Monday, March 21, 2011

Checking Militarism

Public broadcaster giving airtime to war

Illustration by Jesse Purcell
SACKVILLE, NB—For years, Don Cherry has been using his segment after the first period of CBC's Saturday night hockey broadcasts to honour Canadian troops and actively promote Canada's military mission in Afghanistan. During Christmas 2010, Cherry visited military bases in Afghanistan and even launched a few weapons.
On January 8, 2011, a new group known as Hockey Fans for Peace protested outside Rogers Arena, home of the Vancouver Canucks. Fed up with Cherry's one-sided promotion of the war, they asked to debate Cherry during a live broadcast. (Many watchers of CBC News would agree that genuine debate on Afghanistan has been generally lacking.)

A former NHL coach, Cherry co-hosts "Coach's Corner" during the first intermission on CBC's weekly Hockey Night in Canada (HNIC) broadcast.

Cherry is well known as a right-wing, "pro-Canadian" who is skeptical of the value and work ethic of European hockey players, but he has increasingly used his platform to promote militarism and to support the small Canadian Army contingent that has been in Afghanistan since February 2002.

While this has nothing to do with hockey, CBC brass permit Cherry to promote Canada's military mission and "support the troops" on the national public broadcaster during hockey games. For Cherry, supporting the troops morphs into a call for the country to "stick with the mission" so their sacrifices will not be in vain. The CBC, in one of many signs of its fear of the Harper government, won't shut down Don Cherry’s militaristic rants or offer equal time to representatives of the majority of Canadians who disagree with him.

One of the most durable buttresses of militarism is found in the world of sport, and advocates like Don Cherry and his critics are just the latest in a long tradition.

Military training all over the world had a significant element of sport in it because fitness is needed in battle. In Social Darwinist thought, sport was encouraged during industrialism to ensure that "the nation" would remain "vital" and able to flex its military muscle. As articulated by World War II General and US President Dwight D Eisenhower, "the true mission of American sports is to prepare young people for war."

After September 11, 2001, and the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, the NFL worked with the US Department of Defense to hold an NFL Kick-Off Concert at the National Mall in August 2003. It was broadcast live on ABC along with an hour-long special on "Operation Tribute to Freedom," a program designed to "honor soldiers and give them opportunities to thank the American people for their support." These links between militarism, sports and entertainment "normalize war, rendering it habitual, seemingly rational, and largely immune to challenge," as articulated by Robert L Ivie. Having gone to war, the state, media and allied institutions attempt to maintain public support for the effort—a task that has proven more difficult in recent years.
Links between contemporary Western sport and war are endorsed and perpetuated by sportscasters and sports networks. Progressive sports writer and Edge of Sports Radio host, Dave Zirin, noted of the 2011 Super Bowl, “The sheer tonnage of militaristic bombast with patriotic trimmings was like Top Gun on steroids.” The Olympics have repeatedly been used to support corporate, militaristic and colonial agendas. US Memorial Day and Canadian Remembrance Day are occasions for networks' overt support for war, and ESPN's Sportcentre's Top 10 and the CBC's HNIC both feature annual celebrations of the military on their countries respective holidays. The leagues, owners and corporate interests push both militarism and conservative politics. Many NHL, MLB, NFL, and NBA teams hold annual "Seats for Soldiers" events and "Canadian Forces Appreciation Nights."

Each of these events feature undisguised expressions of militarism, and many athletes, teams, and leagues have supported the military by visiting troops abroad. The defense industry continues the militarization of sport with athletic sponsorships such the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl.

Some athletes themselves provide financial support for war, as with the Strikeouts for Troops program, a national project that has raised over $1 million since 2005 from contributions made by more than 60 professional baseball and football players, fund raising events, fan donations and corporate partnerships.
Others do so by holding events for soldiers and their families. In both 2007 and 2008, Tiger Woods donated 30,000 tickets to the AT&T National Golf tournament to service members and their families. Woods, whose father Earl was in the US Army Special Forces (the "Green Berets"), is known as a strong supporter of the military, saying that he would have joined up if he hadn't made it as a professional golfer.

At the same time that professional sport enlists support for militarism, it also serves as a major source of resistance to war. While athletes have a reputation for being more conservative than other celebrities, not all professional athletes endorse militarism, war or conservative politics. And, despite all the multifaceted connections between sport and war, there is also a long history of athletes acting as tools for peace.
One of the greatest heavyweight boxers, Mohammed Ali (born Cassius Clay), went to jail for resisting the draft during the Vietnam War and was stripped for a time of his championship.

At the 1968 Mexico City summer Olympics, two African-American athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who won gold and bronze medals in the 200-metre sprint, stood on the podium while US national anthem played, their heads bowed and a black-gloved fists raised, Black Power-style, as a protest against racism at home. They were expelled from the Olympic Village and the International Olympic Committee stripped them of their medals.

In the 2000s, among the most outspoken athletes against war and militarism are cyclist Lance Armstrong, Major League Baseball player Carlos Delgado, boxer Anthony Mundine, former NFL linebacker Adalius Thomas, tennis player Martina Navratilova, Ultimate Fighting Champion Jeff Monson and NBA players Steve Nash and Adonal Foyle.

These athletes have faced considerable public criticism for their political stances. Carlos Delgado faced taunts and boos when, in opposition to US militarization, he refused to stand for "God Bless America" played at MLB games. Canadian NBA star Steve Nash appeared at a 2003 NBA All-Star event wearing a T-shirt reading "No War. Shoot For Peace," and was told that "maybe [he] should be in a different country" by US Navy Academy graduate and San Antonio Spurs player David Robinson. Muslim-Australian Aboriginal boxer Anthony Mundine was indefinitely stripped of his 26th-place world ranking, after stating that he did not support Australia's involvement in the "War on Terror."

Numerous baseball players and the Major League Baseball Players Association spoke out against Arizona’s racist, anti—immigrant legislation in 2010. Most recently, members of the 2011 Super Bowl champions, the Green Bay Packers, including defensive captain Charles Woodson, have spoken in support of those protesting Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s legislative effort to remove public sector collective bargaining rights and centralize power in the governor’s office. (It is appropriate that Green Bay is the NFL’s only publicly-owned team, and that Woodson is on the NFLPA’s Board of Player Representatives, at a time when the NFL players may themselves be facing a lock out.)

Canadians should be prepared to support the first professional hockey player who comes out in favour of total Canadian withdrawal from Afghanistan. And we should all call on the CBC to rediscover its courage and independence and promote genuine debate about the Canadian mission in Afghanistan. True hockey fans should also demand that Coach's Corner return to its original purpose—commentary and analysis on the sport of hockey.

Dr Geoff Martin and Dr Erin Steuter teach at Mount Allison University in Sackville, NB. They are the authors of Pop Culture Goes to War: Enlisting and Resisting Militarism in the War on Terror, Lexington Books, 2010.

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