Patrick Mahomes, the do-everything, reigning NFL MVP quarterback of the Kansas City Chiefs, raced up and down the sidelines Nov. 3, euphoric as the Chiefs completed a stirring comeback against the Minnesota Vikings. Still recovering from a knee injury, Mahomes didn’t play and wasn’t in uniform for the game, but because November is the NFL’s Salute to Service month, his familiar red, yellow and white Chiefs jackets and sweatshirts were lined in desert camouflage. Mahomes may not have been ready to play, but he looked prepared for war.
The NFL has spent a lot of time and money attempting to solidify the war/military metaphor that football has embraced for decades.
Salute to Service is the National Football League’s annual armed forces propaganda effort culminating in a series of events in November around Veteran’s Day. The NFL has spent a lot of time and money attempting to solidify the war/military metaphor that football has embraced for decades, but this metaphor has taken on a distinctively corporate flavor in the past few decades.
So, while the NFL broadcasts its two-hour Veteran’s Day pregame show from West Point on Sunday, no tangible benefit will be passed down to veterans, whom this holiday ostensibly celebrates. What the league is doing, however, is branding. And there is plenty of tangible benefit to that — for the league. The NFL, long triumphant over baseball, calls itself “America’s game.” Fox brands its Sunday afternoon national broadcast as “America’s Game of the Week,” and what better way to brand itself as patriotic than by adding the jets and camouflage and servicemen and women to the entertainment package.
The images of war and football are everywhere; the coaches wearing the camouflage hoodies and caps — with camouflage-decaled headsets — a team logo affixed to the fashionable war-wear; the drab military greens and grays outlining the end zones; the uniformed servicemen and women strategically planted for the cameras at every game by the league and its television partners. As America approaches two decades of continuous war (the Brown University Costs of War Project reported that the United States maintains a military presence in 76 countries, some 39 percent of the world’s nations), its billion-dollar sports machine stands eagerly in lockstep with the Pentagon, having decided it is good business to normalize a military presence in sports under the guise of “supporting the troops.” Concurrent to the NFL’s Salute to Service, the NBA has its own Veterans Day propaganda campaign called Hoops for Troops.
The NFL is careful, far more careful than it has been in the past, to avoid the impression that it is financially exploiting the military. On game day, when scores roll across the bottom of the TV screen like a stock ticker, the NFL runs the following disclaimer: “The NFL does not profit from the sale of Salute to Service products.”
This is in reference to its past decade, when the NFL not only sold its military-themed gear to the public without disclosing how much of its sales were actually being sent to organizations that aided veterans, but also had engaged in the decadelong scandal of charging the military for its onfield ceremonies, from halftime induction ceremonies to the singing of the national anthem to the unfurling of those field-length American flags that have become commonplace before every game.
The NFL told the public that it was in the patriotism business, but it was actually in the money business. The league was not only taking taxpayer money in exchange for the flags and flyovers, but was deceiving a public that believed that the onfield displays they were seeing at games were organic expressions of patriotism. They weren’t. Only an investigation and public shaming by two Arizona Republicans, Sen. John McCain and former Sen. Jeff Flake, stopped the shameless profiteering.
The league was not only taking taxpayer money in exchange for the flags and flyovers, but was deceiving a public that believed that the onfield displays were organic expressions of patriotism.
The NFL says it stopped taking the money, but it hasn’t stopped the practice of selling military gear with its sports team logos, and in turn continues to be engaged in a staggering level of hypocrisy. For the league has decided to make America’s war machine part of its weekly business model while simultaneously stating it does not want “politics” to be part of the entertainment of football. Though American audiences have made a distinction between what it considers politics and patriotism, the distinction is a false one.
Each week this month and increasingly across the sports calendar, the annual empty spectacle continues. Colin Kaepernick is the most famous symbol, obviously, but Eric Reid, Antonio Cromartie and Michael Bennett all suffered professionally by kneeling to protest police brutality and racial injustice. Meanwhile Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones forces his players to stand on the sideline during the national anthem.
Bennett, recently dealt to Dallas, stood for the first time in four seasons in his Nov. 3 debut against the Giants. While the Chiefs were beating the Vikings, and the NFL played military dress-up, Kaepernick, deemed unfit to play in the league for the third consecutive season and counting, celebrated his 32d birthday without cameras by visiting local shelters in Oakland, California, and feeding the homeless.
The league could always support veterans quietly, but there is no branding benefit in modesty. So much of the spectacle is mere sensation, for there is no risk to the league in featuring the soldiers or the heartwarming human interest pieces from the military bases. The salutes are empty because there is no draft, abolished since 1973, so only a small percentage of Americans — the generational military families, the poor kids who are trading their bodies for access to education — are actually doing the fighting. They are sacrificing their lives, their limbs and their mental health while its billion-dollar corporations ignore both the American principles those young people enlisted to defend, as well as the traumatic future price of endless war.
These “slates” will not trudge through the murkier terrain of the soldiers’ reality: the skyrocketing suicide rates, the subpar medical care, the alienation of re-entry back into civilian life. However, in lieu of true soul-searching, the NFL is perfectly willing to sell fans a camo sweatshirt with an Atlanta Falcons logo on it.
There is nothing more political than war, and there is nothing more American than being able to speak one’s mind without being killed, jailed or losing your job. But ironically, by silencing instead of confronting, the NFL thinks it is being pro-American. Or maybe, in an embarrassing, industrywide Freudian slip, it actually is, and this is who we are now.