Commentary

Sports teams are not at war

Updated: October 31, 2010, 2:54 AM ET
By LZ Granderson | ESPN.com

Ted Rybka is concerned about his Suns.

Though they've started the season 1-1, the Phoenix fan is just not sure if they'll stay among the NBA's elite without Amare Stoudemire.

So, he worries -- but not too much. He loves his Suns and Arizona Cardinals, but neither is life or death for him. He knows what that feels like and this ain't it.

"There was this huge explosion and then all of a sudden all of this shrapnel came flying into base out of nowhere," said Rybka, a soldier in Kuwait during Desert Storm. "I remember this huge piece of metal that weighed a few hundred pounds landing less than 10 feet from me, and before I could react there was more metal and it was all happening so fast.

[+] EnlargeU.S. Troops
Massoud Hossaini/AFP/Getty ImagesU.S. soldiers explode an unused building as they believe that Taliban will use it during a patrol in Didar village in Zari district of Kandahar province, south of Afghanistan.

"When you are at war, you don't get to escape. There isn't a break. I didn't punch my time card and drive home and grab a beer to help me forget. You can't forget. So when I hear athletes call themselves 'soldiers' I just laugh because they're not. They're not even close."

This week, Tennessee football coach Derek Dooley raised a few eyebrows when, in trying to characterize the disorganized play of his young team, he compared them to the German army when the Allied forces stormed Normandy. Football is violent and fast and people can get seriously injured, but an SEC football game is nothing like Normandy , and Dooley knows that.

And yet, he still went there.

Just like Ray Lewis, who described himself as a "warrior" in reaction to some unflattering words from Jets coach Rex Ryan last month. Just like Kevin Garnett, who used war metaphors in describing a Game 7 when he was with the Wolves. Even Nike has gone there, selling T-shirts with only the word "Soldier" on the front.

While war metaphors in the sports world are hardly new, they are still like nails on a chalkboard to me. I've never served, but I've spent plenty of time around an uncle who is still trying to recover mentally from the horrors he saw during the Vietnam War. I have spent time as a volunteer working with veterans who are missing limbs.

I have never heard these men compare their favorite sport to war.

It's one thing to be politically incorrect; it's another to just be incorrect. I can understand the temptation to compare sports and war, but what baffles me is how common-sense knowledge of the vast differences between the two doesn't prevent people from doing so.

In describing his team's chaotic form, Dooley went so far into his World War II analogy that he pretended to be using a field radio and even mimicked peering through a pair of binoculars as if he was looking out for an invasion.

"That's what they did; they were in the bunkers," Dooley said. "It's coming. They call [German Field Marshal Erwin] Rommel; they can't find Rommel."

Maybe Hollywood's penchant to make war seem sexy has dulled our senses. Perhaps the cool graphics of our favorite video games have numbed not only the sports world, but also this entire nation's feelings about war. Would we be more aware if there were a draft and front-page pictures of caskets draped with American flags?

Heading into the midterm elections -- and around the corner from Veteran's Day -- only 9 percent of Americans list war as the top problem facing the country, according to a recent CNN poll. This despite the U.S. being engaged in the longest and most expensive war in its history. The war is out of sight, so we've pushed it out of our minds.

"There was this guy who arrived in our company just a couple of days before we were deployed to Kuwait and he was like a little puppy dog, just green," said Rybka, who left the military in 1993, after four years of service. "After the war, we were in Germany together for a celebration and they started shooting off fireworks. This guy just started trembling and crying and ran inside one of the nearby buildings. I'll never forget that."

And no matter how distant those battles may be or how close the hard hits of the gridiron are, we should never forget that, either.

[+] EnlargeRay Lewis
Ed Mulholland/US PresswireRay Lewis' verbal spat with Rex Ryan included military imagery.

"When I hear an athlete or coach say something along those lines, I just think they're really insecure people who are projecting this macho image to cover up their weakness," said Jon Soltz, a captain in the Iraq War, who was also in Kosovo. "It is certainly people who are disconnected from reality and it comes across narcissistic. I played college soccer; there is noting that relates to war in sports."

Soltz, who is now chairman of Votevets.org, pointed to the New York Giants' relationship with Army Lt. Col. Greg Gadson, an Iraq War vet who lost his legs to a roadside bomb in Baghdad. Gadson was a regular presence on the team's sideline during games and a source of inspiration during its magical Super Bowl run in 2008.

"Maybe if more of these guys spent time with men and women who actually know what war means, they would think twice about just tossing the word around," Soltz said.

How far removed are we that we actually have to stop and think about that? Dooley undoubtedly heard enough criticism this week that he'll choose his words more carefully when describing the Vols' game against South Carolina or future SEC opponents. But how many coaches around the nation will describe the game they are about to play as "war" in their pregame speech? How many athletes will refer to themselves as "soldiers"?

I'm all for free speech and finding ways to motivate, but some lines shouldn't be crossed, particularly when we are at war.

Sports are supposed to help us escape the real world, but sometimes when I hear the words of coaches, athletes and even fans, I think maybe we've all been gone from the real world a tad too long.

LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at lzgranderson@yahoo.com.

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LZ Granderson | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine

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