Football and War have long been metaphors for each other, with players famously (and infamously in some cases) referring to themselves as “warriors” who will “do battle” on the gridiron led by “field generals” at quarterbacks, throwing “long bombs” to score, and Generals “calling an audible” to launch a “blitz” or a “hail-marry pass.” Indeed, those seeking to inject greater tolerance into American culture have long counseled that we do away with such metaphors, as they trivialize war on both sides of the equation. George Carlin saw this years ago. (Updated—repaired link to Carlin’s baseball vs. football routine).
Today’s Superbowl between the Arizona Cardinals and Pittsburgh Steelers provides a rare moment reflection on this seemingly inescapable current in American popular culture. The Cardinals offer a unique mechanism for this, as until this year, they were probably best know for being the team of Pat Tillman, the former Cards player who joined the Army and was killed in Afghanistan.
It also provides a moment to notice, as the Washington Post reports, that the NFL seems to have re-thought its role in this process:
In a little-discussed shift in recent years, the NFL has moved away from depicting its games in military terms. While the league continues to embrace the military as an entity, inviting Gen. David H. Petraeus, the head of Central Command, to make the Super Bowl’s opening coin toss and having the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds perform a pregame flyover at Raymond James Stadium, the NFL no longer endorses using military terminology to describe its contests.
It is inappropriate, league officials say, to do so at a time when American forces are fighting two wars halfway around the globe.
“It’s a matter of common sense,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said as he stood outside the stadium the other day.
The same is true at NFL Films, an arm of the league that perpetuated for decades the image of football as controlled warfare by producing movies glorifying the game’s violence with phrases like “linebacker search and destroy.” In recent years the company’s president, Steve Sabol, ordered all allusions to war be removed from its new films.
“I don’t think you will ever see those references coming back,” he said. “They won’t be back in our scripts, certainly not in my lifetime.”
The sport that once saw itself as the closest thing in athletics to the military no longer holds to this once-cherished notion.
“We’re not going to fight no war, man,” Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Nick Eason said….
“They were basically cliches anyway,” Sabol said. “Just like you would hear coaches say, ‘That’s a guy I want to be in a foxhole with,’ they’ve never been in a foxhole and they’re trying to articulate that to a player who has no idea what a foxhole is.”
At the extreme, these metaphors were always silly, at their worst, they devalued the true sacrifices of soldiers and dehumanized the true destruction and human devastation wrought by actual war. Its a good thing that the NFL is moving in this direction.