Over the Thanksgiving holiday, conservative firebrand Tomi Lahren tweeted a photograph of American soldiers wading ashore on D-Day. Photoshopped kneeling behind them, rather than charging the beach, was former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. “Food for thought,” Lahren commented, as if merely mulling the disjunction between these images.
One of the many unexamined assumptions encoded in Lahren’s tweet is that professional football ought to reflect America at its most patriotic, even embracing jingoism. Your typical player, we’re prodded to infer, should hop out alongside the other grunts by standing for the national anthem and playing the game — an act that Lahren, in a familiar rhetorical slippage, equates with going to war.
However clumsy, Lahren’s vision of where the NFL should stand politically is nothing new. In fact, the league itself cultivated this expectation throughout its rise to the top of the American sporting pyramid in the 1960s. It arranged halftime military flyovers and released classic NFL Films productions in which “voice of God” announcer John Facenda growled “search and destroy” as linebackers flattened hapless quarterbacks.
But this marketing obscured reality. Football players fought in World War II, but only because the NFL lacked the cultural authority to limit their contribution to the war effort. By Vietnam, even as it was pounding the drums of patriotism, the NFL exerted soft power to shield its players from the draft, instead dispatching them on tours that inadvertently exposed the distance between celebrity football players and the values the league claimed to be promoting.
During World War II, it was baseball, not football, that earned special dispensation from war. A month after Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt implored league commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis to keep baseball going. Professional baseball players, he argued, “are a definite recreational asset to at least 20 million of their fellow citizens.” Professional football players were different. Roosevelt later told a correspondent that “high school and college football should be encouraged in times like this” but that the NFL did not merit mention as a “recreational asset.”
As a result, some 638 professional football players served (many, admittedly, as stars of service teams). In the spring of 1943, several franchises merged when they ran out of players who had been deemed unacceptable for military service. The league nearly shut down every season through 1945.
By the mid-1960s, however, professional football had made itself the establishment’s favorite sport as NFL owners cultivated friends in high places. Washington was “a male town, and football is its game,” journalist Hedrick Smith wrote. “Not to possess Redskins season tickets spells a fatal absence of status,” observed the astute columnist Mary McGrory.
As the Vietnam draft picked up, the perks of coziness with power became evident. In late 1966, Life magazine acidly noted the NFL’s “magical immunity” to Vietnam War call-ups: 27 percent of those classified 1-A (available for unrestricted military duty) between the ages of 18 and 35 were drafted, yet somehow only two NFL players out of 960 got the call. Thanks to arrangements with obliging local officials (lubricated by the league’s glamour), teams had stashed draft-eligible men in National Guard and reserve units, despite a 100,000-man waiting list for Guard postings in 1968 — “such a dodge,” one critic wrote, “that if there had been a call-up, there scarcely would have been a football season.”
Incensed, Lucien Nedzi, a Democratic congressman and combat veteran, demanded an explanation from the Defense Department. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara sheepishly admitted that the reserves might have given preference to “individuals who have the highest mental and physical qualifications” and ordered that by February all reserve organizations fill vacancies on a first-come, first-served basis.
Ultimately, the Army slightly lowered its standards to draft more athletes, eventually forcing a few prominent players, such as Cardinals starting quarterback Charley Johnson and Giants kicker Pete Gogolak, to serve. Even Gogolak initially got weekends off to kick, before missing the 1968 season when posted to Germany.
These cases did nothing to dissuade the majority of the public (64 percent in one poll) from the belief that athletes and celebrities received special treatment. For good reason: Teams never ceased trying to shield players from Vietnam. Rocky Bleier of the Pittsburgh Steelers won a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star, but only after months of machinations by the team failed to save him from enlistment. Steelers owner Art Rooney later fumed that “what Bleier had done at Notre Dame, and what he might possibly do for the Pittsburgh Steelers, made no difference whatever” to the woman who ran the local draft board.
This failure was an outlier; a mere six NFL players ended up serving in the war. Even so, the NFL still fell behind major league baseball, which UPI reported was expected to suffer only “light” effects from player call-ups, in protecting its players from the draft.
In 1966, perhaps trying to cloak the league’s unwillingness to contribute to the war effort, Commissioner Pete Rozelle made the NFL the first major league to send star players to Vietnam on a goodwill tour, including Johnny Unitas, Sam Huff and Frank Gifford.
Yet instead of highlighting the league’s patriotic sacrifices, these tours actually exposed that America’s gridiron warriors were pampered professionals who did not adjust easily to the rigors of a combat zone. Unitas refused to go on a second tour in 1969 when the Defense Department would not underwrite his $1 million personal insurance policy. Soldiers assigned to escort duty complained that players expected pampering that accorded with their celebrity status, getting “grumpy” when filling out forms in a poorly air-conditioned lounge and protesting when days began at 0730.
At the same time that the NFL was trying to keep players out of the draft, the league was hard at work projecting hard-line patriotism as a means of surpassing baseball as the national pastime. One byproduct of this quest was repression of dissenters such as the Cardinals’ Dave Meggyesy, who organized antiwar petitions, protested the anthem and was summarily drummed out of football.
Another was what Rozelle proudly described as “a conscious effort on our part to bring the element of patriotism into the Super Bowl.” And so military hardware popped up more and more frequently in pregame and halftime pageantry — flyovers in 1968, reenactments of famous battles, even the missing-man formation to sell the false narrative that large numbers of soldiers remained in captivity in Vietnam.
Such efforts succeeded thanks to willing embraces from politicians on both sides of the aisle. Democratic Vice President Hubert Humphrey sought support from black players during his 1968 presidential campaign, while a squad of players beat the hustings for Democrat George McGovern in 1972. On the right, Richard Nixon’s administration scheduled patriotic displays at halftime as counterprogramming to antiwar marches in 1969 and bought its only national ads for Republican candidates in the 1970 midterm elections during professional football telecasts.
By 1975, when the NFL won itself official recognition as part of the next year’s bicentennial observances as an “exceptional organization … an American Institution,” the identification was complete. The league had tied itself to the military, the presidency, to everything — it was, as the Bicentennial Administration put it, “so important in strengthening our posture domestically and internationally.”
The current dissonance between NFL players and fans, then, is almost entirely a product of the league’s success 50 years ago. Spectators who had been diligently taught to identify professional football solely with conservative versions of patriotism are understandably aghast that some players are challenging their vision of what being patriotic entails.
While this image was always at least half sham, the NFL sold it so well that it has boxed the league into a corner: Players demand that an industry that built its mass appeal on muting their concerns now use that same appeal to address those concerns. But having been sold the story of the league as a bulwark of conservative patriotism, few fans seem interested in exploring the league’s cynical use of patriotism or the players’ efforts to turn those patriotic displays into genuine acts of citizenship.