Tonight on primetime, national TV a yearly sports ritual will commence, the National Football League Draft of the most gifted college players by the 32 NFL professional football teams scattered throughout the continental US. The NFL with its 32 teams comprises a monopoly of billionaire businesspersons, who hire some 1700 elite athletes that make up the 53-man rosters. A goodly number of the star players become multi-millionaires. The NFL is the most successful professional sports business in America, generating upwards of $15 billion dollars in revenue each season from TVadvertising, broadcast rights, ticket sales and sales of football memorabilia. Increasingly, NFL teams are the most valuable sports franchises in the US, according to Forbes magazine.
Currently the owners and players are in a deeply contested contract mediation process trying to agree on a new collective bargaining agreement. This has been described as a colossal battle between billionaires and millionaires with speculation that the billionaire owners will be able to outlast the millionaire players, especially at the end of the summer when last year’s salary checks cease. The previous agreement expired several weeks ago and since a new agreement had not been formulated, the owners have locked the players out from normal off-season free agency and training activities at the team facilities. Team coaching staff and medical/training personnel are not allowed any communication with players during the lockout. The focus has now shifted to federal courts where suits lodged by players and counter-suits lodged by the NFL owners to lift and/or stay the lock-out are being adjudicated. The NFL Draft, which takes place tonight in New York City at Radio City Music Hall, is a notable exception to canceled off-season activities.
I have been an avid football fan since I played high school football growing up in Jackson, MS in the 1950s. High school football, especially in the Deep South, is a requisite rite of passage for many young men, a precursor for joining the military—real young men play football, real men go to war. Friday night football games during the fall in every southern town are a highlight community event attended by most citizens, who fervently support their high school team. I became a diehard, bleeding-blue NY Giants fan in 1956, when the first Ole Miss quarterback, Charlie Conley, was winning football championships. I even have the NY Giants logo tattooed on my right calf.
Recently, however, I have begun to question my rabid devotion to this violent contact sport that in many ways depicts the worse aspects of macho male America. With chagrin I have come to view football as a metaphor in American society for endless war and military adventurism. I first became somewhat aware of this consciousness shift while watching the New York City homecoming parade on February 8, 2008 for the NY Giants after they won Super Bowl XLII, defeating the previously undefeated New England Patriots in Glendale, Arizona. Here’s a prose poem I wrote after watching the parade from my Long Beach, NY ocean front apartment:
A ticker tape parade up Broadway from Battery Park to City Hall Plaza, the Canyon of Heroes. Super Bowl XLII Champion New York Giants ride on red, white and blue floats, surrounded by screaming adulations from 3,000,000 New York City fans, piled deep on both sidewalks, spilling down each intersecting street. My heart swells near bursting, so proud of my team in my adopted hometown, New York freakin’ City!
Black Strahan and good ole white boy, Eli, smile and hug and take pictures of each other. All the Giants, players and coaches, video and take pictures of the rabid fans videoing and taking pictures of them. Rain begins to fall as speeches are speeched, keys to the city are distributed to all, rousing cheers pile high as Michael demonstrates, “WE WILL STOMP YOU OUT!” And that’s what was done to the mighty Pats, 18 & ONE.
Almost as soon as it began, the celebration is over it seems; the glow of remembered elation spreads through my Giant-blue veins, re-envisioning the grand march up the fabled Canyon of Heroes. But then, an intruding thought niggles for attention: Unholy shit, not once, nary a passing reference at all by anyone, politicians, announcers, coaches, players, fans to the stark reality of Iraq and Afghanistan, to US armed forces people dying, being mutilated, not for country nor noble cause, but for each other, not to mention the thousands, nay millions of Iraqi and Afghan casualties — nothing, nada, no way. Don’t rain reality on this parade!
Oh my god, another thought slams into my gut, transforming elation into bile — my beloved New York Giants, Champions of Super Bowl XLII and the whole wide world, are part of the bread and circus, psyops cover up, as much a part of infortainment big media smoke and mirrors distraction on wide HDTV screens as American Idol, the Simpsons, Survivor, all the shopping channels — oh no!
I get very quiet, go deep inside to that place of never-ending grief; notch one more loss of endless war on my Karmic belt of pain. Turn off my widescreen HDTV, stare at the shimmering Atlantic sea . . .
Even though I had experienced somewhat of an epiphany about how football and the NFL in particular was an essential part of the psyops-numbing of the American public to the realities of our imperial militarism and hegemony throughout the world, the next fall I continued to watch NFL games and follow the Giants. However, I was mortified on November 8th, the Sunday before Veterans Day of 2008, to turn on NFL Fox Sunday to see the famous football analysts, including favorite former Giant, Michael Strahan, decked out in camies on a set at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan. The nationally televised sports show was an extravaganza of rah-rah-rah glorification of the Armed Services. It was orchestrated with as much pomp and ceremony as any political rally for Hitler’s National Socialists Party at Nuremberg in the late 1930s before the onset of WW II.
Increasingly, I’ve become aware how American Football has become more and more vested in being a prime apologist and cheerleader for US military policy abroad. It’s as if, indeed, the battle on the gridiron has become the metaphor for combat on the battlefield in foreign wars. Since 2002, The US Army All-American Bowl has featured the best high school football players from throughout the country. During the past number of years the Super Bowl has become a super pep rally and recruitment tool for the US military. This year’s extravaganza of bread and circus spectacle prior to the Green Bay and Pittsburg game would have amazed any Roman Emperor and caused Joseph Goebbels to frown in keening envy at the persuasive power of the American Propaganda Machine. The several-hour pregame show in between segments discussing football included:
- a reading of the Declaration of Independence by Hollywood and NFL celebrities in concert with members of each branch of the US Military from around the world, including both Iraq and Afghanistan;
- the singing of “America the Beautiful” and the Star Spangled Banner – very off-key by a pop singer of the 20-something generation – with flowing graphics of soldiers on duty in the background;
- a plethora of red, white and blue rockets glaring overhead and electronically cascading around Jerry Jones’ $2 Billion dollar Dallas Cowboys’ stadium;
- the ubiquitous tight-formation fly-over of supersonic fighter-bombers, loudly screeching overhead;
- and finally a special tribute to the most current living Medal of Honor winner, US Army Staff Sergeant Sal Guinta, intercut with shots of US military personnel throughout the war zones.
The eight-hour internationally televised pre-game show and Super Bowl was as egregious an example of American Exceptionalism as anything I’ve ever experienced. It was on par with national political conventions from the undulating cheer leaders decked out in red, white and blue, the huge flag that covered the entire field, the booming marching bands forming interlocking stars and stripes, the hubris of the winner being crowned “World Champion” and a number of commercials touting America’s military might. It epitomized in T.S. Eliot’s words how effectively Americans are “distracted from distraction by distraction.” It demonstrated to me that America– our culture, our society, our people – are obsessed with war. In truth, it’s as if we are addicted to war. I was then and am today deeply saddened.
(NOTE: Both photos are from Bagram AFB Photo Archives)