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Stop Thanking the Troops for Me: No, They Don’t Protect Our Freedoms!”

Why is pro sports constantly jamming military fervor down our throats? Their claims are wrong in more ways than one.
 
 
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The millions of Americans who regularly watch nationally televised NBA games are, by now, familiar with the “NBA Cares” commercials that run quite frequently during the season. The series of promos is meant to illustrate the league’s commitment to serving the community in a variety of ways. One particularly touching  example involves a collaboration between the NBA, the V Foundation and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital; in the spot, several prominent players are shown visiting children stricken with cancer, many of whom look genuinely thrilled to be meeting their heroes. The league deserves credit for encouraging its players to put their fame to good use by bringing some badly needed joy to these children’s lives.

Not all of the “NBA Cares” promos are about serving the least fortunate members of our society, though. The league is determined to show its commitment to both ends of the spectrum of power. In one  spot, NBA stars can be seen, not playing board games with children devastated by cancer, but, instead, touting the greatness and indispensability of the most powerful institution in the world, the United States military.

We discover that Brooklyn Nets star Paul Pierce is incredibly grateful, at a deeply personal level, that the men and women of the U.S. military are willing to “protect” him and his country (“I’m so thankful that they are able to do that for me, to make this a safer place for me to live”). Roy Hibbert, starting center for the Indiana Pacers, sees Pierce’s gratitude and raises him in a big way, making the latter’s sentiments seem woefully weak by comparison:

They’re protecting our country, they’re protecting the world, and, you know, obviously we wouldn’t have freedom without them.

This is just an extraordinary sentence. It contains three distinct, factual claims. While the first two are highly debatable, let us suspend consideration of them in order to focus on the third, which is actually an outright falsehood. Not only does Hibbert confidently assert that “we wouldn’t have freedom” were it not for the beneficence of the U.S. military, but that this is “obviously” so.

Freedom has become one of those politically charged terms that means whatever people need it to mean. There is no coherent conception of freedom, though, in which it only exists at the pleasure of the U.S. military. It’s simply a non sequitur. The “freedoms” most Americans think of when they hear the term are enshrined in constitutional and statutory law. They are in no way dependent on the size, scope or even the existence of the U.S. military. If John Lennon’s ghost assumed dictatorial control of the U.S. government tomorrow and, as his first order of business, disbanded the entire military, Americans’ “freedoms” would not suddenly vanish.

Other than military promotion, there is no other conceivable context in which an athlete, officially representing a major professional sports league, would go on television and say something that is so bizarre, explicitly political and manifestly untrue. Whether Roy Hibbert was simply reading something that was handed to him, or expressing his own sentiments, is immaterial. What is problematic, in any case, is that this peculiar, nonexistent connection between “freedom” and the military continues to be perpetuated as an uncontroversial truism, and is met with virtually no resistance, at least within the confines of the mainstream.

The corollary to the claim that our freedom exists only at the pleasure of the military, of course, is that the same military can revoke said freedom if it so desires. Indeed, as Hibbert so bluntly put it, “obviously we wouldn’t have freedom without them.” This widely held belief, that our freedom is bestowed on us by soldiers, has obvious implications for how the public views the military. One such implication of the ubiquity of this myth is that people will feel they owe boundless gratitude to the military as an institution and all the men and women who serve in it.

 
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