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The Real Problem: The Militarization of the NFL

Before 2009, Colin Kaepernick would have had to find some other way to protest racism against African Americans.  That’s because until the height of the Iraq War, NFL football players weren’t even required to leave the locker room [1] for the national anthem, much less stand for it.

That’s not to say that the national anthem didn’t take place before every game. The singing of “The Star Spangled Banner” was mandated during another war, World War II, when the NFL commissioner at the time mandated [2] it for the league. The players were told to stand for it about the same time that the Department of Defense was ramping up massive recruitment and media operations around the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They began paying sports teams millions in U.S. tax dollars for what amounted to “paid patriotism,” or mega-military spectacles on the playing field before the games. It got so bad that there was a congressional investigation [3] led by none other than Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a veteran and considered one of the most patriotic men in the Senate.

What McCain and Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) found was that between 2012 and 2015, the DOD shelled out $53 million to professional sports—including $10 million to the NFL—on “marketing and advertising” for military recruitment. To be sure, some of that was bona fide advertising. But many of those heart-tugging ceremonies honoring heroes and recreating drills and marches and flyovers are what the report denounced as propaganda.

Of course, this being government, no one is really sure how much has been spent or where the money went. As their report [4] revealed:


Over the course of the effort, we discovered the startling fact that DOD cannot accurately account for how many contracts it has awarded or how much has been spent; its official response to our request only accounted for 62 percent of its 122 contracts with the major league teams that we were able to uncover and 70 percent of the more than $10 million it actually spent on these contracts. And, although DOD has indicated the purpose of these contracts is to support recruiting, the Department doesn’t uniformly measure how and whether the activities under contract are actually contributing to recruiting.

Although the senators claimed to have ended such paid patriotism in the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act, the NFL’s willing role as a top cheerleader and recruiter for the warfare state is unlikely to end anytime soon (one need look no farther than Hyundai’s homage [5] to the military in the 2017 Super Bowl for evidence).

In fact it has not stopped the war liturgy from playing out on the gridiron at all, and yes, given when and how it was mandated for players to honor it, the national anthem has been used a prop in this near-religious convocation. In recent years, soldier parading, flag-waving, and jumbotron shout-outs to warriors have become de rigueur at NFL games. Consider the display put on at Super Bowl 50: [6]A flyover by the Blue Angels fighter jets, and 50 representatives of all military branches singing “America the Beautiful” against a backdrop of a giant flag. During the game, a Northop Grumman advertisement [7] proudly announced America’s conceptual sixth-generation fighter jet “of the future” to an unsuspecting audience, a year after it presented its new long-range bomber [8] during Super Bowl XLIX. How much that ad time cost the company is anyone’s guess, but it is no surprise that defense contractors are hawking their billion-dollar war wares between game play these days.

In truth, the post-WWII NFL has always been militaristic. As Colorado State University historian Robert Gudmestad explains [9]:

Postwar affluence and the increase in white-collar jobs, when combined with concerns about the power of the Soviet Union, led many Americans to fear that men were too effeminate and weak. These anxieties created fertile soil for the growth of football, which became a way to affirm masculinity and fight the supposed “muscle gap.” If you didn’t embrace football—which seemed to embody Cold War ideas of containment—you might be suspected of deviant behavior like homosexuality or communism.

Little wonder that the NFL’s rise has tracked with the growth of the warfare state. During the 1950s [10], NFL football went from being just another sport to near dominance. It surpassed baseball as America’s most popular sport in 1968 [11]—the same year that Air Force jets put on a show for the Orange Bowl. (The fact that Nixon was elected on a supposedly antiwar platform in 1968, as one writer claims [12], hardly disproves the overall correlation.)

Feeling a need to defend football, Matthew Walther for The Week recently lavished unbridled praise [13]on its all-encompassing superiority:

Football is a varied, engrossing, mentally and physically demanding pastime; it is tag, Risk, kickball, and the Commentarii de Bello Gallico all rolled into one. (For the non-Latinists, the Commentarii de Bello Gallico is Julius Caesar’s memoir of the Gallic Wars.)

But isn’t that the problem? “Football is a warlike game and we are now a warlike nation. Our love for football is a love, however self-aware, of ourselves as a fighting and (we hope) victorious people,” opines University of Virginia scholar [14] Mark Edmundson. Slate has called [15] NFL games “the American war game.” George Carlin compared [15] quarterbacks to generals, their thrown footballs to bullets and bombs, and their teammates to advancing troops.

Such comic exaggeration points to a fundamental truth: football—with its obsessive territorialism, regimented hierarchy, and peculiar combination of strategic prowess with brute force—has always been at risk of militaristic co-option.

No, this isn’t an argument against football, nor the national anthem. But it is a plea that the NFL stop shilling for the warfare state and using Americans and their patriotism as unwilling—or even willing—participants. Kneeling or not kneeling, protesting or leaving one’s politics at home are valid points of debate. But the issue of militarized football appears too hot to touch, although it is clearly not going away.

Stephen Beale is a freelance writer based in Providence, R.I. Email him at[email protected], and follow him on Twitter @bealenews

45 Comments (Open | Close)

45 Comments To "The Real Problem: The Militarization of the NFL"

#1 Comment By Conewago On September 26, 2017 @ 10:13 pm

This is a good article, but it misses the most important point, which is that professional sports is an inherently misguided concept.

And I say that despite my deep reverence for Chuck Bednarik, Lenny Moore, Jack Ham, and a host of other gridiron heroes from my home state.

#2 Comment By Craig On September 27, 2017 @ 12:26 am

There is one analogy between war and football that the author missed: MOST Americans would rather watch other people play(or fight and die) as they cheer in the stands (or at political rallies).

To be on the field (or in harms way) is not really that popular. We love football and war as spectator sports.

#3 Comment By Emil Bogdan On September 27, 2017 @ 1:45 am

Team sports build group identity and coordination. All athletics are in some way connected to the ancient hunt, as well as war. They certainly don’t have anything to do with farming. I love sports, but anyone practicing an art should be aware of what they’re practicing for. Except with golf. That’s more of a game for farmers.

#4 Comment By connecticut farmer On September 27, 2017 @ 8:37 am

Excellent article. And the NFL could stop this whole thing in its tracks by ceasing the playing of the anthem (they won’t of course). I’ve never understood the reason for playing the national anthem before some dumb ball game played by steroid-driven multimillionaires acting on behalf of ego-driven billionaire owners. Furthermore, the act of kneeling before the flag (rather than the crucifix or some other religious symbol) is an act of blasphemy.

Conflating professional sports with patriotism should have stopped a long time ago. But, as the author suggests, it won’t stop anytime soon.

#5 Comment By Uncle Billy On September 27, 2017 @ 9:13 am

The Air Force Captain in the picture with all the medals is not a pilot. He appears to be a FAC or forward air controller, which is a much more dangerous job than being a pilot. They can earn some medals, but they rarely make general, the ranks of which is mainly pilots.

#6 Comment By K-Dog-One On September 27, 2017 @ 10:20 am


Please expand your thoughts on the following statement:

“[P]rofessional sports is an inherently misguided concept.”

#7 Comment By Francis Flynn On September 27, 2017 @ 10:31 am

I wonder how much NASCAR receives as they’re always pushing the militaristic narrative. It’s gotten so bad I wait until I’m sure the race has started before tuning into watch the it.

#8 Comment By mrscracker On September 27, 2017 @ 10:54 am

I’m not a warmonger but what’s wrong with recruiting efforts since we no longer have the draft?
I think the draft should be restored, but changed to allowing 18 year olds to choose from either a year or two of military or community service. VA hospitals, disaster relief services, etc all need help.
Post draft era, we’ve had a generation or two of self absorbed (& often self destructive)young people who could have benefitted by the direction, discipline, & self giving this might have enabled.

#9 Comment By mike On September 27, 2017 @ 11:24 am

And they should stop shilling for the WELFARE state while they are at it!!
The NFL is possibly the most effective promoter of socialism in modern America – with a government-protected monopoly (anti-trust exemption), salary caps, “revenue-sharing” (i.e., wealth re-distribution), and huge rewards for failure (and punishment for success) that lead to open, rampant fraud (The throwing of not just games but entire seasons has now come to be completely accepted.); and, of course, open collusion to “maximize revenues” is applauded and admired as an “excellent business model”.
The NFL on its own has been one of the most destructive forces in American society when it comes to the erosion of the natural sense that competition is fundamentally fair, healthy and beneficial.
Corruption, collusion and government intervention are made to look normal by institutions like the NFL.

#10 Comment By EarlyBird On September 27, 2017 @ 12:47 pm

Most excellent article. I would add that we need to stop conflating the national anthem and other such national symbols entirely with military service, as if the United States is first and foremost about its military. When I stand for the national anthem I am standing for our national ideals and national family, which of course includes the military, but is not the main focus.

#11 Comment By Jeeves On September 27, 2017 @ 1:09 pm

Written like a true baseball fan!

According to Trump, the NFL has gotten less war-like. He faulted the NFL for rules changes intended to protect players by penalizing aggressive plays. He thinks the lack of hard hits is the reason ratings are down. (Reminds of Terry Bradshaw mocking the league’s quarterback protection rules: “They ought to have them wear dresses.”)

Maybe football is popular because of the hits, like NASCAR fans allegedly come to see the big crashes. But it’s hard to see the NFL product as war-like. I don’t know how you’d characterize a sport that features both end zone dances and penalties for “excessive celebration.”

Stick with baseball. It’s a better sport with better athletes.

#12 Comment By Robert Charron On September 27, 2017 @ 4:22 pm

The Connecticut farmer is my kind pf American with sense and perspective.

#13 Comment By One Guy On September 27, 2017 @ 5:10 pm

Craig says:
“To be on the field (or in harms way) is not really that popular. We love football and war as spectator sports.”

I’ve noticed this for years. In other countries, EVERYBODY plays soccer. In America, virtually nobody (above the age of 21) plays football, certainly not 11 vs 11 tackle football. Craig’s comment may explain it.

#14 Comment By John Mann On September 27, 2017 @ 5:36 pm

Connecticut farmer put it well.

The strange thing is that for decades I just accepted the playing of the National Anthem at sporting events without ever questioning it. And yet, now that the subject has been raised, it seems to me that there is something very, very strange about it.

#15 Comment By FL Transplant On September 27, 2017 @ 5:39 pm

How can a non-rated Captain have so many medals that he looks like a South American dictator in full dress?

Uncle Billy–FACs are indeed pilots, ground-based or in the air. You might be thinking of Combat Controllers, the bubbas who travel with ground forces and call in air strikes–but that’s an enlisted career field, as is Pararescue (disregarding the few officers who are CROs). Other than fliers the chances of an Air Force officer being placed in job involving direct combat is vanishingly small–there’s no USAF equivalent of infantry, armor, or artillery.

And the Air Force Honor Guard, with its anal retentive emphasis on appearance and drill–that’s what it’s about, after all–isn’t the kind of organization that combat vets aspire to. It’s something that personal and supply officers tend to gravitate towards to get some command experience.

#16 Comment By paradoctor On September 27, 2017 @ 5:42 pm

I call it pay-triotism.

To say that football is at risk of militaristic cooptation is like saying that a streetwalker is at risk of being paid for sex.

Now that everyone knows that football causes brain damage, there are no good reasons for it, only bad ones. For instance, flag worship.

#17 Comment By EliteCommInc. On September 27, 2017 @ 8:16 pm

This is a peculiar article. the entirety of sports has served two primary purposes.

1. preparing men for being heads of households


2. preparing men to serve as protectorates of family and by extension community.

Since all sports the world over began as part of that human artifact of sending men out front to risk life and limb as protectors. It is a natural consequence that sports reflects the very nature and purpose of the same.

Hence the consternation concerning Title Nine. Attempting to equalize sports runs counter to some 230,000 years plus of socialization. We generally have a difficult time investing the same amount of money and effort in preparing women for

1. being heads of households as are men


2. for the sacrificing brutal task of warfare.

Given that male sports serves those purposes (and there are others). It should come as no shock that all sports have for nearly all countries deep ties to their national understanding/identity. There is no sport that is not laced with strategic dynamics and hierarchical structure. Even what we refer to as individual sports carry systems for strategic maneuvering and are managed in that manner. Boxers, wrestlers all have managers, even golfers for those that know the embody a clear managerial form and strategic thinking — caddies serve dual roles and the very best are a golfer’s right hand.

The more team members the more definitive and complex the hierarchy, and strategic gamesmanship. It’;s a tough complaint that runs up the very purpose of the artifacts existence. The more salient complaint here rests with the advance on capitalism intrusion into the sport. trying to remove military underpinnings would be akin to removing the blood from a human being minus any ill effect. No, individual, local, regional state and national territoriality would remain whether a single flag was or not an anthem sung.

What is more telling is how sport has become removed from our national loyalty and expectation of service. I boycotted professional sports after 9/11. In my view despite my opposition, our professional athletes simply were undeserving of a loyalty they were unwilling to exhibit to god and country. Sports means more o the members of the military than the military means to professional sports.

But as a coming together it is one of the few places that community may come together to be reminded that the men and women, particularly the men, that should all we have be threatened it so they who will give hearth and home to protect it. As usual,

military service football or not is call to sacrifice, I won’t begrudge them fifteen minutes of recognition in events designed to prepare men, in days of old,

that others before themselves. Though football and other sports have long lost that understanding of purpose.

#18 Comment By Fran Macadam On September 27, 2017 @ 9:51 pm

Empire Burlesque.

#19 Comment By Fred Garvin On September 27, 2017 @ 10:18 pm

Why must we have the national anthem played before every professional sporting event? Most people don’t know the lyrics even to the first stanza. (Good thing they don’t know the words to the third.)

It spans an octave and a third range in the first two bars, so nonprofessionals pretty much can’t sing it worth beans.

So many people use the ritual as a break for beer, nachos, and biology that it’s pretty embarrassing (though this behavior is likely worse at Dave & Buster’s or BWW).

#20 Comment By Rod Willmot On September 28, 2017 @ 12:35 am

A couple of years ago I read an interview with the first German national to play in the NFL. In his words: “American football is like a nuclear explosion.”

It’s a fascinating interview. You can find it here: [16].

#21 Comment By Mark in BC On September 28, 2017 @ 6:43 am

It’s a Pagan Sanctification Ritual to worship the god, GovCo. Let’s look at it closely.

It starts, as do all religious ceremonies, with the required solemnity. All must stand, unless you are disabled or working in the broadcast truck. Men, take off any head coverings (except the camera men who are broadcasting the ceremony, you get a pass and of course those representing GovCo). Everyone’s hand must be over their heart unless you’re representing GovCo, then you salute.

The talisman. A field-size flag is unfurled and held by GovCo priests in their vestments (military uniforms is the more common term). It hovers ghost-like over the field, never touching Earth Mother Gaia for that would despoil the talisman. Sometimes players will help hold the talisman to show their reverence for GovCo. Someone who has survived one of GovCo’s many wars may be trotted out at this time to be Thanked for Their Service (to GovCo of course but, those in attendance are to feel guilt for not sacrificing as much).

Now for the incantation. The National Anthem (Fight Song?) is then played and sung. The singing is usually done by someone no one has heard of but, has won some insipid “competition” on a faked up program on the network broadcasting the game (“Never let a cross-promotion go to waste.” – Rahm Emmanuel). The congregation is encouraged to sing along if they wish but, the Folks At Home won’t hear you because the guys in the broadcast truck have the singer mic’d so you can’t hear crowd noise.

Release the censers. Since these rituals take place is such large venues the spreading of incense becomes problematic. Not to worry, however, as god GovCo has the perfect solution. A military jet flyover! The roar of the jets is often overcome by the roar of the congregation as the jets blast overhead leaving a trail of smoke, usually in red, white and blue…the colors of GovCo.

Instead of sitting as Kaepernick did at first, players are now taking a semi-kneeling position. One might think this shows even more reverence to GovCo than standing but, alas, tis not the case. Perhaps that’s because if GovCo started to demand kneeling during this pagan rite people might wake up to what is really going on.

#22 Comment By Uncle Billy On September 28, 2017 @ 9:03 am

Fl Transplant:

That Captain has jump wings but not pilot wings. Also, he has a lot of medals, but not any higher combat decorations, such as a silver star or even a bronze star with combat V. Curious that he is wearing medals with a service dress uniform, as in the Marine Corps, we wore ribbons with service dress and medals with dress blues or dress whites.

In any event, it’s curious to see uniformed service members who have never seen combat to be wearing 6 rows of ribbons, as we so often do now. A few years ago at LAX airport, I was talking to an Air Force Major whose MOS was logistics. He had six rows of ribbons. He looked like Patton, but was in actuality a supply guy. yes, this guy in the picture looks like a Latin American dictator in full regalia.

#23 Comment By Steve Diamond On September 28, 2017 @ 9:40 am

Perhaps the real problem is we are a democracy where free choice is sacred, yet those willing to shill for death, destruction and arrogance have endless dollars and access to media, while the majority who want sustainability and peace have no access and are dismissed as an extreme fringe. Campaign finance and media reform are desperately needed, perhaps before anything else.

#24 Comment By EngineerScotty On September 28, 2017 @ 10:34 am

George Will said it best: football combines two things wrong with American Life, violence and committee meetings.

#25 Comment By John Waterman On September 28, 2017 @ 11:03 am

Polititions cheer from their safe seat in the House or Senate, as Americans that make America great fight their wars.

The general public cheer from their seats in the stands, as players fight in the arena.

They are both commercial enterprises.

#26 Comment By harry balczaz On September 28, 2017 @ 11:32 am

i just wanna watch a good sporting event. if some guys don’t want to stand for the anthem, not a problem. let ’em stay in the locker room and prepare for the game. those that want to stand can do so also. what i DON’T want to endure are the opinions of athletes. they are paid to be there and compete and i’d prefer they withhold their opinions for their twitter vomits and their facebooks and their appearances on the view. that way i can avoid ever having to listen to their blather. the media and the nattering patriots are just feeding their ego’s to allow them to be the center of attention. ignore them.

#27 Comment By tin man On September 28, 2017 @ 12:07 pm

Even the national anthem is getting weird. The radio announcers for the local baseball team time the singer to see how long he or she can hold the final”braaave”.

#28 Comment By mrscracker On September 28, 2017 @ 3:29 pm

tin man says:

Even the national anthem is getting weird. The radio announcers for the local baseball team time the singer to see how long he or she can hold the final”braaave”.”
I think it’s a beautiful anthem even though most of my ancestors were on the side providing those “bombs bursting in air.”
I love to hear it sung but wish they’d quit scatting the notes. Just sing it straight, please.

#29 Comment By Jasper On September 28, 2017 @ 8:31 pm

The late Howard Cosell once opined that if the national anthem takes place before an athletic event, it should be followed by an anti-war demonstration.


#30 Comment By Hibernian On September 28, 2017 @ 10:25 pm

@Early Bird:

In the real world, you can’t have amber waves of grain without the rockets’ red glare.

#31 Comment By paradoctor On September 29, 2017 @ 1:16 pm

Hibernian: President Eisenhower disagreed. He said:

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.

This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.”

#32 Comment By Wizard On September 30, 2017 @ 2:19 am

Jeeves – Trump was clearly wrong about that. Just ask Vince McMahon. The XFL was supposed to showcase “big hits” and “good old-fashioned smash-mouth football”. It folded after a single season. ESPN and other sports reporters have shifted their focus away from “big hits” in recent years, possibly because people are more aware of the human cost. (CTE, anyone?)

One Guy – Casual soccer games are relatively easy on the body. North American football specifically emphasizes players crashing into each other. The risk of injury may be acceptable for the handful of people getting paid six or seven figures, but few people are willing to get beaten up that badly just for fun.

Fred Garvin – I’ve heard that “The Star-Spangled Banner” is set to the tune of an old English drinking song. I can only conclude that those old English drunks were amazing singers.

harry balczaz – Trump’s attacks on “unpatriotic” football players were just another one of his attempts to stir up controversy to distract from his lack of other achievements. As usual, his gum-flapping only gave more attention and energy to the subject of his attacks. Before Trump started yelling, there were fewer than a dozen protesters. After he called on owners to fire the “SOBs”, entire teams were protesting.

#33 Comment By Mightypeon On September 30, 2017 @ 8:38 am

Could someone explain why the guy in the title picture has more bling then Zhukov?

Especially since the medals I can make out seem to be not pointy end related.

#34 Comment By Grandfather’s jock On September 30, 2017 @ 6:17 pm

As legendary sports writer Oscar Madison once wrote:
“Hobos ride the trains; pro football players chide the chains.”

#35 Comment By Kevin Barry On September 30, 2017 @ 7:11 pm

You want to protest ? Great, do it on your own time. It’s an insult to the people who pay exorbitant prices for these tickets and are paying down the construction debt of the Stadium. Why do we play the National Anthem at games ? My question is WHY NOT ? Here we are in the land of the free and brave, watching guys getting paid MILLIONS of dollars to play a game, they’re making more than 99% of those watching. Meanwhile, the fans are wearing over priced Sports jersey’s with their favorite players name on it. So let’s stop with the “Oppression Pity Party” Play ball, go take a shower, get in your $300,000 sports car, drive to your multi million dollar home and take a knee to GOD for your blessings. Meanwhile a disabled Veteran, who lost both legs in Afghanistan, is propping himself up on the arms of his Wheel Chair to “Stand” for the National Anthem and America. Which obviously something Mr. Beale doesn’t understand

#36 Comment By Whine Merchant On September 30, 2017 @ 9:58 pm

Something about scoundrels patriotism comes to mind…

…of course, the public inevitably pays for the sports cathedrals where ‘real Americans’ worship. More socialism for the rich.

#37 Comment By pete On October 1, 2017 @ 3:49 pm

The MIC is parading their war machine at all US professional sports venues NFL; MLB; NHL etc.

#38 Comment By Ollie On October 2, 2017 @ 4:10 pm

I’m with the guy who said: “If you think less of an athlete taking a knee than you do of a president mocking an American prisoner of war, then you are no patriot. You are an A___hole.”

#39 Comment By Jeffly On October 3, 2017 @ 11:04 pm

This rticle reads like a conspiracy theorist wrote it. Where is the research?

#40 Comment By jenny On April 11, 2018 @ 5:23 am

Thanks for the great writeup

#41 Comment By Carl On February 3, 2019 @ 8:23 pm

Winning is the only thing…second place, honesty, morality, striving for the best.

#42 Comment By stefan On February 4, 2019 @ 10:41 am

You’ve got to start to wonder when our servicemen start dressing up like Venezuelan generals.

#43 Comment By FL Transplant On February 4, 2019 @ 11:48 am

Uncle Billy: A couple of years late, but…

The USAF Academy has an in-school parachuting program. Completing that program awards jump wings (generally considered as “plastic wings” when opposed to having earned them through the Army’s Airborne course.). There are also a number of cadets from there who attend the Army’s Airborne course and earn (“real”) jump wings there.

A USAF officer with jump wings usually signifies an Academy grad. It almost never has anything to do with operational military experience.

#44 Comment By Richard On February 4, 2019 @ 2:11 pm

I watched the Superbowl yesterday, somewhat reluctantly (party invite), and I just don’t get it. I just don’t. The rules are ridiculously complex and there’s no flow at all to the action. Most of the actual airtime was taken up by expensive commercials (the real draw, I suspect)and tedious replays.

#45 Comment By Betonymous On March 26, 2019 @ 5:34 am

All these political issues have gone too far, don’t you think? why can’t football just remain a place for sports and entertainment and any political debate