Here we go again – the NFL’s annual “Salute to Service” – coaching staffs wearing Nike-manufactured military style jackets, hoodies and jerseys, and players sporting a camouflage towel, wrist band or an occasional pair of “camo” shoes. And for some teams even cheerleaders decked out in scanty camouflage outfits. What is all this for? How many of the NFL’s coaches and players have served in the armed forces? How many of their obscenely rich billionaire owners? Not many, I think. No, it’s a sickening, gratuitous, self-serving act that makes players, coaches and owners feel better for basking in luxury on their millions of dollars while the less fortunate among us risk life and limb doing the fighting in our ill-conceived wars.

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I wonder how our soldiers feel – missing loved ones, being under fire, losing comrades and buddies, seeing limbs blown off, face to face with the blood and gore, going to sleep at night fearing that tomorrow may never come, struggling with the question of what they’re fighting for, wondering who and where the enemy is? Ooh, I bet they feel really great when they are able to see a televised NFL game back at the base and see all the coaches, assistant coaches and other sideline hangers-on, even the Gatorade boys, wearing this olive drab and camouflage attire, with an American flag on the sleeve and “U.S.A.” printed boldly on the back. Yes, suddenly, our soldiers are overcome with emotion and get teary-eyed with gratitude at seeing how much these overpaid players and coaches appreciate their sacrifice. Yeah, right – instead, our servicemen must shake their heads sadly and roll their eyes at this spectacle of self-righteous condescension.

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How our soldiers actually feel is grimly illustrated in Ben Fountain’s, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”, a finalist for the National Book Award and now a movie . Billy Lynn is one of eight survivors of a horrendous Iraq War firefight, which, caught on tape, made them instant heroes, to be whisked back to the US for a two week “heroes tour” culminating in their halftime appearance at a Dallas Cowboys football game. The book and the screen adaptation focus on the soldiers’ awkward and embarrassed struggle to absorb this unseemly attention and an adoring public’s futile attempt to make them into something better than they are. After all, these survivors of a brutal incident in a mistaken war, were simply surviving, trying to protect themselves and each other.

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Guess what – our returning servicemen do not wish to be thanked for their service. They find such gestures, especially from people who have never served in the military or who would never even allow their children to serve, shallow, disconnected and self serving. According to Matt Seitz, in his RogerEbert.com review of the recent movie “Thank You for Your Service”, we have “…subcontracted war to lower middle class and poor people (and mercenaries), then allowed politicians to keep them mostly out of sight and mind after they’ve endured and committed unimaginable violence. Veterans are treated as human props in this country, posed in front of flags and trotted out at sporting events and momentarily flattered by politicians of both parties, even as legislators and presidents neglect their care or gut their benefits, and large sections of the public forget they even exist”.

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And actually, how do you think the coaches and players themselves feel about this childish dress-up fakery? Do their hearts swell with pride as they don this quasi military gear? Or perhaps do they shrink and feel a little bit ashamed? The number of veterans or active National Guard members among NFL coaches and assistant coaches is undoubtedly tissue thin and the number of active players who have served is thinner still. So does wearing an olive drab jacket with camouflage trim with the US flag on your sleeve, the big U.S.A. on the back and the Nike swoosh on the other arm or wearing the camouflage-team color and logo combination cap or the logo/olive drab knit hat make up for it? Do the players waving a camouflage towel make them feel okay about not serving in the military and merely awkwardly trying to honor those who do? Frankly, except for the most shallow players and coaches, I don’t think it does. And the most conscientious and sensitive among them likely wish the NFL would do away with this transparently weak cultivation of hollow patriotism.

How much does all this costumery cost the NFL? What is the cost to require NFL coaches to masquerade as military personnel? Thousands of dollars? Hundreds of thousands? Millions? This is a huge operation – check it out – 13 website pages ( http://www.nflshop.com/Salute_To_Service) of NFL “Salute to Service” apparel all featuring the logos of your favorite team on caps, jerseys, knit hats, jackets and hoodies carefully matched with the best of olive drab and “camo” designs. Hey, instead of paying this this kind of money to Nike to add to their hoard hidden in the Cayman Islands, why doesn’t the NFL send the money instead to Veterans organizations, to the grieving families who have lost a loved one “defending our freedom”, or to researchers trying to find successful treatment for the many veterans suffering from PTSD? This would be really caring about the military, instead of all the flimflam and fakery. Or better yet, they could contribute the money to organizations supporting peace in our world instead of war.

Also very upsetting at NFL games is the showy trickery of picking out a uniformed member of the crowd and zooming in to show him or her on the stadium jumbo-tron so that the subject can rise for a bow and the crowd can cheer its gratitude. A couple of years ago when, can you believe it, the military actually paid NFL teams for these patriotic shows, a “statement of work” agreement with between the Pentagon and the New York Jets stipulated:

• A videoboard feature – Hometown Hero. For each of their 8 home game, the Jets will recognize 1-2 [New Jersey National Guard] Soldiers as Home Town Heroes. Their picture will be displayed on the videoboard, their name will be announced over the loud speaker, and they will be allowed to watch the game, along with 3 friends or family members, from the Coaches Club.
• Place 500,000 Digital Banner impressions on the New York Jets website
• Kickoff each Home game with “Into Battle” Video Feature with Soldier/Crowd prompts
• [New Jersey National Guard] Branding on every Monitor, specifically 3 Minutes of IPTV L-wraps, in Met Life Stadium for each NY Jets 2012-2013 Season Home Game.
• Salute to Service Gameday Activation with enhanced presentation on Military Appreciation Game (DEC 2012)

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Yes, between 2011 and 2014, the Pentagon actually dumped 5.4 million dollars into the already bulging coffers of NFL teams to honor service members and put on elaborate “patriotic salutes” to the military. This disgusting misuse of Defense Department funds would have gone on much longer had not Senators McCain and Flake discovered it, publicized it and the Pentagon suddenly decided that the NFL should pay for its own glorification of the military.

The Super Bowls, the NFL’s crown jewels, have become huge military propaganda extravaganzas, the potentially competitive and fascinating game playing second fiddle to not only the typical dazzling halftime show but also to the football field-sized flags, the squads of Homeland Security soldiers with their Humvees “keeping us safe” and always the US Navy’s Blue Angels Delta formation thundering above the stadium and its cheering crowd.

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This contemptible practice of militarizing sporting events is even spilling over into other sports. I could not believe what I saw at the US Open last year. This essentially dignified international event was totally militarized, presumably because its schedule included September 11, 2016. But if we want to honor those who died on 9/11, would it not have been more tasteful and appropriate to scrap all the flags and the uniformed military and instead honor some courageous policemen or firemen who rescued so many on that dreadful day? What on earth did the American military have to do with 9/11 anyway?
Why are we so enamored of big colorful, noisy ultra-patriotic demonstrations at our sporting events? Why the “support the troops” signs on cars, why the dozens of programs to “honor the troops”, including 2015’s “A Salute to the Troops: In Concert at the White House” on PBS and “The Concert for Valor” on HBO?

Is it to ease our collective guilt as we sit on our fannies while mercenaries do our fighting for us? Is it because we love flags, uniforms, military bands and patriotic speeches so prevalent in Nazi Germany in the 1930’s and 40’s? Or is it to spread a veneer of patriotic respectability over what has become the American Empire – 240 thousand troops on almost 800 military bases in 70 different countries.

A related and far more pervasive but no less lamentable practice in the US that I have questioned for years is the playing of the national anthem before sporting events. Suffusing even the most humble events, for example high school basketball and football games with this musical celebration of “rocket’s red glare” and “bombs bursting in air” is a step much too far. It’s interesting that “national anthems” are not generally played at European sporting events. You don’t hear “God Save the Queen” before English Premier League matches. When you ask non-Americans about the patriotic spectacle that permeates American sports, they tend to find it abnormal and somewhat bizarre. Yet every sporting event in our country has to be introduced with this terrible song and its multi-octave melodic span. Careful now, if you begin on a note a bit too high you’ll never reach that “red glare” note. Flags, crowds, chants, applause, cheers and veneration of the military. Can’t I be patriotic without all this Nazi stuff?

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US participants, Universiade, Izmir, Turkey 2005

Hey, I am patriotic, in fact quite patriotic. That’s why I deplore what is happening to my country – its Presidency debased by Donald Trump, its Congress in thrall to corporations and big money, unable to accomplish anything at all for the general welfare of its people. I am proud (and a bit envious) that my brother Robert served as an officer in the US Army in Germany after he graduated from Rutgers University and my nephew, Winston, son of my youngest brother, served an extended term in the US Navy. While working in Kuwait from 1996 to 2000, my family and I were always comforted by visits to the US Embassy where we could rub elbows with our diplomats or to Camp Doha, the US military base, where we attended church services every week and joined our servicemen at a mess hall dinner. And while working in Izmir, Turkey, I attended the Universiade opening ceremonies and actually got choked up as the US squad of competitors and the US flag entered the stadium. Yes, I love my country and am proud to be an American. But I don’t want my love and respect for my country to be conflated with the military, the violence and death of war, flag-waving and patriotic songs and certainly not with the NFL and the exploitative violence it represents.

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I wish that we had the good sense and honest gratitude to honor other kinds of American heroes at our big sporting events. Why not honor teachers or nurses? These professions help others, they don’t harm them. They improve the world with knowledge and healing instead of destroying it with bullets and bombs. Oh, sorry, you just want to honor people who fight? Well then, why not honor the valiant people who fight disease and death all over the world – Médecins Sans Frontières, “Doctors Without Borders”. Or the people who courageously struggled to preserve life by fighting the ebola epidemic in Africa.

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Or at our big athletic extravaganzas, it might be appropriate to honor Peace Corps volunteers, who faithfully teach, help people and win friends for the US in 60 countries around the world for $338 per month while at the same time our much better paid armed forces create bitter lifelong enemies for our country by spreading death and destruction. Perhaps we should raise the salaries of our valiant and generous Peace Corps volunteers and maybe provide them some benefits that military veterans have. How about some Peace Corps mortgages, or Peace Corps medical benefits. They deserve these just as much as military veterans – who knows, maybe more.

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Peace Corps Volunteer Conrad Friedly with his special needs children in Jordan

So, my fellow patriotic Americans, can we please get our priorities straight? Can we support peace instead of war, enjoy our sports events without the military trappings and “Oh say can you see…” and honor those who improve lives rather than destroy them? This is what America needs to demonstrate if it truly intends to be an example for the world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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