Where does the NFL end and the U.S. military begin? These days, it can be hard to tell.
From the military-stylized fanfare that goes into an NFL broadcast to the warfare terminology that permeates the very essence of the game, the NFL has become a primary touchpoint for many Americans when it comes to our armed forces.
This connection did not happen by accident but has evolved into something much bigger and much greater than was likely ever intended.
The league and its partners have doubled down on that connection and have become incredible partners for the military and support its mission both home and abroad. This, in turn, helps the NFL and its partners as well. Patriotism is good for business, and nothing is more patriotic than supporting our troops—especially when they are overseas at wartime.
Today, the connection seems natural, but the story from where it began to what it has become has a lot of twists and turns along the way—from ham-handed exploits to an incredible source of good to the men and women who need it most.
There's No Denying the NFL Is Woven into American Patriotism
Tune in to any NFL contest, and the scene begins with military personnel—usually holding a giant-sized American flag or multiple smaller flags. Sometimes, those men and women in uniform are flanking a pop singer belting out our country's national anthem; other times they're singing it themselves.
Cue the flyover by military jets, and let's play ball.
This scene, so common to our football-watching eyes in 2014, doesn't always happen elsewhere—at least not to the degree that we've become accustomed to. The NFL, as America's sport, has found itself the standard-bearer for what many of us experience as patriotism.
None of this was by accident, as Ira Berkow wrote for The New York Times back in 1991:
"We've become the winter version of the Fourth of July celebration," said the commissioner of the NFL, Paul Tagliabue, in response to a question Friday at his annual news conference, known as the football equivalent of the State of the Union message.
"It was a conscious effort on our part to bring the element of patriotism into the Super Bowl," Pete Rozelle, the former NFL commissioner, said yesterday, about past Super Bowls.
Later on, Berkow would retell a story about the 1981 Super Bowl when the NFL (during the Iran hostage crisis) wrapped the entire Superdome in one giant-sized yellow ribbon. The league handed out smaller ribbons at halftime to facilitate the singing of "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree," a song about loved ones coming home that has long been synonymous with bringing those loved ones home during times of crisis.
What was once a crass spectacle has become the norm.
In 2009, the NFL Fox Sunday crew traveled en masse to do its pregame show from Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan. The guys wore uniforms symbolizing the different branches of the military and did features focused on everyday military life on the base as well as those soldiers as the real heroes we should be celebrating.
The most notable piece of that broadcast, though, is how it didn't even feel remotely out of place. Today, we see constant reminders that our troops are watching the game overseas, that they come home and are given heroes' welcomes by their local teams, and that the NFL works tirelessly with both active servicemen and women as well as veterans.
Even the game is, by definition, American.
It is American football—distinguished from that "lowly soccer thing" in many American minds by the fact that it's born and bred in the good ol' U.S. of A. Countries like Canada may dabble in football. Countries like Australia may have aberrations of the same, but everyone knows where the seat of football power is.
Baseball, once America's pastime, has gone global. It's still quintessentially American but now exists in the broader context of the Central, South and Latin Americas in addition to the United States. Basketball, invented here, is becoming an integral part of the culture in many countries like Spain, Lithuania, China and Argentina.
The NFL has no such shared ownership of the game.
Sportswriting great Frank Deford captured this concept with the help of comedy legend George Carlin in a column for Sports Illustrated titled: "Baseball or Football? We Can Reflect, but There Is One Answer":
Of course, all sorts of treatises have been written comparing the two sports, but none has been so brilliant as the comic routine that the late George Carlin developed, in which he described baseball as a "nineteenth century pastoral game" and football as a "twentieth century technological struggle"...as he went on to contrast the two, using a harsh, gruff voice for the gridiron—"in football you wear a helmet"—and a sweet, near-falsetto for the diamond: "in baseball you wear a cap."
Deford also contrasted a 1954 quote from historian Jacques Barzun to today's reality. Whereas Barzun once wrote, "Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball," Deford correctly pointed out that football has taken that seat of responsibility from its predecessor.
Hot dogs, apple pies, cold beer, Chevrolet...football, America.
With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility
The NFL is not ignorant of this fact.
I spoke to Anna Isaacson, the NFL's vice president of community relations and philanthropy, who said that the NFL is both cognizant and blessed to have a platform within the "fabric of our culture" that reaches millions of people.
"It is a great responsibility," Isaacson said. "We are more than just our games on Sundays."
To some extent, every major corporation like the NFL has some sort of moral imperative to do good within the communities that support the business. (Of course, whether those companies listen to the imperative is another matter entirely.)
How much more so for the NFL, which has ingrained itself into the everyman culture of America while simultaneously making billions and billions of dollars in the process?
The NFL does not shirk this responsibility or take it lightly.
Around the country, but especially in NFL cities, the league does work with countless organizations, giving back to communities in various ways. For almost 50 years, Isaacson explains, the NFL has also supported the U.S. military.
Think about that time frame, and then realize the statement is bigger than it sounds.
In the late 1960s and early '70s, supporting the U.S. military wasn't always a black-and-white proposition like it is today. In fact, public opinion on the matter was far more split. Fast-forward to today, and we can all generally agree that our troops are worth supporting even if we don't necessarily agree with what they were sent to do. But that nuance wasn't always available during Vietnam.
Yet there was the NFL—thanks to Commissioner Pete Rozelle—sending players overseas to Vietnam and supporting bases in the campaign. Johnny Unitas, Bart Starr, Gene Upshaw, Frank Gifford, Dick Butkus—giants of the game—all supporting our troops when it wasn't the popular thing to do.
The United Service Organizations (USO) is best known for supporting our troops overseas and helping connect them to their lives back home. Comedian Bob Hope became synonymous with the organization for much of his life and seemingly made his personal life's work the same as that of the USO's stated mission: "The USO lifts the spirits of America's troops and their families."
Alongside the USO, the NFL has done much of the same. Isaacson called the USO one of the NFL's biggest partnerships and said that it is important to "give back to the military that are overseas and really distract them from the realities over there...entertain the troops, make them think back to their homes, bring a little bit of the U.S.—the NFL—over there."
Isaacson also said it is very important the NFL's games continue to be shown on the Armed Forces Network: "The feedback that we’ve received from those that get to watch our games is amazing. Feeling connected back to family and friends is really important for their welfare and their well-being."
Sgt. Benjamin Stellick of the United States Marine Corps, a lifelong Green Bay Packers fan, agrees. Almost echoing Isaacson, Stellick said, "I probably watched more games over there than I did stateside, because it became something else to distract me."
He described how the games would be played over and over so that those who were out in the field could return and take part. There was also an unwritten rule against talking about the outcome of the games, so no one could spoil it for anyone else.
Arriving at Bagram about a year after the Fox Network crew, Stellick spent a few years there, including one stint that started just as the NFL playoffs were ramping up.
In 2010, early one morning, Stellick was on sentry duty and was one of the first responders to an insurgent attack on the north side of the airfield. He took shrapnel from an explosion along with a gunshot wound, later waking up in Germany and eventually receiving a Purple Heart for his service.
He returned to Bagram once he was able.
Asked about the importance of that connection back home, Stellick simply responded "extremely" and gave a long pause before continuing, "You don’t know what's going on [back home], so your mind starts to wander and worry."
Even as Sgt. Stellick admitted the importance of the NFL's presence overseas, Isaacson said the league makes a clear distinction between heroes like Stellick and the NFL's athletes: "We understand that there is a clear difference between football and war."
Asked about how seriously the NFL takes its responsibility to the armed forces, Isaacson replied, "We feel it. We feel that to the core. It shapes the decisions we make."
Yeah...But the NFL Is a Business, and Patriotism Is Always Good for Business
Lest this turn into a blatant advertisement for the league, let's remember there are pretty clear benefits to the ways in which it has found itself connected to the military.
Berkow of The New York Times, as he recounted that aforementioned tale of the NFL and its yellow ribbons, used the phrase "wrapping itself in the flag" to make the point that the NFL intentionally sought to be seen as quintessentially American as it also fought for legitimacy and primacy in the American sports scene. Later, in the same column, he would write:
Many other sports use a patriotic motif to sell their products, in contrast to other entertainments (if anyone stood up to sing the national anthem before a movie or a play or a ballet, he'd be hauled out of there by security before he could finish three bars), but no sports outfit has done it quite as blatantly or successfully as the NFL.
Over a decade after Berkow, SB Nation's Matt Ufford had similar sentiments, telling me, "It feels as if the NFL uses the military as a prop to make the fans feel better about America and then by extension the NFL."
Ufford is not just a talking head on this matter. He, along with his fellow Marines, entered Iraq in the initial invasion and helped topple Saddam Hussein's regime. As he explained his experience, there were no USO shows or football games. He lived in his tank—"no safe bases with high walls."
He continued: "I would be heartened so much more by the NFL’s connection to the military if what I saw from the NFL wasn’t just flyovers and soldiers holding the edges of the 80-yard flag."
Of course, we know that the NFL does more than just that, but Ufford—now one of the Internet's most popular and visible NFL bloggers—is tapped into what the NFL projects as its image. The thing about public relations, you see, is that they are intentionally public, and the NFL receives benefits from the service it provides.
"I don't think cynicism is the right word," Ufford said. "I think I'm being realistic. The problems that veterans face are very real in America today—suicide, marital problems, unemployment—and even in the military too. The hardships foisted upon the soldiers and the stresses that those create for families...
"When all we see is soldiers—with all of their limbs; in their dress alphas—with F-18s roaring overhead, that's not an accurate picture of the military."
Tracing the history of all of this, it seems that the fork in the road for the NFL and patriotism began around the same time that Ufford headed to Iraq. In post-9/11 America, the NFL's blatant, supersized patriotism wasn't new, but it certainly seemed newly inauthentic.
Slate's Michael Oriard wrote the following in 2009:
With his late '60s Super Bowls, Pete Rozelle aligned the NFL with one side of a political and generational divide. With the tremendous increases in TV revenues since the 1990s, today's NFL cannot afford to offend half of its potential audience in order to please the other half. Patriotic displays will continue, but in forms like Fox's NFL pregame show, calculated to unite rather than divide.
That's where the biggest difference between the NFL's style of patriotism and its detractors' issues meet head on. No one has a problem with the NFL being patriotic. It's the homogenized, "one size fits all" brand of sterilized patriotism that rubs people the wrong way.
It's a corporate brand of patriotism that finds its way into all walks of life and into the NFL's broadcast and corporate partners. It's the kind of patriotism that gets warped into needing to wear lapel pins at all times—not as a choice, but by mandate—as the CBS NFL broadcast crew decided to do after 9/11.
In 2013—12 years later!—Erik Wemple of The Washington Post wrote about CBS' staunch observance of the accessory:
What started out as a symbolic gesture in light of a national crisis has ground into a humdrum exercise that attempts to attach patriotic feeling to NFL Week 5. With each display of the pins, a decision to return to normalcy, a decision to preserve the symbolism, becomes harder to make. And just what would the broadcasters do if we suffer another attack like Sept. 11?
The patriotism and good intentions of the people at CBS Sports are matters of longstanding record. They just happen to be confronting a law of physics: Overexposure blunts impact.
I'll take the narrative one step further than Wemple. Wearing a lapel pin might be a symbol of patriotism, yes, but I can think of a dozen things more patriotic than the couple of seconds it takes to remove a tiny bauble from one suit coat and pin it to another. However, I can think of nothing less patriotic than a mandate to do so.
Patriotism is a beautiful thing. Forced patriotism is a bastardization of the intended purpose.
This forced, homogenized form of patriotism is very much alive and well in the NFL, even while the people working for the league may have a very pure style of it themselves. Think about it: What would happen if an NFL game started without "The Star-Spangled Banner"?
People would be angry, and that anger would be well-founded!
Now think what would happen if that wasn't the norm. Think what would happen if we lived in a world where NFL events (even the NFL draft) didn't always begin with a nod to Francis Scott Key or include our military personnel.
When it did happen, it would be huge; it would be memorable. It wouldn't be an excuse to get up from the couch and go hit the bathroom or the fridge one last time, and it wouldn't draw cynicism or a style of hushed clapping usually reserved for the golf course.
Overexposure blunts impact.
No one—I repeat, no one...not one of us—is saying the NFL should strive to be less patriotic. The point here is that it is blind and misguided to forget that there is a reason the NFL maintains the consistent Johnny Tremain-style drumbeat of sterilized patriotism that we have come to know and expect.
It's good for business.
Patriotic may very well be one of the first words someone would use to describe the NFL, but beyond descriptors, the NFL is a money-making enterprise, and business is good.
For Active Military, Veterans and Their Families, NFL's Benefit from Service Doesn't Matter
Here's the interesting thing about the very real fact that the NFL derives benefits from the connection it has fostered between itself and the U.S. military: For the U.S. military, it doesn't matter!
There is real value in Ufford's point about the NFL's showcase of the military being different from the real military and the people who serve and have served. Ufford, of all people, knows what war is really like in combat fatigues rather than just dress alphas.
Still, for the real men and women who serve and have served, the NFL has become a powerful force for good. That doesn't change just because the NFL has also insulated itself from criticism by being "American" at every turn.
At the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, the NFL has partnered with the USO to create the "NFL Sports Lounge" as part of its continued partnership with Operation Enduring Care. At the lounge, wounded veterans will have a place to both relax and have fun (with each other and their families).
A USO press release from Eric Brandner describes the space:
At 900 square feet, the USO envisions the NFL Sports Lounge as a community recreation hub. Outfitted with four flat-panel televisions on the walls, a poker table and multiple video-gaming stations, it’s where troops will naturally congregate to both compete and kick back. ...
... The goal is for the center to provide every opportunity possible to recovering service members and their families and caregivers on the Bethesda campus as they plan their futures. Not only will they be able to relax and unwind in the sports lounge, but they have opportunities to take classes in the fully wired classroom and business center. In addition, the center also has quiet spaces like the studio and healing gardens where wounded warriors can participate in therapy sessions or just enjoy a moment of solitude.
It's those sorts of soul- and psyche-healing moments that the NFL and USO want to create at this new center. It's not a project that is going to get publicized every game day or constantly on NFL Network, but it's a huge project—quietly done—that serves the inner responsibility Isaacson said drives many of the NFL's actions.
Isaacson also pointed to the NFL's connection to the veterans group, Wounded Warrior Project, which is a nonprofit organization that works to improve the lives and livelihood of those veterans wounded overseas. According to the NFL's press release:
Funds raised through this year's Salute to Service campaign will help launch numerous Wounded Warrior Physical Health and Wellness Expos throughout the country. These expos will provide attendees with ways to break down barriers that prevent living a healthy and active lifestyle. The overall goal of the Physical Health and Wellness program is to create independence over dependence and teach warriors skills they can take back to their communities. Participants in the WWP Physical Health and Wellness Expos will be encouraged to live healthier and will be given the tools to do so long after the event.
In many ways, that's the kind of service that Ufford asked to see as he spoke to me. On one hand, it's easy to laud the NFL (as I did above) for doing that kind of work without trumpeting its own actions on every possible avenue.
Ufford's point holds true as well: The NFL could do a lot of good by showcasing that the military and those who serve are a lot more gritty and real than the pomp and circumstance we usually see.
To find more that the league does that might be behind the scenes, I asked Isaacson about any roles the NFL might take against the plight of veteran unemployment. As recently as March, a Bureau of Labor Statistics survey pegged the rate of unemployment among veterans as 6.6 percent—right at about the national average.
However, that survey also breaks the veterans group down by war era, and those who served in the second Gulf War era are unemployed at a rate of over 10 percent, according to 2013 data. These are young men and women, mostly between the ages of 25 and 34, who are coming home to a market they risked their lives to protect which now simply has no room for them.
The NFL, Isaacson reported, has no specific program to hire veterans but does have a partnership with the Army's "Training With Industry" program where two active servicemen or women spend 12 months in the NFL office for on-the-job training. The league has also included veterans in its broader recruitment practices.
The United Services Automobile Association (USAA) is also named as the "Official Military Appreciation Sponsor." So, when the USAA runs commercials during NFL events, that airtime is donated. A small token, perhaps, but one that the league could certainly turn around tomorrow and quit. It keeps donating that airtime, however, in order to further its connection to the military and its veterans.
I'm not sure I would be alone in saying the NFL could do more.
I also don't think I should be alone in saying we should all do more.
If asked to define patriotism, I wouldn't use the compelled, sterilized version of patriotism we tend to see on NFL Sundays—little more, at times, than spiritless flag-waving. Maybe that pomp and circumstance is part of it, but it's only a part...certainly not the whole.
No, instead I would simply use the great American ideal of seeing a problem and doing what is within my power to fix it. It's that ideal that has joined this country together at countless times through our relatively young history, and it is never more needed than when it applies to the self-sacrificing men and women of our military.
That form of patriotism is, at its core, what drove most of these men and women into military service in the first place, and it is the only form of patriotism with which they can truly be repaid.
Over the past 50 years, we've seen the NFL's patriotism evolve from a crass and singularly selfish enterprise—mostly concerned with growing the spectacle of the game—into a service which may receive ancillary benefits but also truly does good in its relationship with our military.
This Memorial Day, and always, as we remember our fallen servicemen and women along with the NFL's rich and checkered history in partnership with the military, the best and brightest hope can only be that the league continues and expands its work and mission, enabling it more and more to give back to those who fight for the freedom and safety to play those games on Sunday afternoons.