Can the NFL and the Military Stay Together?
The Military spends millions of taxpayer dollars on its relationship with the NFL. As the league grows, however, a pushback seems inevitable and costly.
Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports
Having saturated the American market, the NFL's owners and officials are building the league into a globe-striding titan of international sport. The league, per NFL Media's Albert Breer, is exploring playing games in Germany, Mexico, Brazil, and China. Commissioner Roger Goodell's oft-floated pipe dream of a franchise in London seems more possible with every passing year.
Yet the globe-covering manifest destiny of American football may be undone by one of the reasons it's so tightly woven into the fabric of American life: Its ever-more-fervent displays of patriotism. The most obvious example being the singing of the national anthem, which has been a mainstay of American sports since before "The Star-Spangled Banner" was the official national anthem. As ESPN: The Magazine's Luke Cyphers and Ethan Trex wrote in 2011, a seventh-inning stretch rendition during Game 1 of the 1918 World Series roused a morose, war-weary Chicago crowd into full-throated song, a full 13 years prior to Congress adopting the song as the national anthem.
Today, one can hardly drop a puck or start an engine anywhere in America without a flag, salute, and anthem. Whether it's a scratchy recording blaring through rusted loudspeakers, or a young figure skater wobbily cooing a cappella, our athletic competition doesn't count unless first consecrated with patriotism.
Further, the history of American football is inextricable from the history of American warfare. World War II turned the talent pool inside-out: The Black Knights of Army's West Point academy dominated the college game, three-peating as national champions, while professional squads' war-ravaged rosters caused teams to fold, go on hiatus, and even merge. Ladies and gentlemen, your 1943 Philadelphia-Pittsburgh "Steagles."
Vince Lombardi was an assistant coach at West Point in the late 1940s, and would go on to be the NFL head coach against whom all others are compared. Tom Landry, legendary coach of the Dallas Cowboys, flew bombers over Europe. Paul Brown, the trunk of the mightiest NFL coaching tree, coached at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station. Their legacy is apparent in the language of the game: Squad, blitz, drill, shotgun, bomb, bullet pass, trench warfare.
In the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, however, there was a sudden cognizance that conflating football with war was at best passé, and at worst offensive. Richard Sandomir of the New York Times interviewed many top NFL broadcasters, nearly all of whom vowed to avoid such terms (Sandomir's article even appends a helpful glossary).
Nearly 14 years after the attacks, most of which were spent at costly, bloody war with perpetrators both real and imagined, the tiptoeing has stopped—but the patriotic displays have only intensified.
The NFL's Salute to Service project, an ongoing advertising and merchandising campaign that honors active-duty soldiers and raises money for soldier-focused charities, has been annually ramping up the both the frequency and amplitude of these tributes.
Before the 2015 NFL Draft, there was a national anthem performance that upped the alignment of patriotism and militarism: Active-duty and wounded soldiers beside an honor guard, a compulsory mass stand and salute, a commissioned officer belting out the song, and a massive videoboard flag animation behind it all. The nearly 4,000 attendees were whipped into such a patriotic fervor they began chanting "U-S-A, U-S-A!"
Remember, they were there to watch the Draft, which NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy recently characterized as "a business meeting." Who opens a business meeting with a military rally?
Dave Hyde of the Orlando Sun-Sentinel wasn't the only observer wondering just how far down the rabbit hole the NFL had gone:
Just days later, Christopher Baxter of NJ Advance Media reported the Department of Defense has spent "at least $6 million" to many NFL teams in exchange for their various salutes to servicepeople and involvement in other military promotions. Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona called the spending an "egregious and unnecessary waste" on his website.
VICE Sports reached out to Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen, a Department of Defense (DOD) spokesman, and asked him to explain the military's justification for spending millions of taxpayer money to entwine the NFL with the DOD.
"We conduct outreach events like these," Christensen said, "in a variety of settings—including professional sports—to honor service members and connect with Americans." Christensen cited several other joint initiatives between the armed services and NFL, in areas of mutual interest: traumatic brain injury research, childhood obesity, and overseas broadcast rights.
"The Department does not pay for the community outreach to the organizations we partner with," Christensen said, but it does "cover the cost of participation (i.e. travel costs, jet fuel costs, etc). As part of recruiting efforts, the Military Services may pay for advertising or sponsorships, which could include commercials, other in-game announcements, and booth space."
Here's the crux of the matter: The NFL and DOD are recruiting the same kids. The NFL needs young, athletic kids to think playing football is awesome, and the Army needs young, athletic kids to think being a soldier is awesome. By using primetime TV to put a irst-rounders-to-be up on a fancy stage with a bunch of soldiers, everyone wins... everyone except those who don't watch sports for aggressive affirmations of the U.S. military's awesomeness.
In our ever-more-polarized nation, the NFL is incredibly popular with people of all ages, genders, races, and creeds. It isn't just twice as popular as the next-most-popular sport, per the Harris polling company, it's almost singlehandedly keeping the cable industry's revenue bubble afloat.
If the NFL's bombastic pro-military productions are alienating red-blooded American football lifers, what about the non-traditional football fans the NFL has worked so hard to court? What happens when the NFL's ever-increasing hawkishness begins pushing away more fans than it attracts? What happens to the NFL's stated goal of earning $25 billion in revenue by 2027—reachable only if they're raking billions in euros, yuan, riyals, and yen?
Few outside the States know American football as well as Sam Monson, a native Dubliner who works as a Senior Analyst for Pro Football Focus, and is a regular ESPN Insider contributor.
"I think people over this side of the Atlantic," Monson told VICE Sports, "kind of accept that America has this love relationship with the military, and you're going to get the pomp and ceremony that comes with it all." Per Monson, the over-the-top routines are part of the NFL's appeal for some Europeans: It is quintessentially, inescapably American.
"It's what you guys do well," he said, "this sort of overbearing patriotism. As long as it's not encroaching on [their] country, I don't think people mind that." As long as your country isn't a target of American imperialism, the NFL making football synonymous with American imperialism isn't necessarily a dealbreaker. But Monson still expressed caution.
"When you're trying to bring the game to London, when you're trying to bring the game to Germany, I don't think you want to bring everything," Monson said in regards to shows of military force. "You're not trying to bring America, you're trying to bring the game." For Monson, it reflects our country's unusual reverence for our armed servicepeople.
"Here, you see a guy in the Army, and fair enough: He's a guy in the Army," Monson said, "but nobody bats an eyelid. Nobody goes to say 'thank you,' nobody shakes his hand. That's just what he does. He's just another Joe." For all American society does to deify our serving men and women, though, we often fail to acknowledge their humanity.
Whether it's housing, job training, health care or psychological treatment, our soldiers often need support to find a place in civilian life—and all too often, they don't get it. According to Alan Zarembo of the Los Angeles Times, a study published in Annals of Epidemiology found veterans who served between 2001 and 2007 have a 50 percent higher suicide rate than non-military.
Though the NFL is happy to put such veterans on stage at the NFL Draft, and donate the profits of camouflage-tinged NFL gear to soldier-focused charities, the NFL could be doing much more to actually appreciate our veterans.
Certainly, the league could cut bigger checks: Last season's $412,500 donation represented 0.003 percent of the league's approximately $12 billion in revenue—not to mention less than 6.9 percent of the revenue received from the DOD. More helpfully, though, the teams could give veterans jobs.
VICE Sports talked to Petty Officer First Class Jordan Plocher, a 10-year Navy Veteran who deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Currently, he's a western area scout for GM Jr. Scouting Service, but has been searching for a football operations internship or scouting assistant position.
"Seeing recognition for our service from the NFL is a rewarding feeling," Plocher said, and expressed gratitude for the NFL coaches and staffers who've worn the Salute to Service camouflaged gear. However, he said, accepting compensation from the DOD "makes it appear that their intentions aren't solely to honor the contributions of veterans and active duty personnel."
"If the NFL and its member teams really want to salute our service," Plocher said, "They should create a path for veterans to employment opportunities or internships within the league and its teams." Plocher cited parallels between the military and the decision-making structures of NFL teams. Not only would service members make valuable NFL employees, an internship or employment program would be more meaningful than countless camouflaged ballcaps or flag-wrapped stage productions.
It's easy to be put off by the bizarre patriotism on display at the NFL Draft, and even moreso at the idea it was all an advertisement. This may be part of the price we pay for an all-volunteer army: If we want to have a military stronger than the rest of the world put together without a military draft, perhaps we have to suffer a little military recruiting in our NFL Draft.
Football fans at home and abroad, though, are starting to ask themselves if they really want to watch a sports league so politically charged. The league soon will have to ask itself how many fans and dollars it's willing to sacrifice to help the Pentagon achieve its global goals.