Football and the martial spirit always have been closely connected. However, they may have been too close for our emotional comfort at Super Bowl XXV.

With its helmets and violence, its danger and injury, its discipline and territorial strategy, football always has appropriated the vocabulary and emotions of battle. Warlike though a game may be, we shouldn't get carried away. No two things ought to be further apart than sport and war. On Sunday, however, they felt very close together -- thanks to the NFL's dubious decision to keep them in proximity.

We should be able to cheer for great football without feeling we are also cheering for a much-debated war. That was difficult in Tampa.

The NFL gave out 75,000 American flags at the gate and made countless pregame and halftime references to American troops in the Persian Gulf. The crowd even was informed that Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the allied forces commander, once had been stationed in Tampa. President Bush gave a brief war-related address at halftime on national TV.

The spirit that fine football inspires and glorifies -- courage and iron resolve in the face of danger and fear -- also is the spirit that many nations have embraced as they have gone off to war with flags waving and politicians propagandizing.

Many have gone to war invoking that esprit to strengthen their backbones and, perhaps, quiet their deep doubts. However, history records few examples of armies -- even victorious ones -- that returned from serious battles with any such adolescent view of combat.

Super Bowl XXV was good football. But it was childish politics. Is it the proper function of a pro sports league to use its access to mass television and its grip on young minds to turn a game into a pep rally for a controversial war? Regardless of your view on this particular conflict, isn't going into battle too serious a political and moral issue to be trivialized in this way?

On Sunday, the NFL did everything possible to ensure security at Tampa Stadium and to make a public show of American support for American troops in the Persian Gulf. Both of those were worthy objectives. But you can overdo anything -- even security and support.

The fences and bus barricades, the metal detectors and patdowns at Tampa Stadium may have been as indicative of the NFL's own sense of self-importance as they were of concern for Saddam's generalized threats of terrorism.

No airport or public building in the United States has anything approaching the degree of security the NFL imposed on its showcase. Neither the U.S. Capitol nor the White House is surrounded by such conspicuous defense.

By game time, fans and media who had arrived with apprehension were joking about the possibility -- or rather the impossibility -- of anybody penetrating such a flamboyant display of self-defense.

Since war broke out, countless college and professional sports events have been held without such measures.

Why is the NFL's championship different? Partly because the Super Bowl is conducted on an entirely different scale -- with hundreds of millions of viewers worldwide. It would have been a dramatic terrorist bomb target, although, in all probability, an unwise one. If terrorists had somehow harmed innocent fans at a ballgame, that tragedy would have become a rallying cry for this nation on the order of "Remember the Alamo."

It's a nagging but persistent thought that the NFL took such pains because it has an exaggerated view of its place in society. Last Friday, Commissioner Paul Tagliabue compared the game to a winter Fourth of July, thus paralleling the celebration of American independence with his football game.

On Sunday, the NFL was protecting its fans, to be sure. But by resorting to such unprecedented measures -- especially in the absence of any specific threat of Super Bowl violence -- the league created the impression it would spare no expense in protecting its rich investment, as well.

When Tagliabue was asked whether the Super Bowl would even be played, he said, "We will make our best business decision. . . . We'll make a reasonable business judgment."

The NFL has marketed itself by wrapping itself in the flag for decades. With its military airs, patriotic halftime themes and jet flyovers after the anthem, it has adopted a distinctly political stance, even if it hasn't espoused specific political beliefs.

Perhaps that long history of making a profit out of patriotism is part of the reason it's hard to give the NFL the benefit of the doubt this time. Many Super Bowls have seemed harmlessly jingoistic. This Super Bowl seemed inappropriately so. Support for our troops is one thing. But beating the war drum -- making it part of the motif of the day's entertainment -- is another.

If any other nation at war -- perhaps even a nation at war against us -- had used a packed sports stadium as an excuse for such a show of flag-waving, chanting and presidential message-reading, might we not have felt queasy at the way the enthusiasms of sport were being manipulated for the purposes of war?

Now, and in the future, would it hurt the NFL to calm down its drum-beating at such difficult times? A violent football game, like the Giants' victory on Sunday, is excellent sport, worthy of our loudest cheers. But there are no wars worth cheering -- even ones that may, as a last resort, need to be fought.