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MORRISSEY: Faux patriotism used to advance purposes

Soldiers unfurl U.S. flag field before NFL game Thursday between Redskins Vikings Minneapolis. | AP

Soldiers unfurl a U.S. flag on the field before the NFL game Thursday between the Redskins and Vikings in Minneapolis. | AP

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Updated: December 11, 2013 6:25AM



I can’t recall the last time I attended a sporting event without seeing some sort of tribute to military members.

Honoring soldiers has become as formulaic inside U.S. stadiums and ballparks as T-shirts shot out of cannons, national-anthem pyrotechnics and mascot antics.

At every home game, the Blackhawks bring one active-duty service member and one veteran onto the ice for Jim Cornelison’s rendition of ‘‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’’

Northwestern recently unveiled a special U.S. flag-themed uniform (with faux blood splatters, some claim) for its game Saturday against Michigan.

In anticipation of Veterans Day on Monday, ESPN devoted all of last week to the military, with athletes sending shout-outs to soldiers and thanking them for their service. ‘‘SportsCenter’’ was broadcast Friday from the U.S. Naval Academy.

How did we get here? How did the sports world kidnap patriotism?

I can’t shake the feeling that we’re being manipulated, that sports teams are pandering to our emotions, tugging on our heartstrings in the name of putting the best shine on their brand. Who can be against a soldier or a veteran who has fought for his country? And if you’re for those brave people, then you’re for the NFL. And you’ll buy NFL-licensed products.

Too cynical? Immediately after 9/11, car dealers trumpeted zero-percent financing. Was that patriotism or an opportunity to move more product as the economy struggled?

The argument, of course, is that the motivation doesn’t matter, that the powerful are helping out in some way and never mind the public-relations sales job. But the cynicism gushes in when you view ESPN and sports leagues as the mega-corporations they are. They’re not in business to support the troops; they’re in business to make money.

‘‘Big-time sports are very sophisticated money-making machines,’’ said Andrew Bacevich, a former U.S. Army colonel who is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University. ‘‘They are very image-conscious, and one way to burnish your image is to make a show of being supportive of the military.

‘‘And it’s not just sports teams. There are any number of other corporate entities, notably beer companies, that do the same thing. Buy this beer and send in a bottlecap, and we’ll donate money to a veterans organization. That stuff is going on all the time.’’

Americans feel a need to thank soldiers for their service. That’s obvious. My dad was a Navy fighter pilot in World War II. I have a deep appreciation for the sacrifices service members have made. And we’ve made it a point not to re-create the Vietnam War homefront, where returning soldiers were met with anger and derision.

Still, how did sports elbow its way into all of this? Why aren’t there tributes to soldiers and veterans before every opera or rock concert?

For one thing, sports stadiums are a place where Americans regularly congregate in massive numbers. It’s a good place to send a message. But it’s interesting to note the message is almost always about the military and rarely about other issues. It’s impossible to imagine the NFL devoting part of every game in every season to kids who have died as the result of gunfire on our city streets. Where’s the money in that?

The link between sports and warfare goes back to ancient times, when sports served as peacetime training for war, said Ron Krebs, an associate professor of political science at the University of Minnesota. Sports taught the need for individuals to suppress the self for the good of the larger group, whether that be a team or a battalion.

‘‘It’s not accidental that a lot of what you observe as an intertwining of sport and nationalism plays most commonly at those sporting events that most approximate combat, that are most pugilistic and the least individualistic — football games, for example,’’ Krebs said. ‘‘As opposed to a sport where a single individual can really transcend the team to an extent, like basketball.’’

Controversy erupted last week about the red streaks on Northwestern’s special uniforms. The school and Under Armour, the maker of the uniforms, said nothing on the design represents spattered blood.

NU will auction off players’ game-used jerseys, with proceeds going to the Wounded Warrior Project, which provides services to severely injured soldiers. A tenth of the replica-jersey sales will go to the nonprofit organization.

People at sporting events want to thank soldiers for spilling blood. They don’t want to see that blood. But blood on the playing field? More of that, please.



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