On Wednesday, the U.S. Senate released a report detailing a disturbing trend: The Department of Defense has been dropping scads of cash to stage marketing spectacles at professional sports events. What the report’s coauthors, Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, call a multimillion-dollar “paid patriotism” program goes far beyond spontaneous outbursts of patriotism or simply singing the national anthem. Taxpayer dollars have gone towards cheap military recruitment stunts such as on-field swearing-in ceremonies and cheerleader visits.
“Americans deserve the ability to assume that tributes for our men and women in military uniform are genuine displays of national pride, which many are, rather than taxpayer-funded DOD marketing gimmicks,” the authors of the Senate’s report wrote.
This disquieting relationship between the military and professional sports shouldn’t come as a surprise — and it may be more complex and insidious than the Senate report seems to indicate. Take Military Appreciation Day, known by the acronym MAD, which dates to 2000, when the New York Jets football team instituted “Jets Military Appreciation Day.” The brand new holiday sets itself apart from Veterans and Memorial Days in two ways: It celebrates those currently serving, and it’s inexplicably tied to events that require admission fees, particularly athletic events.
To further complicate the heady mélange of commerce, sport, and war, it’s become customary for teams to celebrate MAD by wearing camo-themed uniforms. North Carolina State’s MAD uniforms are a perfect example of the awkward juxtaposition. One part sleek futurism, one part military uniform, the final result is a confusing juxtaposition that confuses the concepts of militarism and sportsmanship in quite probably the most tacky manner possible.
The use of contemporary digital camouflage patterns on sports uniforms is all the rage. On Memorial Day, all 30 major league baseball teams implemented military camo in their uniforms. Military camouflage was also worn this season at the college level by the University of Virginia’s baseball team. And in the National Football League, the “Salute to Service” campaign, which includes digital camo footballs and ribbons on uniforms, has been going strong for years. The Cleveland Browns even award players who performed well in practice with an end of the week full digital camo jersey in the team’s orange and brown colors.
The intentions of team managers might be innocuous when they use military camo on their uniforms. They might believe that it’s a way to honor those who have served. But at its core, it’s a shallow marketing ploy that manipulates a muddled gap between athletic entertainment and combat.
The line between sports and warfare has always been a blurry one. Among the 17,000-year-old paintings of animals and Paleolithic hunts in the caves at Lascaux, France, there are depictions of sprinting and wrestling. The pairing suggests that the two developed in tandem: the friendly bloodless competition and the violence of the hunt almost mirroring each other. The very origins of competitive sports may have been a sort of safe practice for the more brutal business of civilization: warfare.
Some sports — fencing, martial arts, boxing and archery — are simply highly regulated versions of actual fighting. As the Duke of Wellington explained the decisive British victory over Napoleon, “The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.”
Metaphors for combat remain deeply embedded in how we talk about sports. Sports commentators describe “marching” down a field, throwing a “long bomb,” being “in the trenches,” or pressuring the quarterback with a “blitz.” Don DeLillo’s 1972 novel “End Zone” entwines descriptions of the action of college football games with the grandiosity of ROTC courses on the strategy of nuclear war into an intriguing double-helix description of how America organizes violence.
Nike's goal is to maximize shareholder value. It’s telling that the company decided a camo design was the best way to do that.
The problem is that thinking of sports as a metaphor for warfare obfuscates the purpose of both practices. Football is not warfare. It’s football. And, as a character says in “End Zone,” “Warfare is warfare. We don’t need a substitute because we’ve got the real thing.” Yet in America, it can be hard to distinguish one from the other — both in the language we use to describe sports, and in the garments athletes wear to play them.
The trend of implementing military camo onto an athletic uniform goes back at least as far as 2000, when the San Diego Padres introduced a camo uniform to ostensibly show appreciation for the military. San Diego is, after all, a big Navy and Marines town, and the team wanted to peacock their city’s deep connection with the military. It’s a well-intentioned but confusing and unnecessary signal. The Houston Astros weren’t wearing NASA lab gear; the San Francisco Giants didn’t run out onto the field dressed like Steve Jobs.
And while it’s true that professional sports teams regularly show deference to civic heroes by honoring teachers, police officers, and EMTs in different ways, they never incorporate the professional attire of those professions into their own uniforms.
A branding coup
Unsurprisingly, 9/11 kicked the entire enterprise into high gear as a pervasive, nationalistic schlock-piety crept into every corner of American life, beginning with the rescheduling of the September 16 and 17 NFL games following the attacks. Military flyover and honor guards became obligatory, Gen. David Petraeus performed the Super Bowl coin toss, and even a Fox Sports pre-game show broadcasted live from Bagram Air Base, the anchors dressed in — you guessed it — military camo.
Professional sports were an outlet for the same patriotic fervor for militarism that took over American culture more generally. What corporation could resist the branding coup that comes from associating yourself with an almost universally adored figure: the service member during wartime? Picking up on this, Drew Magary called the donations that the NFL gives to veterans groups “essentially the world’s cheapest licensing agreement” in which the NFL gets to incorporate military branding into all of its products, broadcasts, and apparel. For a pittance, professional sports teams can associate themselves with the good will reserved for one of the few demographics more respected than athletes.
This respect/honor/branding mélange has metastasized. Little leaguers and Pop Warner players have been known to have camo-themed jerseys. And so have high schoolers. And for the non-athlete, there’s an assortment of products to purchase. You can buy camo-themed hats and jerseys of your favorite professional teams. And gloves. And, in case the commodification of ‘honoring the veterans’ didn’t feel complete, you can buy camo backpacks, pants, and infant onesies as well.
The most absurd commercialization of military symbolism is, bafflingly, not even American. Nike’s new Air Pegasus ‘89 sneaker celebrates — no joke — the reunification of East and West Germany: The sneaker bears the same camo pattern as the army of the unified country. Designer Carsten Franke shares an admittedly moving story about her dad changing uniforms at the stroke of midnight on Oct. 3, 1990, but also admits that her primary goal was to create something “consumers will be happy to wear.”
This makes sense: it’s a sneaker. It has nothing to do with communism, politics, war, or even Europe, for that matter. The goal of Nike as a company is to maximize shareholder value. It’s telling that somewhere a calculation was made that offering a camo design was the best way to do that.
Beyond branding, military camo on sports gear sends a confusing message that distorts the perception of the roles of both athletes and the military. It’s true that our professional athletes are, to be sure, physical specimens, but they’re not heroes. Becoming an athlete isn’t heroic. It might be inspiring to come from difficult circumstances, work hard, and become a professional athlete, but that would be true if someone worked hard and became a doctor, lawyer, social worker, teacher, etc. Professional athletes aren’t intrinsically heroic, because here’s nothing inherently brave about being a celebrity. As dangerous as professional sports might sometimes be — especially professional football — players play for money and fame, not for love of country. There is no sacrifice made in service to a larger goal.
More importantly, blending the military and sports is a way to fetishize the military and “gamify” war. As DeLillo wrote, football isn’t war. War is war. The stakes of a war are infinitely higher than those of a sports game. And using visual symbols to conflate the two conspires to equate combat with spectacle. It helps to remove the reality of combat and push it beyond the vanishing point of our moral imagination. In this sense, “honoring” service members by using camo as a branding technique and selling camo products isn’t just vapid — it’s dangerous.