Militarism and Sports – Part I (A Call)
Peter Miller and Daniel Lyder
An oft-repeated opinion in the sports media is that sports and politics should absolutely never mix. If an athlete chooses to use his or her spotlight to voice or display a social or political opinion sports journalists, sports owners, and sports executives will often voice their disapproval.
One of the most famous examples of this is Tommy Smith and John Carlos. The two African American athletes at the 1968 Olympic Games were stripped of their medals for their famous Black Power raised fist salute, wearing black-gloves in civil rights solidarity.
More recently, at the summer Olympics in London, Damien Hooper, an aboriginal boxer from Australia, was threatened with expulsion by the Australian Olympic Committee for wearing a black T-shirt with a picture of an Aboriginal flag, while warming up in the ring before a fight. Hooper had broken the Olympic games policy preventing athletes from representing flags unapproved by corporate sponsors.
Shut up and play
Yet there is an immense self-serving irony contained in the ‘shut up and play’ culture perpetuated by the media. Sports are constantly used by right-wing corporate forces and the military to promote their own pro-war, aggressively nationalist and repressive agendas. Therefore, the truth is that sports journalists, owners, and sports executives actually believe that sports and progressive politics should absolutely never mix.
Iconic ESPN host “Big Game” Brent Musburger famously analyzed Smith and Carlos’ demonstration by saying at the time “Perhaps it’s time twenty year-old athletes quit passing themselves off as social philosophers.” Musburger has never apologized for his remarks. And the attitude hasn’t changed much since then.
Consider the incredible backlash against Miami Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen last year for simply admitting that he ‘liked’ Fidel Castro. Guillen was forced to recant at length or lose his job and was suspended for five games.
Yet anyone who’s watched an NFL game or the recent Super Bowl could easily attest to the open and unquestioned platform for pro-military viewpoints: from troop displays during the national anthem, to fighter jets buzzing over the stadium, to the bizarre statements and subsequent “USA” chants throughout stadiums announcing the killing of Osama Bin Laden and his family. Their official website proclaims that “supporting the military is part of the fabric of the NFL.”
In fact, capitalist countries like Canada and the USA actively use the sports “business” to promote the military and imperialism.
Canadian professional sports franchises openly promote war in conjunction with the mass media and the government. While the old Winnipeg Jet’s logos (from 1972–1996) featured a civilian airliner, the True North Inc. new design explicitly pays “homage” to the Air Force with a fighter jet, and Left Hook editor Tyler Shipley was labelled a “fool” and awarded a “dishonourable mention” by the Winnipeg Sun for daring to criticize the military connection.
The federal and Manitoba provincial governments contributed over 11 million dollars to the construction of a new arena for the Jets to play in, amounting to a unique form of public funding for military advertising.
Perhaps the most infamous hockey ‘analyst’ in Canada is Don Cherry who makes a $700 000 salary, paid from public money, and uses his airtime to promote xenophobia, anti-Quebec nationalism and war during Hockey Night in Canada on CBC. In 2010 Cherry signed bombs and went as far as actually firing a shell when he visited occupied Afghanistan. He later received an honorary degree from the Royal Military college (although not without protest) for his work supporting the war.
Unlike what the Harper Conservative government and Don Cherry would have us believe, however, the war in Afghanistan is not about justice or women’s rights. As Yves Engler points out in his latest book, The Ugly Canadian, the president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, has supported decrees from religious leaders in the country stating that women must be subordinate to men, and cannot be in public without their male partner or family member by their side.
This war, like all wars undertaken by the military industrial complex, has generated enormous profits for ‘defence’ corporations in Canada from the public purse.
Case study: the war in Libya
Canada was ranked 6th in foreign military sales in 2009, according to the Federation of American Scientists Arms Sales Monitoring Project.
Perhaps then it is no surprise that the Winnipeg Jets’ new logo is a blue circle with a metallic grey silhouette of a McDonnell Douglas CF-18 Hornet Fighter Jet above a red maple leaf. This is the same plane used by the Canadian Forces to bomb Iraq, Yugoslavia, and Libya. In fact, the Winnipeg Jets military logo was revealed during Canada’s war in Libya.
Despite claims of humanitarian intervention or “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) which is often heard during the military cheerleading at sports events, the Libyan War was pursued for the benefit of big corporations and oil wealth. NATO simply used the Arab Spring to intervene and interfere with another country’s sovereignty.
Libya had bigger than average royalties on oil corporations. Its nationalized oil company interfered with profits for companies like Suncor, Canada’s largest energy corporation. And the Libyan regime was an inconsistent ally of imperialism.
The US-led NATO alliance thus saw an opportunity to influence Libya’s uprising and actively supported the “Transitional National Council” to further increase profits, secure a geo-strategic military foothold in Africa and the Mediterranean, and push-back against the inroads of Chinese capital into Africa.
Canadian Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard, officially commanded the NATO campaign signing off on every pre-selected bombing target. 15 Canadian Aircraft went on 15,000 missions and dropped at least 700 bombs. On one occasion, a strike from NATO is alleged to have killed 47 civilians, and the total civilian death toll is estimated to be much higher.
Doctors Without Borders ended up pulling out of Libya, refusing to be complicit in the NATO mission and noting that they were actually treating many captured pro-Gaddafi soldiers who were tortured by rebels. (Gaddafi repeatedly called for a ceasefire, yet the NATO-backed rebels refused.)
Meanwhile, Don Cherry was busy praising the new Winnipeg Jet’s logo. “How could you do better than to honour the people who lay their lives down for us?” he told Sun News.
Raptors Canadian Forces Night
Military cheerleading in Canada reaches beyond hockey and into sports like basketball as well. On Saturday January 26, 2013, the Toronto Raptors held their 6th Canadian Forces Night at the Air Canada Centre. The Team and cheerleaders wore camouflage jerseys while pro-military programming aired during breaks throughout the game.
After the game, Raptors players, the coaching staff, and cheerleaders posed for a group picture with Canadian soldiers. Raptors and Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment described the camouflage jersey and Canadian Forces Night as a “natural extension of the Raptors and Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment’s long-standing support of Canada’s military”.
The Canadian Forces Night was used by the Canadian Military to advertise it’s growing “brand.” The Canadian Government spent 353.6 million dollars on public relations for the military in 2010-2011.
Advertising the military targets Canadian youth with commercials on television, ads on campuses across Canada, as well as recruitment displays at sports and public events. When sports franchises further help promote the Canadian Military with nights like the Canadian Forces night, Canadian youth are pushed to fall into a trap, join the military and become cannon-fodder for imperialist wars.
Positively, groups like “Hockey Fans For Peace” are taking on commentators like Don Cherry and calling on the anti-war movement to become more active and visible on sports issues, and in general.
Maybe it is time to flyer future Raptors games that have Canadian Force Programming and tell sports fans of the working class why it is wrong to support war and militarism.
Canadian Imperialism Flexing its Military Muscle
The Raptors game and the militarization of sports is taking place at a time when the Harper Conservative government seems to be constantly flexing Canada’s military muscle. Canadian troops are still on the ground in Afghanistan. The Canadian government is also getting involved in the French-led and US-backed occupation of Mali.
Canadians are also faced with the threat of our country following NATO to go to war in Syria and Iran. While Canadian-based corporations do not officially have any direct investments in the country, Iran has a tremendous amount of oil wealth.
American and Canadian imperialist interests do not like that Iran provides oil for China. Canada’s government is basically lying about nuclear weapons in Iran to try to sway public opinion and start another war allied beside Israel, America, and NATO.
Despite claims of a ‘peace dividend’ after the overturn of the Soviet Union and socialist countries, military spending is 2.3 times higher in Canada now than during the peak of the Cold war. The Harper Conservatives ever-increasing military budget is being prioritized over public healthcare, public education, affordable housing, universal childcare, and other important social services like publicly funded recreation and, perhaps ironically, non-commercial sports, culture and physical activities.
Sports for a world at peace
While the Canadian Government is setting up military bases around the world, it’s the youth who are faced with a future that, for the first time in generations, is predicted to be worse materially than our parents.
Let us show fellow sports fans that the future does not have to be this way. Instead of joining the armed forces, let us convince the youth to join social movements. Together we can stop another greedy war by hitting the streets!
Progressive-minded and peace-loving people must not shy away from pushing back against the pro-military agenda on the sports field, arena, or court. Sports are part of popular culture and it is important to use this venue to get anti-war and socially positive messages across.
An important beginning is to recognize when anti-establishment political opinions are voiced by athletes, and to support those to the best of our ability. It doesn’t help that some of the most powerful examples of this is given no attention in the media or quickly drowned out.
Together, we can also promote a radically different sports culture.
Speaking at the United Nations on resolutions in support of sports for peace and development, socialist Cuba said that sports should “undoubtedly strengthen solidarity and friendship among peoples” and that for Cuba, after the Cuban Revolution, “sports ceased to be exclusive and became a right for all the people.”
Cuba has also condemned “athleticism that was purely motivated by financial gains,” and “the theft of sport talent from developing countries.” “Let us invest in projects for the sake of education, sport and health”, instead of on weapons, Cuba has said.
Officially, much of the past rhetoric of international sports and the Olympics also opposed war, like the “Olympic Truce.” The World Festival of Youth and Students traditionally holds an anti-imperialist soccer match at each gathering.
It is time that sports in Canada promote fair play and cooperation, as well as friendship, internationalism, and solidarity — not militarism, elitism, or crude consumerism. Recreation, leisure time, and democratic culture like sports culture are rights and not privileges. Its time to stand up, together, for these rights and sports for peace!
Peter Miller is a third year History student at the University of Guelph. He writes for the cannon.ca – an online student newspaper – and also is involved with the Guelph Student Mobilization Committee organizing for accessible and fully public education. Daniel Lyder is a fourth year English and Art History student at the University of Guelph, and a sports fan.