Football and the Military: The NFL's Mercenary Marriage of Patriotism and Violence


This is the power of the NFL: it can brand something you respect into something nauseous. I have a lifelong fascination with the military: my grandfathers were pilots in WWII, one also in Korea. My stepfather, a man I love and respect, only retired from the Air Force this decade. I attended high school near Eglin Air Force Base, living out near Range Road, where you could sit on your roof at night and watch the bomb tests light up the underside of clouds. Most of my friends’ dads were in the service.

But just like that friend’s dad who got in your face all OORAH about how you could never dare question him (on anything) when you knew in reality that he ran Quicken for the 101st Chairborne, doing sorties on Excel columns, the NFL doesn’t have an off switch on its deployment of big words like battle and sacrifice. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell glad-handing veterans who’ve lost something, smirking under a flyover, is another avatar of the rear-echelon dudes who spent their Iraq War scanning the base doppler for tornados in the midwest and up-armoring their word rage to combat the “libturd” War on Christmas, daring you to question those who do their duty. The NFL is in the business of not being questioned, and the troops are its favorite accessory.

Complaints about the creeping militarization of the NFL are almost as old as complaints about how current finesse dynasties always get the defensive pass interference calls, and their ubiquity reduces them to the angsty hum of a punk band tuning all their guitars to drop-D. But this last year reified the issue as something worthy of consideration to more than just teens hoping to annoy dad. The NFL, which swaddles itself in camouflage to honor the troops, allowed 14 teams to charge the Department of Defense $5.4m for the privilege of their own honor, over four years. 

That the NFL found a way to monetize patriotism shouldn’t surprise anyone; the only surprise is how efficiently and directly they did it. This sort of behavior is par for the course with the NFL. Every October, it puts its athletes in pink shoes, pink towels, gives refs pink penalty flags and sells “authentic” alternate pink jerseys to promote breast cancer awareness. The proceeds from these sales do not go breast cancer research, and what little escapes the wholesaler, distributor and retailer goes toward promoting screening and awareness. The NFL doesn’t directly profit, but its friends do.

Last year, facing tremendous blowback for suspending Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice a mere two games after knocking out his then-fiancée Janay on tape, the NFL rolled out No More, its domestic violence partner. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, No More does absolutely nothing, apart from vaguely aspirational things about “awareness”, which is corporate-speak for “results- and effort-free tax deduction”. Although you can buy merchandise!

Crossing the military-sports boundary is nothing new. George Carlin’s famous routine about the difference between baseball and football pays off so well because his description of football is laden with all the casual military metaphors self-important NFL commentators have injected into the game to make sure nobody dares take it anything less than deadly seriously.

Other sports have gotten in on the act for mercenary but at least more organic reasons. San Diego, a town dependent on its naval base for its prosperity, features regular troop acknowledgments at games, and Padres players take the field in camouflage uniforms. Tampa Bay, home to MacDill Air Force Base and CENTCOM, also sends out the Rays in camouflage uniforms and sets aside discount sections for active-duty servicemen. Both these teams struggle against the allure of the beach and vacation nightlife to fill seats, so their motives aren’t pure, but they are at least speaking to a significant local population that shapes the region.

Beyond teams with local military fanbases, Major League Baseball learned that releasing authentic camouflage jerseys and red-white-and-blue jerseys for Memorial Day and July 4th meant another vector for selling $140 garments that look and feel like grandpa’s old nightshirt designed to sweat out a fever.

But if these other developments are a bit mercenary, only the NFL feels like it’s fully embraced outright camouflage-washing. Take an embattled brand, wrap it up in Desert MARPAT and dare anyone to start jeering at it. 

Goodell and company have – barring any generalized sense of competency that we’d ascribe to a functionally non-malignant business – proved that they are masters at a certain kind of craven canniness, and they and plenty of others have noticed the numerous opportunities for cynical capitalization. Far from the behavior of the founders (Washington, say, who deliberately patterned his life after Cincinnatus), or even of the Brokaw-dubbed Greatest Generation (in which roughly maybe one-sixteenth of personnel saw serious combat), we have nationally balked at applying any differentiation or critique to the roles of any active duty personnel in the Wars on Terror, Afghanistan, Iraq or ISIS. MSNBC’s Chris Hayes was broadly slammed for suggesting his discomfort at the overuse of hero, because that is the brand now. 

What a boon environment for a “non-profit” cartel flush with billions that socializes the debts for new stadiums by plundering municipalities and then privatizing the profits, that threatens to lockout the laborers who give the sport its only reason for existence when they ask for a fraction more money to continue at jobs that give them potentially terminal brain damage. Yeah, that’s all bad, but what are you going to do, piss on troop Koop A Trooper from Camp McTrooperton? It’s hard to sneer at spectacle when it keeps being interrupted for guys with prosthetic legs surprising their families at midfield. “Dad!” “Hey, son! I’m not dead!” Or, to take a recent example, when the NFL arranges the heartwarming reunion of a soldier and his cheerleader wife. Nobody watching from the stands is likely to know that the former is a member of the obscenely wealthy Anheuser-Busch family, and the latter is a member of a well-connected political family.

The NFL is the only organization that responds to people’s wincing in awkward embarrassment as if it were some sort of cue that the embarrassing thing wasn’t done intensely or often enough, and they long ago went all-in on draping themselves in the blood and bones of others to attain some whiff of contact legitimacy. All the “FOOTBALL IS WAR” rhetoric might have started out as easy tropes for a lazy commentariat, but that stuff isn’t accidental anymore. That’s branding, and every flyover or unfurling of an America-shaped American flag by combat veterans is a deliberate, crass attempt to so wholly synonymize the fiscal upward-suction of the NFL with terms like valor, duty and honor. The more we salute the business’ use of soldiers, the more we render a predatory business unassailable. It’s brand synergy between the moneyed and profane and what we consider nationally sacred. It’s the same emotionally exploitative and cynical impulse that leads some fobbit to start waving his Green Zone Participation Medal in people’s faces to justify some hateful online rant about how the Brewton, Alabama, nativity scene is under attack by sharia disguised as liberals. There is no level of stupid that can’t be camowashed, and the NFL knows it.

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