike now wore baseball caps and T-shirts that read “FBI,” “DEA,” “CIA,” and it wasn’t with irreverence or irony but in solidarity. With the state.

In post-9/11 America, ordinary citizens were advertising the government agencies of spies, assassinations, and foreign coups,’ of information I • files on prominent citizens and wiretappings of anonymous ones, as cool . When fear spoke the loudest, the FBI, bearing the legacy of J. Edgar Hoover, became both trendy and disturbingly benign-even though, in truth, it and other government agencies were spying heavily on their own citizens. Encroaching on basic privacy was now justified under the guise of fighting terrorism-and America, scared to death of the Muslim guy minding his own business reading the Daily News on the D train, bought it.

“America is a strange place. America believes in the Constitution up until the point where it is scared,” said Eric Adams, Brooklyn borough president and former NYPD officer for twenty-two years. “When she becomes afraid, the Constitution means nothing. All those words about life, liberty, and justice, the freedom to do this and that, all that shit goes out the window.”

In this spirit, as an extended thank-you, the people gave the police greater dispensation. It meant salutes at the ballpark. It meant cops ringing the bell at the New York Stock Exchange. The addition of police in the shadow of the Towers represented another unassailable piece of America’s strength and rehabilitation. The sports teams, the leagues, and their broadcast partners, eager to be supportive of any 9/11-themed element, not only did not complain about the police presence but increased it, elevating the influence of officers in the dugouts and the bullpens. In the pre-9/11 days at Yankee Stadium, team security guards would ring the field in between innings or during pitching changes. Post-9/11, eight NYPD officers would stand around the empty baseball diamond, as if the pitcher’s mound were a crime scene. As it did with soldiers overseas, the broadcasting network partners would cut away to any shot of police, either in uniform working the game or in the seats watching it, followed by the broadcasters saying a few nice words about police keeping everyone safe. Everyone was in agreement. The police were not just heroes but a vital optic element of selling sports to America (p. 120,121)

“As the police raised the bar, standing at games with automatic weapons with high-capacity vests and helmets and police presence, with that presence also came a larger crackdown and more power,” Eric Adams said. “And then when you raise your voice and criticize, you had the beneficiaries- the prosecutors and judges, newspaper editors and writers who were like, ‘You cannot criticize our police because they were there during 9/11.’ It was a very difficult scenario for people who were saying, ‘What we’ve complained about is still here and has even increased.’

The conflation did not stop with tactics and clothing and a smudging of the rules, but with the actual servicemen and -women themselves. If fans at ballparks treated the police with the same deference as the military members, the police looked directly to the military for its next generation of officers. When a soldier’s term ended, he or she was required to take a weeklong course on transitioning back to civilian life. At military bases across the country, state police would recruit potential officers, offering them state-trooper exams on the spot, and another pipeline between police and military formed. Soldiers could become cops before the ink was dry on their discharge papers. (p. 150)

People may be forgiven if they saw all this pageantry as an effort by the sports teams to rally the public after that atrocity. But far from being a spontaneous response by teams, all of this was carefully choreographed and paid for by the government as a way of improving their image and recruiting new people to feed their insatiable appetite for fresh bodies to go off to fight their wars. The government seized on the opportunity to transform institutions like the FBI and CIA, that had been reviled and viewed cynically in the past for their abuses, into noble defenders of freedoms.

On November 4, 2015, US senators John McCain and Jeff Flake, both of Arizona, released a report titled Tackling Paid Patriotism, which in 150 pages detailed what was really behind the rituals Americans had become accustomed to in sports after September 11, from American flags across the fifty-yard line to all those soldiers at the games to the heart-wrenching surprise homecoming ceremonies at halftime. The report came to a devastating conclusion: These weren’t home-grown, selfless shows of support for the troops by the local team on board with local soldiers. This was about money. Sports teams had been charging the military to stage their events at ballparks, and the Pentagon had been paying the teams millions in taxpayer money-at least $6.8 million, to that point-to do it.

The surprise homecoming ceremonies at halftime? Staged. The throwing out of the first pitch by a returning soldier?

A deception.

“It is time to allow major sports teams’ legitimate tributes to our soldiers to shine with national pride,” the report read, “rather than being cast under the pallor of marketing gimmicks paid for by American taxpayers.”

When the report was released, McCain and Flake connected the dots the public wouldn’t. The dissenters who saw state-sponsored nationalism at the games were no longer easily dismissed as conspiracy theorists but rather as rightfully insulted citizens. What had happened? The Army National Guard, air force, and navy, especially, had clearly been watching what sports had become in the years following 9/11 and, combined with falling enlistment rates, saw an opportunity. Before 2009, NFL players often remained in the locker room during the national anthem. Afterward, the secret embedding began, deceiving fans into thinking NFL teams were supporting the military because individual owners believed it was the right thing to do. It was, in fact, a deception that permeated virtually every sporting event in the country. There was no taxpayer money for schools or roads, but there was $280,000 for the Massachusetts Army National Guard to sponsor Boston Bruins Military Appreciation Night. Now it made sense why a team like the Yankees would try to have a guy removed from the ballpark for not playing along with the patriotism game. The Wisconsin Army National Guard in 2014 paid the Milwaukee Brewers $80,000 for military perks, and during every Sunday home game, and this wasn’t a misprint, $49,000 was the price tag to sing “God Bless America.”

The Brewers Military Appreciation Day was no organic outpouring of the home team doing the right thing to support the troops. The team charged the National Guard $10,000 for a “promotion to recognize soldiers and their families and provide 12 vendor passes during each of four Brewers home games,” strategic plants for the crowd shots of the armed forces at the ballpark. The Brewers charged $7,500 for the honor of a service member throwing out the first pitch.

They were all in on it: NASCAR, MLB, the NBA, the NFL. NHL, MLS and the NCAA. The military was using sports to sell the business of war. And the teams? Well, they were in the business of making money and you could make even more money if it looked like you were acting out of a sense of duty. And there were, as is always the case, unintended consequences to this little game: what was happening at the ballpark was splitting the country apart, by forcing an ersatz patriotism on the public. Unwitting fans arrived to stadiums across the country believing their favorite sports teams were genuine in their concern for servicemen and women. (p. 204, 205)

Is it any wonder that in this climate so many people were willing to buy the cynical argument put forward by Donald Trump and the rich team owners that characterizes any sign of protest about injustice in general and the abuses by the police in particular, as was done by Colin Kaepernick, as an attack on the country itself?

Bryant is doubtful that we will ever move away from these militarized and authoritarian displays of phony patriotism at sports events.

It is unlikely that sports will return to its pre-9/11 dynamics-less nationalism, less crass commercialism, less hero worship-because no one, not fans, not leagues, and not players, is asking it to. The popular culture, sports as well as movies and, to a certain extent, music, has accepted today’s template with no plan for rollback. The flags and flyovers, as baseball writer Jack O’Connell said, is similar to the day in the late 196os when metal detectors showed up at airports and have remained ever since. “Is it all overdone? Yes. Do we need to do it? No, but who’s going to go first?” one baseball executive told me. “Can you imagine the criticism a team is going to face the minute somebody realizes we didn’t salute the troops? It would depend on the regional market, but seriously, no one is going to risk that.”

Much of the reason is that authoritarianism has already become normalized, embedded. For all the player protest, not one has indicted the militarized spectacle their day jobs have become.

“I think this is who we are. I think this is who we’ve always been, and 9h I was just an opportunity to reveal itself,” [Toni] Smith-Thompson said, adding that “9/11 only provided the rare opportunity to show who America is when America is on the receiving end of what it does. We value pretense. America is white supremacy, capitalism, and pretense. We don’t care what the reality is. We care more what it looks like. We are proud of plastic surgery when everyone knows it’s not our real face.” (p. 232)

Smith-Thompson is right in her analysis. A vast swathe of Americans crave phoniness if it makes them feel good about themselves, reality be damned.


  1. cartomancer says

    I think it’s a bit more nuanced than that. Yes, vast swathes of Americans crave phoniness, but plenty of other cultures do as well. The difference, it seems to me, is that Americans desperately want the facade to be the reality, where other cultures value a facade as a facade.

    Take the classic everyday politeness of asking someone how they are doing. In Britain one will almost always get a curt “fine thanks” or “not too bad”, but here it is understood that such a response is purely out of politeness -- we don’t want to talk about it, and we’re fine with the pretense as a way of deflecting possible attempts to pry. In America it seems that people genuinely want to believe that a response of “fine thanks” means the person they are talking to is having a wonderful time of things.

  2. says

    “It is unlikely that sports will return to its pre-9/11 dynamics-less nationalism, less crass commercialism, less hero worship-because no one, not fans, not leagues, and not players, is asking it to.”

    I’d push back a teensy bit on this. There’s a decent amount of websites and writers critiquing the sports-industrial complex -- I’m thinking primarily of Dave Zirin and Deadspin as the foremost examples. The Ringer has a decent article about how sportswriters have been shifting leftward.

    But I don’t think any of them go far enough, and their numbers likely represent a small amount of a sports landscape that consists primarily of flag-humping reactionaries.

    Then again, to me, anyone that don’t openly scorn American exceptionalism, the military and law enforcement falls short.

  3. rjw1 says

    Does this development mean that Americans will stop lecturing the rest of the world on the sacredness of the US constitution and political system?

    Probably not.

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