NFL Orders Retreat From War Metaphors
Goodell: 'A Matter of Common Sense'

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."

The connections between football and the military stretch back to the beginning of the 20th century, when men like Yale Coach Walter Camp and Harvard's Percy Haughton leafed through military texts for clues as to how they might motivate large groups of men on the field. Soon the game thrived at the country's military academies.

Not long after World War I, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, while superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, wrote the lines: "Upon the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that upon other fields, on other days will bear the fruits of victory." And in the 1960s, when Vince Lombardi began to win NFL championships with the Green Bay Packers, his philosophies about control and discipline -- sowed in his five years as an assistant coach at Army -- became a part of popular culture.

Back then, football was more simplistic. Game plans were built on running plays that involved offensive and defensive linemen engaging in the kind of hand-to-hand combat employed in wars for centuries. The violence fascinated people, especially in a post-World War II society when the game seemed so much like a slow battle for territory, just like in the fields of war.

Through the peacetime years of the late 1970s, '80s and most of the '90s, the militaristic comparisons were easy to draw. War was football and football was war.

But after 9/11, the old correlations started to disappear.

"They were basically cliches anyway," Sabol said. "Just like you would hear coaches say, 'That's a guy I want to be in a foxhole with,' they've never been in a foxhole and they're trying to articulate that to a player who has no idea what a foxhole is."

In many ways, the game also advanced past the old notions of war. Defenses grew faster and more sophisticated. The idea of asking linemen to bull forward and block for running backs plowing downfield behind them was futile. The coaches schooled in another era when toughness was all that mattered were replaced by men who designed beautiful offenses and ran practices that were more cerebral than tests of human endurance.

Throwing the ball mattered more. Teams didn't run as much. The game less resembled two armies fighting to see who could control patches of turf on a giant field. Offenses grew, too, expanding to counter the complexity of the new defenses. With the added passing came more scoring, and soon little of the game resembled the sport that first captured the nation.

"It's not so much of a frontal attack anymore. You're lobbing artillery over the lines," said Steelers offensive line coach Larry Zierlein, a former Marine who fought in Vietnam. "You're not seeing fighting like World War I or World War II. It's almost like guerrilla warfare."

All of which has an ironic parallel to the evolution of how the military fights wars. The two world wars last century were fought largely by massive ground forces that arrayed themselves across the landscape in set-piece clashes with the enemy. This has given way to conflicts marked by smaller battles that rely on fewer soldiers, armed with high-tech equipment. Rather than land campaigns fought by thousands, the wars that toppled the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq relied heavily on highly trained special forces on the ground and precision-guided weaponry fired from the air.

Warfare nowadays is sometimes likened more to soccer -- a game that values individuality and improvisation -- than to football.

"Classical warfare involved battles between two formal mass armies that met on a particular battlefield and clashed, and there was a winner and a loser and the winner got to keep the territory," said Michael Mandelbaum, a foreign policy professor at Johns Hopkins University and the author of "The Meaning of Sports." "That was true from the Peloponnesian Wars to World War II. The basic unit of war was a battle. Now conflict has become more scattered."

Military leaders acknowledge the change in tactics. They agree that technology is more complex and weapons are far more sophisticated. But some disagree with the notion that fighting is significantly different now than it was 30 years ago, and therefore also disagree that the comparisons between football and war are significantly different than they were when the first correlations were made generations ago.

"The U.S. to one degree or another has been trying to make war distant and impersonal," said retired Lt. Gen. John F. Goodman, who played briefly for the New Orleans Saints. "The passing attack [in football] is a little more impersonal. . . . But even if you are making it impersonal, the point is still this is war and you are trying to impose your will on your enemy."

"While some of our approaches and methods have changed in combat, the basics never change, dedication, professionalism, physical and mental toughness, courage and teamwork," Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the U.S. commander in Iraq who played football at Army, said in an e-mail. "These hold true today as much as they did in World War II and throughout our history. Operations are conducted by teams -- and teams within teams. In that sense the link to team sports holds. Everyone on the team matters and all must contribute to their mission and each other."

From his office in suburban Philadelphia, Sabol considered the thought and agreed. Yes, it no longer seems appropriate to use war references in his films, certainly not while the country is fighting two wars. But even as those old phrases appear dated, relics from a time when the Cold War lingered and memories of World War II were still fresh, that doesn't mean they are any less applicable, he said.

Just like the generals who say the basics of war have not changed even as the settings, weapons and terminology have, Sabol still sees a game that remains the essence of what it always was -- no matter what new innovations have come along.

"The game hasn't changed," he said by phone. "Maybe it is more intellectual, but I still say it's physical combat. That hasn't changed. A big part of this game is to get the players into that emotional pitch that they can sustain for three hours for every snap of the ball to physically defeat the man in front of them. The team that does that on Sunday is the team that's going to win."

Just don't expect NFL Films to say that team marched through its vanquished opponent like a conquering army.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company