Arts & Entertainment » Sports

Profiting from patriotism



War, terrorism, and catastrophic events are good for the US sports business.

            The industry willingly serves as the diversion to destruction and willingly supports any military campaign. But criticizing those marketing approaches would be un-American. Consequently, the industry can infallibly promote itself without fear of backlash. There apparently can never be enough patriotism.

            US Army Ranger and Cardinals safety Pat Tillman sadly died last week in Afghanistan. Sen. George Allen, R-Virginia, suggests the NFL dedicate the 2004 season to Tillman and other US soldiers. NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue says the league "will definitely do something."

            Tillman sacrificed himself, which deserves tribute, but I suspect the NFL would honor him partly because it's good for business. I already see the league posturing in Tagliabue's written statement, "Pat personified the best values of America and of the National Football League."

            He had to mention the National Football League. It's not enough to say Tillman possessed the best values of America. After Tagliabue read his statement at the 2004 NFL Draft on Saturday, fans broke into a "U-S-A, U-S-A" chant, as if America beat Iraq and Afghanistan like the Patriots beat the Panthers in the Super Bowl.

Sports and patriotism are obviously, even absurdly, intertwined. A US president needing public support for a military action should first meet with various sports commissioners instead of his own cabinet. The commissioners represent millions of loyal Americans, many of whom outwardly believe wars are fought to protect their freedom as, among other things, sports fans.

            It's a win-win situation: The president drums up support and the leagues have themselves a built-in, hard-to-criticize marketing campaign.

            Teams exploit opportunity to win, so naturally they exploit opportunity in order to promote themselves. They can't tell the difference between exploiting and marketing. Athletes who win ugly often say, "All that matters is that we won. A win is a win." That applies to sports marketing: It doesn't matter how, it just matters how many people show up. The bottom line counts, the style doesn't.

            The most egregious example of exploiting patriotism occurred in 2002. Shortly after September 11, the NFL and Fox TV changed the Super Bowl XXXVI theme to "Hope, Heroes, and Homeland." The league promptly even redesigned its Super Bowl logo in the shape of the continental US, colorfully painted like a flag. It did that despite the US Code explicitly stating in Title 4, Chapter 1, Section 8 that "the flag should never be used for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever."

            Players wore US flag decals on the back of their helmets, despite the code explicitly stating, "No part of the flag should ever be used as a costume or athletic uniform. However, a flag patch may be affixed to the uniform of military personnel, firemen, policemen, and members of patriotic organizations."

Sports have become a diversion from whatever is ailing the country. When an assassin killed President Kennedy in the fall of 1963, the National Football League played its games two days later amid questions about whether it should have postponed out of respect for a grieving America. Kennedy's press secretary, Pierre Salinger, consulted with the Kennedy family then told NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle that Kennedy would have wanted the games played.

            It's reasoned that the games need to be played --- and as soon as possible --- to momentarily divert our attention from the pain and to avoid showing signs of weakness; or in the case of the 2001 terrorist attacks, to avoid showing that the terrorists had won.

            Like most sports, the NFL postponed its games that week. It came back the next Sunday, with extraordinary displays of patriotism during pre-game stadium ceremonies. The league's network partners created pre- and post-game shows around the groundswell. The American military's Afghanistan counterattack, conveniently launched about 30 minutes before kickoff, aided the effort.

            Everyone felt proud to be an American that day. The sports industry paid attention. Now it's going overboard, but doesn't care. It'll continue exploiting patriotism for its own financial gain.

            Only a traitor would object.

Add a comment