NFL Getting Away From Use of Military Metaphors to Describe Football

The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds fly over Raymond James Stadium during rehearsals for the Super Bowl in Tampa.
The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds fly over Raymond James Stadium during rehearsals for the Super Bowl in Tampa. (By Charlie Riedel -- Associated Press)
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By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 1, 2009

TAMPA -- Just down Dale Mabry Highway, eight miles south of the site of this year's Super Bowl, sits the headquarters of the U.S. Central Command. There, inside the boundaries of MacDill Air Force Base, is where America's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are run. And it would seem to be the perfect metaphor for a sport built on the lexicon and culture of the military: football's ultimate battle being waged in the shadow of the country's two armed conflicts.

Only the National Football League will not frame this Super Bowl as a war. The quarterbacks will not be depicted as field generals and the teams won't rely on a devastating ground attack. The players will not walk through the tunnel as gladiators, the coaches will not talk about imposing their will on the enemy.

In a little-discussed shift in recent years, the NFL has moved away from depicting its games in military terms. While the league continues to embrace the military as an entity, inviting Gen. David H. Petraeus, the head of Central Command, to make the Super Bowl's opening coin toss and having the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds perform a pregame flyover at Raymond James Stadium, the NFL no longer endorses using military terminology to describe its contests.

It is inappropriate, league officials say, to do so at a time when American forces are fighting two wars halfway around the globe.

"It's a matter of common sense," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said as he stood outside the stadium the other day.

The same is true at NFL Films, an arm of the league that perpetuated for decades the image of football as controlled warfare by producing movies glorifying the game's violence with phrases like "linebacker search and destroy." In recent years the company's president, Steve Sabol, ordered all allusions to war be removed from its new films.

"I don't think you will ever see those references coming back," he said. "They won't be back in our scripts, certainly not in my lifetime."

The sport that once saw itself as the closest thing in athletics to the military no longer holds to this once-cherished notion.

"We're not going to fight no war, man," Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Nick Eason said during pregame festivities this past week before his team's clash tonight with the Arizona Cardinals. A direct contrast to Bernie Parrish, who played cornerback for the Cleveland Browns in the 1960s and said in a hotel lobby here: "We wanted to kill each other. It was mortal combat. We were warriors."

No one in the NFL is quite certain when the notion changed. Perhaps it came in 2003, when University of Miami tight end Kellen Winslow angered many people by proclaiming "I'm a [expletive] soldier" to explain why he stood tauntingly over an injured opponent. Or maybe it was the following spring, when former Cardinals safety Pat Tillman, who left a lucrative NFL career after Sept. 11, 2001, to join the U.S. Army Rangers, was killed in Afghanistan by friendly fire.

Now that Arizona, previously best known as the team for which Tillman played, is in the Super Bowl for the first time, the talk has long stopped being about wars and battles. Players don't wear fatigues to news conferences as some did in earlier decades. Instead the game is cast in athletic terms as it would be in other sports, with coaches and players talking about matchups and speed and not in the militaristic hyperbole of previous generations.

Or as Jim Cantelupe, the captain of the 1995 Army football team who played briefly for the Chicago Bears and now offers financial advice to NFL players, said: "They don't view it as war. They want to win, but it's their job. A football game is a battle between two teams, but you don't die."

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