Take Me Out to the War Game

August 16th, 2023 - by Dave Zirin / The Progressive

Can US Sports Be Delinked from
This Country’s Addiction to Militarism?
Dave Zirin / The Progressive

(August 13, 2023) — Can sports in the United States ever be delinked from this country’s addiction to militarism? How do we make sports less martial, less warlike, less steeped in the language of life and death? Could we ever lose the lexicon of calling great point guards “floor generals” or home runs “nukes”? Could the country’s most popular sport by a thousand miles — football — ever not be a game so dependent on explicitly violent verbiage and actions?

These questions present an almost unworkable challenge, a riddle similar to asking if it is possible to get sugar out of a cake once it’s in the oven. The historic fact is that as long as there have been organized sports in this country, there has been an effort to tie them to training its young (formerly just white, but this has proven malleable in that regard) men to dominate the globe and prepare for war.

Professional sports began in earnest at the turn of the twentieth century, when all the minders of sports saw the thirst in the body politic and swaths of society for an imperial, expansionist U.S. century ahead.

Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States quotes a Washington Post editorial published right before the Spanish-American War of 1898: “A new consciousness seems to have come upon us—the consciousness of strength—and with it a new appetite, the yearning to show our strength . . . . We are face-to-face with a strange destiny. The taste of Empire is in the mouth of the people even as the taste of blood in the jungle.”

Sports did more than adapt itself to the new United States of Militarism. Its overseers put themselves forward as promoters of this transformation. Sports would be marketed explicitly as a training ground to make the new generation tough and ready for the challenges ahead on the world stage.

Albert Spalding — of A.G. Spalding & Brothers sporting goods store, a critical figure in the professionalization of “the National Pastime” —said:
“Baseball, I repeat, is war! And the playing of the game is a battle in which every contestant is a commanding general, who, having a field of occupation, must defend it; who, having gained an advantage, must hold it by the employment of every faculty of his brain and body, by every resource of his mind and muscle.”

Spalding was a trailblazer in merging sports and the military, but he was far from alone. Future President Theodore Roosevelt believed that sports were critical for people to not become weak. In 1893, in a piece called “The Value of an Athletic Training,” Roosevelt wrote,
“In a perfectly peaceful and commercial civilization such as ours there is always a danger of laying too little stress upon the more virile virtues—upon the virtues which go to make up a race of statesmen and soldiers, of pioneers and explorers . . . . These are the very qualities which are fostered by vigorous manly out-of-door sports.”

Hell, the father of American football, Walter Camp, was brought into the U.S. military to teach fitness regimens.

Fast forward more than a century, and it is remarkable how little has changed. Fox News rails against “the wussification of football,” with its increased focus on player safety as a critical problem not just for the sport but for the nation as a whole.

You may notice how fifty-one years after the passage of Title IX (along with increased numbers of women in the military), women are shut out of this discussion. That reveals the reactionary nature of the project of merging militarism and sports. It’s not just about preparing people for the martial battles of the future. It’s about a yearning backward to a time when (white) men held sway in this country and in the world—all backed by the ever-present threat of violence.

Sports can exist without militarism, I promise. Games could, in fact, just be games, and fun can just be fun without any military detritus attaching itself to the joy like barnacles to a boat. But the act of detaching it is not something that can be done through wishful thinking. We need a mass peace movement that sees deprogramming of the country and its culture from a mindset of permanent war as a priority of the first order.

Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.

Football Versus Baseball / George Carlin