You Can’t Just
‘Stick To Sports’
At least not when Sports refuses to stick to itself.
When you read an article about the games you love, and unexpectedly find that the pieces happens to touch upon politics, economics, a societal ill, or anything outside of who won or lost and why, are you the type of person who rolls your eyes skyward, groans and blasts the publisher or author with a demonstrative “#StickToSports!”?
It’s okay, your impulse is understandable. I’ve written more than once that flipping on the game, settling into that well-worn Barcalounger, and turning off the ol’ cerebral cortex is not only a reasonable response to our world’s unending cavalcade of horrors, but also a downright healthy diversion.
But if that’s the case, then “Sports” needs to keep up its end of the bargain. I’d be happy to never again cross these sacrosanct streams if only the powers-that-be will stop putting their chocolate-y politics in the peanut butter of my sports.
F’rinstance, on Monday afternoon, I tuned in to watch something called “Hoops for Troops,” an ESPN broadcast of a practice/scrimmage/barely organized goof-around session for USA Basketball held at the United States Military Academy at West Point. I watched it because I have a junkie-needing-a-fix-level compulsion about the NBA, but in case you’re not similarly afflicted, don’t worry. It wasn’t sports as much as it was a two-hour advertorial for the armed forces.
Now, for the most part, Hoops for Troops, self-described on its official website as “a year-round initiative led by the NBA, its teams and players in collaboration with the Department of Defense, USO and other military and veteran serving organizations to honor active and retired service men and women and their families,” is doing good work. The organization offers free tickets to military families and other special events, clinics featuring Chris Mullin and more. For me, though, this television program is where they and/or ESPN crossed a line.
Jay Bilas, Fran Fraschilla and others were on the sidelines to call the action, but aside from standard-brand chatter about the roster’s composition for the upcoming FIBA Basketball World Cup, there wasn’t a whole lot to say about Anthony Davis half ass-ing a layup drill or a scrimmage that had all the excitement and intensity of a John Crotty highlight reel. So, for the bulk of the broadcast, they filled time by selling us — the viewer — on the military, declaring that it was the greatest profession and/or act of service that one could ever aspire to. Bilas even announced, “You really want to get a dose of Americana, you come to the U.S. Military Academy.”
A resting Derrick Rose sat down with the ESPN team and kvelled about how much he loved the discipline that was being taught at the academy, before practically turning to the camera and telling all the kids at home, “And that’s going to help you later in life.”
It was made patently clear that bringing the team to West Point would have a direct, measurable impact on how they’ll do in the FIBA World Championships. This was, “an experience they’ll never forget,” and a trip to the cemetery was part and parcel of coming to “understand what service is all about,” as if choosing to suit up for USA Basketball team was in some way equivalent to putting one’s life on the line.
Later, Bilas and Fraschilla highlighted the military’s ability to adapt to difficult circumstances within combat situations, and used it as the perfect jumping-off point for a conversation/debate about how the team will cope with the loss of Kevin Durant and Paul George.
An actual General then dropped by the booth to chat, and barked, “West Point is all about winning and putting together winning teams.” Before I could point out that America actually has “lost” a couple of times over the last 40-odd years, (and I’m paraphrasing here because I was starting to sputter and seethe and missed his exact quote) he mused, “Maybe that will spill on to Team USA.”
Finally, if the theme wasn’t already crystal clear, Coach K (an Academy alum) grabbed the mic to address the cadets in attendance, declaring, “We feel the best team in the world is the United States military, and we want to be the best basketball team.”
No. No, no, by all that is holy and good, no.
The United States military is not a team. We don’t buy tickets and “root” for them they way we do for the Lakers or the Celtics. By conflating them, we fail to distinguish between meaningless basketball games — even ones that are played by the U.S. National Team — and war, and that does a incredible disservice to those who are tasked with fighting on our behalf.
None of this even speaks to all the things that were not mentioned during the broadcast, which was essentially one long infomercial for the armed forces: the completely unacceptable number of sexual assault cases, the epidemic of suicides by servicemen and women upon returning home, and the abhorrent conditions at the VA. And that’s before we go anywhere near the always polarizing question(s) of where and when and why our military is being or has been deployed.
It’s ridiculous that I need to say this,
but war is not sports, and sports are not war.
To be clear, I’m no pie-in-the-sky, utopian doof prone to handing out flowers and flyers on the meridian while babbling about giving peace a chance. It’s a dangerous planet, and as such, America needs the armed forces. Period. But it’s for that exact reason that I think the military should never, ever be the object of fandom.
If we were to blindly pick up what the broadcast of that hoops exhibition was putting down, it’s a tacit agreement that right now, the military and military’s actions are so intertwined with civilian life that it’s totally acceptable that they be utilized to up the brand value of freaking game.
If we don’t question their presence, or our patriotism is oppugned when we do, well, that’s a very frightening, simplistic, fan-like guide to how one should behave as an American. A fan doesn’t raise a stink, for example, when the local police force in Ferguson, Missouri has been armed to the teeth. A fan of Team America (as opposed to a citizen) would nod along enthusiastically to the idea that, “I’m a cop. If you don’t want to get hurt, don’t challenge me.”
There’s a quote that’s been attributed to everyone from Mao Zedong to Toni Morrison, which says there’s no such thing as art for art’s sake, or art that is detached from or independent of politics. I’ll take it a step further: All sports are political. You can choose to ignore the larger implications if you like (and that’s often necessary to maintain one’s sanity), but they’re there.
Sometimes it’s as obvious as the U.S. hoops team grabbing pompoms and cheerleading for the military. And sometimes it requires that you notice the hypocrisy of Roger Goodell accepting the ice bucket challenge — yes, for a dandy cause — while he’s refused to even acknowledge those that have cited the connection between ALS and, you know, playing professional football.
There are those who would like it very much if you were not aware of this fact, mainly because the NFL profits greatly from that ignorance or ‘choice.’
So until the day comes in which we can build a Maginot Line between Sportsball and the rest of existence (Spoiler alert: we can’t), feel free to have USA Basketball perform for the troops, but don’t televise it.
Don’t have the Blue Angels do flyovers before football games.
Don’t unfurl 100-yard versions of Ol’ Glory across the field before the Super Bowl.
Don’t eject a fan for taking a leak during the singing of God Bless America during the seventh inning, blackball Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf for a simple protest, or tar and feather Carlos Delgado for the same. Heck, let’s do away with anthems altogether. America is a complex, often-contradictory place. It’s not necessary to declare your allegiance to it — to all of it — just because you might want to watch, let alone play, a game.
Don’t bedeck the Mets, the Padres or the Spurs or any other number of squads in camouflage. Dressing up for G.I. Joe cosplay doesn’t make Daniel Murphy into a grunt, regardless of how many ducats from the sale of said items are donated to charity.
So, yeah, if you still want me to “stick to sports,” that’s totally fine. I really wish I could. But Sports has to stick to Sports first. And they really, really should.