How the NFL became the American war game.

The stadium scene.
Nov. 17 2009 11:22 AM

Flag Football

How the NFL became the American war game.

Illustration by Charlie Powell. Click image to expand.

On Nov. 8, two hours before the day's blitzes and long bombs were to commence, Fox's NFL pregame show went on the air from Afghanistan. The festivities were high on patriotism but low on militarism, leaving out any hint of blood or fighting. For the U.S. military, the Fox broadcast was an opportunity to tell a story about its humanitarian mission in Afghanistan, to sell the war at home at a time when anything like a clear-cut military victory appears unattainable. For Fox, it was an opportunity to reconnect the NFL with the military, to wrap the football in the American flag after three years of restraint.

There is a long tradition of likening football to war, from paeans to the "generalship" of quarterbacks in the 1890s to the "wars in the trenches" of the modern game. While coaches and sportswriters have adopted military language over the years, the military has sometimes adopted football terminology, as in Operation Goalpost and Operation Varsity in World War II and Vietnam's Operation Linebacker.

A deeper connection was claimed during both world wars: football as a training ground for soldiers and officers, the game as a mimic war requiring cool thinking, self-sacrifice, and physical courage. During World War II, some of the best "college football" teams played for outfits like the Great Lakes Naval Training Center (coached by Paul Brown) and Iowa Navy Pre-Flight. More than 130 college and universities fielded teams with players in the Navy's V-5, V-7, and V-12 programs and overwhelmed teams stocked with undrafted 18-year-olds. (It was the Navy, not the Army, that embraced football for its training programs.)

Football was "the American war game." Baseball was the "national pastime," a symbol for the cause for which we were fighting, not for the fighting itself. There's an interesting link between symbol and fact. The Pro Football Hall of Fame's Web site lists the names of more than 1,000 NFL personnel (including 638 players) who served in World War II; 21 of them died. In Playing for Their Nation: Baseball and the American Military During World War II, Steven R. Bullock writes that 90 percent of Major League Baseball Players served, but none died, as most of them played baseball throughout the war to entertain their fellow soldiers, build morale, and provide "bragging rights for officers."

The Pro Football Hall of Fame lists another 226 NFL personnel who served in Korea but has no such list for Vietnam, most likely because the number was apparently just six. Vietnam was the war to be avoided, not courted, by football players as well as college students generally. Several NFL clubs had connections to local National Guard units to keep their players out of combat. Within the larger culture the idea that football was "the American war game" unraveled or became more complicated. The radical left denounced football as fascist and imperialist, while the extreme right proclaimed it as a bastion of traditional American values. (For someone who was actually playing football at the time, the game bore no relationship whatsoever to the war in Southeast Asia, although in certain academic settings I considered it prudent to keep quiet about my alternative football life.)

Football in the 1960s became political, not just warlike. An ardent fan of the game, President Richard Nixon also used football—see his calculated attendance at 1969's "Game of the Century" between Arkansas and Texas—to identify with his "silent majority" against his enemies. Pregame and halftime at the Orange Bowl (and soon the Super Bowl) became showcases for elaborate patriotic displays. Over time, football fans came to take this football-related patriotism—a brand of flag-waving more like superpatriotism—for granted, as if it were embedded in long tradition, perhaps even in the very nature of the game. It wasn't and isn't.

The routine playing of "The Star-Spangled Banner" before sporting events did not begin until World War II. Twenty-some years later in Miami, a man named Earnie Seiler—the director of the Orange Bowl since its inception in 1935—seized the moment of war, civil rights protest, and countercultural discord to drench football spectacle in superpatriotism. Baseball might have been the national pastime, but college football had been the country's chief sporting spectacle since the 1920s. Bands and cheerleaders and all of the related pageantry were not incidental to the sport, but essential elements. Baseball had no pregame or halftime shows, only a seventh-inning stretch (which post-9/11 could include "America the Beautiful" along with "Take Me out to the Ballgame"). Football had time and space for the spectacle that Seiler created in the 1960s: elaborate salutes to the flag, Uncle Sam, and the Statue of Liberty.

Pete Rozelle noted these Orange Bowls in making what he later called "a conscious effort on our part to bring the element of patriotism into the Super Bowl." Air Force flyovers became a fixture in Super Bowl II; patriotic halftime themes began with Super Bowl III ("America, Thanks"). Earnie Seiler himself was recruited to stage Super Bowls II, III, and V, all played in Miami, and he left his mark on the game for decades.

As Vietnam faded into memory, Super Bowl superpatriotism persisted through the 1980s but seemed increasingly detached from reality. When we went to war again, in 1991 in the Persian Gulf and in 2002 in Afghanistan after 9/11, the PQ (patriotism quotient) of the Super Bowls soared. The 2002 telecast by Fox was far and away the most over-the-top, with its three-hour pregame show, Heroes, Hope, and Homeland, culminating in a "Tribute to America" by former NFL stars reading from the Declaration of Independence as the Boston Pops played Aaron Copland's "Lincoln Portrait." (Following this, the halftime performance by U2 and Bono, as the names of those who died on Sept. 11 scrolled up the screen at the climax, seemed relatively subdued.)

By 2006, as the public turned against our misguided venture in Iraq, the Super Bowl's patriotic displays became muted. The Fox studio team's visit to Afghanistan last Sunday signaled that it's OK for the NFL to wave the flag again. Super Bowl pregame shows in 2003 and 2005 included segments shot on a Navy destroyer and an aircraft carrier. Given the uncertainty about the enemy and the outcome in Afghanistan, Fox not surprisingly all but ignored the war to salute the efforts on behalf of peace.

The absence of any whiff of a "warrior culture" was notable in the Fox broadcast. Servicemen and women were shown, not readying for combat but engaged in humanitarian and nation-building efforts. Curt, Terry, Howie, Jimmy, and Jay were shown, not inspecting sophisticated weaponry but getting a haircut (Howie) and trying out a rollover simulator (an un-mussed Jimmy). The themes of the show were love, family, and gratitude to the nation's "true heroes."

The one mildly discordant segment was the visit to the Pat Tillman USO Center, with a salute to the fallen soldier that said nothing about how he died. But what could Fox have done differently? While not to mention Tillman—the star safety who gave up his career to join the military, then died under a hail of friendly fire in Afghanistan—would be unthinkable, his name alone is a reminder of the ambiguities of the Afghan war. It's also a reminder of the disconnect, not the kinship, between NFL football and modern warfare.

Fox's family-values salute to American soldiers, like the muting of superpatriotism and militaristic displays at recent Super Bowls, confirms that today's NFL wishes to connect with the public mood, not push a political agenda. (Fox might have its own agendas but must please the NFL when it comes to pro football.) Over the years, Americans have projected all kinds of beliefs and desires onto football; the game has meant to us pretty much whatever we have needed it to mean at the time. Patriotism has long been part of that narrative mix and is not likely to go away. With his late '60s Super Bowls, Pete Rozelle aligned the NFL with one side of a political and generational divide. With the tremendous increases in TV revenues since the 1990s, today's NFL cannot afford to offend half of its potential audience in order to please the other half. Patriotic displays will continue, but in forms like Fox's NFL pregame show, calculated to unite rather than divide.

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