Politics and Sports Mixed Long Before Bob Costas

10/15/2013 01:03 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014
  • Jonathan Weiler Director of Undergraduate Studies in Global Studies, UNC Chapel Hill

At half time of NBC's Sunday night football game of the week, Bob Costas argued that it was time to change the name of Washington's NFL franchise. He said it was an obvious slur and had no place in the world in 2013, adding his voice to a growing chorus arguing for the change.

As was the case last year when, in the wake of Javon Belcher's murder-suicide, Costas discussed America's gun culture, he was met with howls of angry protests for having interjected politics into a sports broadcast.

But the premise of that complaint -- that we don't normally have to endure politicization of our major national sporting events, in person or on television -- is simply false.

Examples abound, but the most straightforward and unrelenting one is the steady diet sports fans have been fed of nearly compulsory worshipfulness of our armed forces. Military flyovers of major sporting events. Entreaties by stadium and arena announcers summoning us to "rise as one" during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner to thank the troops for "protecting our freedoms." An endless stream of comments from sports broadcasters announcing proudly that whenever they see uniformed personnel, they thank them. Don't kid yourself -- these aren't merely benign celebrations of national unity. They are closer to exercises in ideological enforcement. When, on the eve of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, a Manhattanville college basketball player named Toni Smith decided to turn her back on the flag during the national anthem to protest that imminent invasion, she was widely excoriated. It was OK to participate in public spectacles that were rapidly turning into celebrations of yet another massive deployment of American forces to bomb and kill in faraway lands. But heaven forbid that at a sporting event, you suggest publicly that you weren't on board (former Major leaguer Carlos Delgado also sparked controversy when he refused for a time to stand for the playing of "God Bless America" during the seventh inning stretch).

The immediate fervor of those heady days have subsided. Years of disaster in Iraq, alongside the now decade-plus and increasingly pointless occupation of Afghanistan have (re)introduced some sobriety into the American psyche about the limits of our war machine. But the mindless celebration of our troops in sporting contexts continues unabated. Let me be clear. This is not an attack of any kind on the ordinary men and women who serve in the armed forces. And their treatment in recent years -- at places like the woefully underfunded Walter Reed hospital, on the field of battle, where they've frequently had to endure insufficient basic protective equipment, as well as the systematic denial by the government of post-traumatic stress claims in order to deny returning veterans proper care (sound familiar, NFL fans?), while taxpayers spend countless billions on cost overruns to fat-cat contractors -- is a national disgrace.

But it's dubious at best to argue that the mass deployments of American forces overseas since 9/11 has made us safer. In fact, since 9/11, we've seen a steady and indisputable erosion in our freedoms at home, under the shadow of a metastasizing national security state (and a new report, about the advancing attack on press freedoms at home, being pursued with extraordinary vigor by the Obama administration underscores that point). That fact pattern -- massive deployments of troops overseas since 9/11 and declining privacy and government accountability at home -- should at least be a cause for pause, not an invitation to continued mindless celebration of the troops for protecting our freedoms. Lance corporals in Afghanistan aren't responsible for that. But every time someone on ESPN thanks the troops, they are tacitly endorsing -- whether they intend to or not -- decisions about where the United States should be, what its priorities ought to be, and how it ought to go about pursuing those. That's politics in its most essential form. And you can be sure that if, at least occasionally, a talking head had said, "I admire the valor of those men and women, but I don't think their deployment is making us safer," there would be lots of angry expressions about the "injection of politics."

For all the things that divide us politically these days, we've barely put a dent in a sweeping consensus about the extraordinary role the American military plays in world affairs. The consequences of that role for our security and its implications for the myriad unsolved problems we face at home are daunting. In other words, the problem of American militarism, as the professor and former army officer Andrew Bacevich has eloquently argued in recent years, is among the most pressing one in American political life and deserves a serious hearing. Instead and virtually in unison -- intentionally or not -- the sports world has weighed in to endorse the consensus.

Bob Costas will stop his occasional commentaries on guns or Washington's mascot or whatever when his bosses at NBC tell him to. In the mean time, and leaving aside the merits of his arguments (and yes, I happen to agree with him on both counts), let's not pretend that sporting events and sports broadcasts are politics free zones.

They are anything but.