Disentangling US team sports and US militarism

Colin-Kaepernick-Eli-Harold-Eric-Reid-take-a-knee-100616-by-USA-Today-Sports-1400x840, Disentangling US team sports and US militarism, News & Views
Colin Kaepernick, Eli Harold and Eric Reid take a knee on Oct. 6, 2016. – Photo: USA Today Sports

by Ann Garrison

Will the current sports activism around racial justice extend to the global, neocolonial racial injustice that the US and its NATO partners impose on Africa, Latin America, East Asia and South Asia? Is there any chance it’ll go so far as to reject the Pentagon’s claim to an inherent right to rule the world with five geographic commands, plus Cyber, Transportation, Special Operations, Strategic, and Space Commands? I asked Nation Magazine Sports Editor Dave Zirin.

Ann Garrison: Dave, I’m going to start by quoting comedian George Carlin from his “Baseball and Football“ routine, where he says: 

“In football, the object is for the quarterback, otherwise known as the field general, to be on target with his area of assault, riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy in spite of the blitz, even if he has to use the shotgun with short bullet passes and long bombs. He marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing this aerial assault with a sustained ground attack, which punches holes in the forward wall of the enemy’s defensive line.”

Do you think Carlin nailed the essence of America’s favorite sport?

Dave Zirin: I really do think that George Carlin did, because there’s so much militarism that’s baked into the cake of football in this country. I mean, football really begins at the start of the US imperial project. And it was something that was popularized by Teddy Roosevelt. 

So you have this one person, Teddy Roosevelt, who was of course very famous before he was ever president and who was the number one cheerleader for both football and empire. That’s not just a coincidence, because he thought one would prepare young people to support the other. 

Now that being said, I don’t think that football has to be so militaristic. It could certainly be less militaristic than it currently is, but it’s a big feature of football. It’s not just a bug.

AG: Last January, when the Pentagon assassinated Iran’s hero, General Qasem Soleimani, Colin Kaepernick made headlines simply by tweeting: 

“America has always sanctioned and besieged Black and Brown bodies both at home and abroad. American militarism is the weapon wielded by American imperialism, to enforce its policing and plundering of the non-white world.

“There is nothing new about American terrorist attacks against Black and Brown people for the expansion of American imperialism.”

That’s what he said, most eloquently, but he still seems to be putting in all the hours in the gym and on the field that it takes to play football, still hoping for that call back into the NFL, so I’m imagining that he doesn’t believe the sport is inseparable from all its militarist, imperialist trappings. 

Can you imagine more players developing and expressing a similar global and historical understanding of racial injustice and actually surviving in the game?

DZ: Well, we’ve seen it in the past. There were certainly players who were against the war in Vietnam, most famously Dave Meggyesy who quit the NFL in his prime because he believed that the war in Vietnam and the National Football League were really one and the same. And that professional football and college football were gearing people up for war. And then also during the “War on Terror,” specifically the Iraq War, you had players like Scott FujitaAdalius Thomas, and other football players speak out against war.

Stealth-bomber-flies-over-Rose-Bowl-during-Georgia-Oklahoma-game-010118-by-Mark-Holtzman, Disentangling US team sports and US militarism, News & Views
A stealth bomber flies over the Rose Bowl during the Georgia-Oklahoma game Jan. 1, 2018. The photographer took the shot from a Cessna 206 flying at 2,500 feet above the bomber, which was flying at 1,000 feet. – Photo: Mark Holtzman

So it’s already real, but we have to remember that these players are part of the world. They don’t exist on a separate planet called Planet Athlete, come down to entertain us, then return to Planet Athlete on their spaceships. These are people who are part of the world. And when there are movements against war, they’re affected by those movements. 

What I think we have to remember is that it always starts with the movements. It always starts with what’s happening off the field. We shouldn’t expect athletes to develop a kind of political consciousness, independent of movements and ideas, away from the field of play. 

AG: Can you imagine the rules of the game remaining the same without all the military packaging? I’m talking about basketball and football, most of all football, since these two sports are most given to combat and territorial metaphors and are also by far the most saturated with military display and recruiting. As George Carlin said, in “Baseball vs. Football,” “baseball is a 19th-century pastoral game.”

DZ: Well, first and foremost, in our incredibly war-like society, every instrument of pop culture, not just sports, can be geared towards war efforts. And we’ve seen that baseball has a rich history of being part of war and imperialism, from Latin America to East Asia and back to World War II, and all the players who’ve enlisted and done all sorts of things for the USO. Baseball is not as pure and football as solely impure as Carlin’s routine suggests. The history of US team sports in the 20th century refutes that pretty well.

. . . sports has given us a lot of things that we do want to reject, but it’s also given us Muhammad Ali. It’s given us Billie Jean King. It’s given us Colin Kaepernick and Megan Rapinoe, and it’s given us some moments of absolute poetry. So, we shouldn’t reject sports. We should try to reclaim it.

I do think, though, that it is certainly possible that in a different kind of society, that you could have these sports and not have them dominated by war and that play could happen for the sake of play, for the sake of joy, for the sake of exercise. And you wouldn’t have the kind of foghorn of militarism that exists way too often in professional and often collegiate sports.

AG: I was getting optimistic about NBA activism till 9/11, when “Inside the NBA” hit bottom with all the 9/11 military jingoism. They didn’t mention that the US-led “Global War on Terror” has displaced at least 37 million people in eight countries since 2001. Or that it’s left at least 800,000 dead, at a cost of $6.4 trillion to US taxpayers. This is according to the report “Creating Refugees: Displacement Caused by the United States’ Post-9/11 Wars” released by Brown University scholars on Sept. 8, and I have to add that 800,000 dead seems like a conservative estimate, given that credible outlets have estimated as many as 2.4 million Iraqis dead in the Iraq War alone. 

“Inside the NBA” is one of my favorite TV shows, but I had to turn it off on 9/11. I couldn’t take it. Did you see that? 

DZ: Well, I honestly don’t remember. I mean, it’s been almost 20 years and I consumed a tremendous amount of sports media on 9/11 and thereafter. So I assume this “Inside the NBA” episode was very similar to what I’ve seen elsewhere, with the volume cranked way up by people who’ve been there to turn tragedy into war, into a massive mobilization to bomb and occupy other countries. I mean it was a terrible, terrible tragedy and it’s been a terrible misuse of sports from then to now.

I think it’s hugely important that we need to have an antiwar movement in this country, one that’s consistent, because otherwise, when these conflagrations take place, we’ll find ourselves with things that we look to for escape, like sports, all of a sudden mobilized against us, and not only us but also the people of the world who bear the brunt of US militarism.

AG: Can you explain what you mean by a “consistent antiwar movement”?

DZ: An anti-war movement that opposes all imperial interventions no matter what imperial country is engaged in it, and as for this country, no matter if a Democrat or Republican president is in office.

Baltimore-Ravens-quarterback-Robert-Griffin-III-arrives-in-sweatshirt-Black-police-shooting-victims-092020-by-Ravens-1400x1400, Disentangling US team sports and US militarism, News & Views
Baltimore Ravens quarterback Robert Griffin III (RGIII) shows up for the Sept. 20, 2020, game in a sweatshirt with images of Black police shooting victims. – Photo: Ravens

AG: Is there anything else you’d like to say about this?

DZ: Just that I think we should fight for a better sports world. We shouldn’t assume that the sports world is somehow intrinsically militaristic or that we should reject it the way a vegetarian might reject a leg of lamb. I think we should get away from that mentality and think about how – instead of rejecting sports – we can reclaim it, because there’s a lot of good in sports. 

We’ve got to remember that sports has given us a lot of things that we do want to reject, but it’s also given us Muhammad Ali. It’s given us Billie Jean King. It’s given us Colin Kaepernick and Megan Rapinoe, and it’s given us some moments of absolute poetry. So, and I would say this about art as well, we shouldn’t reject sports. We should try to reclaim it.

AG: One thing I like about it is that you have to play by the rules to win.

DZ: Very different from politics.

Dave Zirin is Sports Editor for The Nation Magazine, host of the Edge of Sports podcast on his own website, and the author of many books, including “A People’s History of Sports in the United States: 250 Years of Politics, Protest, People, and Play” and, most recently, co-author of “Things that Make White People Uncomfortable” with NFL player Michael Bennett. With former NBA player Etan Thomas, he hosts “The Collision: Sports and Politics” on Pacifica Radio’s WPFW-Washington DC and WBAI-NYC.

Ann Garrison is an independent journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 2014, she received the Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza Democracy and Peace Prize for her reporting on conflict in the African Great Lakes region. Please support her work on Patreon. She can be reached at ann@anngarrison.com