All-Star Militia

KABUL -- Master Sgt. Brett Favre, leading a Special Forces platoon in a ground assault in the southwestern mountains of Afghanistan, said troops need to "go deep and long" in the search for Al Qaeda members.

JERUSALEM -- Approximately 1,000 troops surround historic Bethlehem awaiting orders from the U.S. command post in Jerusalem.

"I'd like us to roll in and take care of business as soon as possible," says tank commander Kobe Bryant. "Playoffs are supposed to begin in two weeks."

If the names sound familiar, it's because they belong to the elite corps of professional athletes that America loves but also often resents for their salaries, their behavior and their highly dubious status as role models. So wouldn't there be less of that resentment if these multi-millionaire jocks had to do double duty as America's first-strike military force?

I'm not talking about the occasional athlete-turned-soldier, or the way dozens of athletes were drafted during WWII. My suggestion is to draft all pro athletes into the armed services. Sign them up as soon as they're drafted by any team, and send them to basic before spring training. Then, when there's an uprising in Somalia, or intelligence about new terror training camps cropping up again in Afghanistan, let ESPN's rich and famous be the first reserves we send into battle.

Think of it: Would all of us be a little less angry if the sport stars that we pamper, spoil and often deify earned their stripes literally? If these same gifted men had to risk their lives for us (instead of just their anterior cruciate ligaments), wouldn't we be more likely to forgive them for charging money for autographs? For striking in order to protest their $3 million per year "slave" wages? For spitting at umpires? For not running out ground balls while making $126,000 -- a baseball player's average take per game?

A $40,000-a-year over-the-road driver might feel a heap better about Kurt Warner making $5 million if he knew the St. Louis Rams quarterback had to train eight weeks at Fort Bragg and then serve two years on call as a reservist. I, for one, would be less inclined to boo the Texas Rangers' Alex Rodriguez ($25 million a year) for striking out if I knew he slept in a tent in the desert in Yemen last week, safeguarding me at home. And when Philadelphia Eagles' Antonio Freeman runs on an opposing team's field signaling that he's number one, fans just might stand up and salute him in agreement.

But what's in it for the athletes? Everything they want, actually. They'd keep their salaries and their sport celebrity. But they'd also finally have a legitimate claim to the oft-debated moniker of "hero." And many of them, especially kids right out of high school like basketball players Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry, would be able to get a normal education -- one consisting of skills and values that we currently watch them flaunt or struggle with in their daily travails, as they are splashed all over the front page of the sports section, like a World War II poster featuring boxer Joe Louis.

In the Army (or Navy or Marines), they'll cultivate maturity, teamwork, discipline (let Latrell Sprewell try choking a drill sergeant), manners, selflessness, loyalty and patriotism. They'll even acquire a skill or trade to fall back on if it turns out that in the big leagues they cannot hit the curve ball or catch a pass in traffic.

And those are just the known perquisites for the stars. Those pros who covet the limelight -- your Neon Deons and Reggie Millers -- can move up from the toy department (sports page) to world news in the off season, photographed alongside President Bush and Colin Powell and interviewed by Ashleigh Banfield.

Better yet, your Ray Lewises and Leroy Butlers, who confess that they "love to hit people," and hockey enforcers like Marty McSorley, who simply "love to fight," will finally get to be in an arena where their preoccupations are not only legal, but are rewarded with medals and ribbons.

It'll never happen, you say? Consider that Pat Tillman, a 25-year-old safety for the Arizona Cardinals, did exactly that last spring, giving up three years of fame and riches in the NFL to serve as an elite Ranger in the U.S. Army. While Tillman has avoided all interviews, his coach, Dave McGinnis, said it was a matter of pride, integrity and patriotism for him, someone who is clearly not the typical materialistic pro athlete.

In the big leagues of baseball, football, basketball, hockey, soccer, golf and tennis, there are about 10,000 young, superbly conditioned athletes like Tillman (more than 20,000 if you count the minor leagues) who benefit more than most people from America's free capitalistic society. Who better to man (and wo-man) our Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine first-strike forces in times of trouble?

But Tillman is an extraordinary exception. Since it is a safe bet that the other pros will not follow his example, in order for this plan to work, it will be necessary for Congress to pass a bill that requires any professional sports contract to include a military service provision. Call it a small tax on their American dream of wealth and fame. My guess is that there'd be ample support of such a bill, especially from a citizenry that is asked time and again to subsidize their city's professional sports franchises, their stadia, and especially their skyboxes.

And it's not that there hasn't been some precedent for this arrangement. In its military and Olympian supremacy during the Cold War days, U.S.S.R.'s skaters and weight lifters listed their full time occupations as "soldier." The allegiance they pledged to Mother Russia apparently spilled over into the sporting quest, as they perennially led all nations in gold medals at the summer and winter Olympics. It makes sense, since soldiers moonlighting as athletes (or vice versa) is among the more compatible pairings of pursuits; both share similar goals, skills and the same kind of preparation and training.

So let's reconsider those news lead possibilities: Gen. Bill Walsh's elite infantry men, all of whom could run the 100-yard-dash in less than 10 seconds, pilot the frontal assault against the enemy; Col. Bobby Knight's legion of snipers protects their flank; Maj. Mike Ditka's tank division brings up the rear, roaring ahead with all the pride, fire, might and abandon of a special team covering a kickoff return.

And our country is not only entertained but also protected by a generously paid, super-conditioned, balletically unified, highly motivated strike force that's trained, programmed and, in fact, born to win.

God bless America. Go team!

David McGrath teaches writing and Native American literature at College of DuPage.

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