Sign of the Times: Sports and War

On this twelfth anniversary of 9/11, it’s hard to ignore the way that sports has been militarized. And it’s relevance is no more clear than now, as the US government considers war with yet another Middle East nation. Competition and sports lends itself to analogies to war and battle, this nothing new and well documented. If you grew up watching football as a kid like I did (go Raiders!), you’d find this Hank Williams music video familiar:

Yes, that really is fighter jets swooping in and firing electric bolts at famous US landmarks. Point is, you don’t have to dig very far to see sports deployed in service of glorifying the military. For example, last Memorial Day, the MLB debuted these tacky desert camouflage styled team hats to honor fallen soldiers. The hats are brown, presumably to reflect America’s past, present and future military quagmires in the Middle East. I’m guessing the green-shaded camo is a little too retro and suggestive of unpopular and losing conflicts in Southeast Asia. Just sayin’.

Ugly Hats

Ugly hats

Timely to this conversation, Salon.com had a great article on competitive workout program/cult(???) CrossFit and militarism. Based on our own conversations at Picked Last, we think CrossFit’s got some potential since it’s a super supportive workout community that seems to beat going to your regular local chain-gym meat market. Yet it also “honors” fallen soldiers by naming workout routines after them and workouts have an eerie similarity to boot camp. It’s also got a pro-military streak that reflects the current moment, noted in Salon.com:

What does a new sport tell us about America’s culture of sports? It’s not lost on me that the rise of CrossFit coincides with the War on Terror, and that neither of them have a foreseeable end. Almost twelve years of war can’t help but transform us as a people, not only in obvious ways, such as whom we elect and how we travel, but also in ways that might surprise us. In the rise, for example, of gated communities, gun sales (2012 was a record year), and those “survivor” narratives that litter reality TV shows, disaster films, cancer testimonies, and sermons about the end of days… I don’t think it’s overblown to claim that, as the citizens of a country involved in an ongoing global war, we’ve changed—are changing—because of it, perhaps in ways as seemingly tangential as how and why we workout.

Forgive me as I take a nerd detour to make my point: Today’s biggest video game is the Call of Duty military shooter franchise, (a subgenre necessary to differentiate itself from sci-fi shooters, open-world shooters, and survival-horror shooters). It’s a franchise so big, that it has it’s own lobbying arm to defend its interests. Call of Duty is a special interest group! For half a decade, the iconic video game character is Faceless Gunman (aka You):

E3 2010 Call of Duty Black Ops banner

Pop Culture Geek, on Flickr

Twelve years ago the top selling game was about stealing cars and selling drugs. From 2009-2012 (four years running) the top selling game in the US was a Call of Duty franchise game. In 2001 military shooters wasn’t even a gaming subgenre yet, the only game of note was Counter-Strike (coincidentally, a competitive shooter game featuring balaclava-clad terrorists and SWAT/military types). Shit, that game was free.

Games are militarized, and war itself becomes a game. There’s no better example than this story about Prince Harry’s military service in Afghanistan:

In an interview with a documentary film crew earlier this year, Harry compared piloting a military helicopter to playing video games.

“It’s a joy for me because I’m one of those people who loves playing PlayStation and Xbox,” the 28-year-old said. “So with my thumbs I like to think I’m probably quite useful.”

Apparently, introductory helicopter training is available for $60 at GameStop.

If the culture of sports reflects the militarization of popular culture, then the policing of sports reflects the militarization of our playgrounds. Hot on the news that all of America and the whole internet is under NSA surveillance, it’s no surprise that the police are using soccer and cricket organizations to spy on Arab and South Asian communities. Picked Last’s own Harjit was quoted in The Nation, saying (with some sarcasm):

Apparently the NYPD thinks people of South Asian descent getting together and enjoying cricket is a dangerous activity that needs monitoring. The NYPD actually compiled a helpful list for those of us who don’t know where to go to watch the matches while in New York in this vast profiling effort.

Arab and South Asian folks, and the community organizations who work in them are wising up, thankfully:

We have had a few youth join our organization that were participating in the cricket leagues. But as they met with other DRUM [Desis Rising Up and Moving] members and families that had been targeted by the NYPD spying programs, heard their stories, got involved in organizing for justice alongside them and withdrew from the NYPD-run programs.

Unfortunately for these young folks in NYC, if it’s not police harassment, then it’s bullying from other young people too. A recent survey by Asian American civil rights groups found half of Asian American students reported being bullied because of their race or religion.

Hands Off Syria

War. War never changes.

Given these trends, it’s nice to see voices in sports like tennis star Novak Djokovic, who last week spoke out strongly against military action in Syria, referencing his own experiences in Serbia:

“I’m totally against any kind of weapon, any kind of air strike, missile attack. I’m totally against anything that is destructive. Because I had this personal experience, I know it cannot bring any good to anybody

Those particular times that me and my fellow countrymen and colleagues from Serbia have been through is definitely, you know, a period of life that we don’t wish anybody to experience.

The war is the worst thing in life for humanity. Nobody really wins.”

So on this anniversary of 9/11, I’m appreciating that at the very least there is some hope of stopping missile strikes in Syria. I am warily hopeful that a military strike is postponed (but not off the table). Sign this petition, and if you don’t know, get yourself knowing.

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