Sports are not war – Al Jazeera America

Unsurprisingly, 9/11 kicked the entire enterprise into high gear as a pervasive, nationalistic schlock-piety crept into every corner of American life, beginning with the rescheduling of the September 16 and 17 NFL games following the attacks. Military flyover and honor guards became obligatory, Gen. David Petraeus performed the Super Bowl coin toss, and even a Fox Sports pre-game show broadcasted live from Bagram Air Base, the anchors dressed in — you guessed it — military camo.

Professional sports were an outlet for the same patriotic fervor for militarism that took over American culture more generally. What corporation could resist the branding coup that comes from associating yourself with an almost universally adored figure: the service member during wartime? Picking up on this, Drew Magary called the donations that the NFL gives to veterans groups “essentially the world’s cheapest licensing agreement” in which the NFL gets to incorporate military branding into all of its products, broadcasts, and apparel. For a pittance, professional sports teams can associate themselves with the good will reserved for one of the few demographics more respected than athletes.

This respect/honor/branding mélange has metastasized. Little leaguers and Pop Warner players have been known to have camo-themed jerseys. And so have high schoolers. And for the non-athlete, there’s an assortment of products to purchase. You can buy camo-themed hats and jerseys of your favorite professional teams. And gloves. And, in case the commodification of ‘honoring the veterans’ didn’t feel complete, you can buy camo backpacks, pants, and infant onesies as well.

The most absurd commercialization of military symbolism is, bafflingly, not even American. Nike’s new Air Pegasus ‘89 sneaker celebrates — no joke — the reunification of East and West Germany: The sneaker bears the same camo pattern as the army of the unified country. Designer Carsten Franke shares an admittedly moving story about her dad changing uniforms at the stroke of midnight on Oct. 3, 1990, but also admits that her primary goal was to create something “consumers will be happy to wear.”

This makes sense: it’s a sneaker. It has nothing to do with communism, politics, war, or even Europe, for that matter. The goal of Nike as a company is to maximize shareholder value. It’s telling that somewhere a calculation was made that offering a camo design was the best way to do that.

Beyond branding, military camo on sports gear sends a confusing message that distorts the perception of the roles of both athletes and the military. It’s true that our professional athletes are, to be sure, physical specimens, but they’re not heroes. Becoming an athlete isn’t heroic. It might be inspiring to come from difficult circumstances, work hard, and become a professional athlete, but that would be true if someone worked hard and became a doctor, lawyer, social worker, teacher, etc. Professional athletes aren’t intrinsically heroic, because here’s nothing inherently brave about being a celebrity. As dangerous as professional sports might sometimes be — especially professional football — players play for money and fame, not for love of country. There is no sacrifice made in service to a larger goal.

More importantly, blending the military and sports is a way to fetishize the military and “gamify” war. As DeLillo wrote, football isn’t war. War is war. The stakes of a war are infinitely higher than those of a sports game. And using visual symbols to conflate the two conspires to equate combat with spectacle. It helps to remove the reality of combat and push it beyond the vanishing point of our moral imagination. In this sense, “honoring” service members by using camo as a branding technique and selling camo products isn’t just vapid — it’s dangerous. 

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