I did not always feel this way. I was living in Manhattan on 9/11 – and though I’m a Mets fan — I remember being genuinely moved by Ronan Tynan singing “God Bless America” at Yankee Stadium on those brisk October nights following the attack. It was raw, viscerally patriotic, and welcome. Indeed, those first sporting events in the days after the attack helped lift the spirits of many New Yorkers because of those displays of raw love of this country.
But after more than 5,000 days of American troops in combat overseas, the pageantry has gone as stale as the calcified debate over the utility and execution of these wars. A report released last week by Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake described the Department of Defense paying professional sports teams $6.8 million since fiscal year 2012 for “paid patriotism,” including surprise troop homecomings and re-enlistment ceremonies – displays that have now become ubiquitous. It notes that these staged events, in which billionaire owners have pocketed taxpayer money to host patriotic pageantry, “cast an unfortunate shadow over genuine patriotic partnerships” in which some sports franchises do valuable good for service members and veterans.
My objective is not to litigate which teams are to blame for profiting from this collaboration with the Defense Department, and which deserve praise for sponsoring programs that provide real support to troops and veterans, but rather to step back and consider the pageantry itself, what it was shortly after 9/11, and what it has become.
What began as spontaneous and genuine has gradually morphed into something that feels contrived. Perhaps this was inevitable given the length of this country’s wars, and the resulting desensitization to them.
Arguably, the most “heartwarming” of the staged spectacles, the surprise homecomings in which a husband and wife are re-united after a separation, can also be the most misleading. One recent example, replayed millions of times across social media, showed a Marine officer returning from South Korea to the loving embrace of his cheerleader wife during halftime at a professional football game, as the crowd roared in approval. No one should begrudge the couple their well-deserved moment of joy. It was great to see. But these scenes can also present a deceptively saccharine vision of war that invites the crowd to stand and stretch, clap for a few seconds, and return to their drinks and the game with a smile, reassured that everything seems right with the world. By pumping out such romanticized images of homecoming – which are then shared through retweets and posts on Facebook across the country — do we not run the risk of sanitizing the reality of many homecomings that are not the stuff of Hollywood?
When I saw this, I couldn’t help but imagine what it would have been like if, instead, the Jumbotron had carried live footage of a military “casualty notification” officer in his dress uniform approaching the door of a comfortable home in middle America, stepping across a carefully manicured lawn, knocking on the door, an American flag blowing lazily in the breeze overhead, and having a mother collapse in tears at the sight of him, before he even has a chance to tell her that her only son had been shot and killed in Iraq or Afghanistan.
I am not sure if the game could even go on. But that scene is just as “real” an outcome of war as staged homecomings where everyone appears unscathed, poised to live happily ever after. These manufactured displays can have the unfortunate side effect of anesthetizing the American public as our leaders again consider committing more troops to war without well-defined objectives. Indeed, while treating service members and veterans with the respect they have earned is one important element of patriotism, another is civic engagement with the policy-making that determines how our men and women in uniform are deployed.
So maybe it’s time to stop the perfunctory displays of honor at our professional sporting events, because they are a poor substitute for what’s really needed: an honest debate – especially in a presidential election year — about the cost of our wars and the benefits we hope to gain from being involved in them. That would be an even better display of patriotism.
Will Bardenwerper is a writer based in Arlington, Va. He quit his job in finance following the 9/11 attacks in Manhattan and volunteered to serve as an infantry officer in the United States Army. You can follow him on Twitter: @WBardenwerper.