Commentary

Sports and war vets: a delicate balance

Opening Day in D.C. raises a question: Is it right to approach war as a sporting event?

Originally Published: April 7, 2010
By Tim Keown | ESPN.com

WASHINGTON -- The scene at Nationals Park before the Philadelphia Phillies-Washington Nationals opener on Monday was a familiar one for the nation's capital: huge flags stretched out across the outfield, bunting throughout the stadium and President Obama on hand to throw out the first pitch.

Standard stuff, and equally standard was the participation of the many military members who held the flags and lined the red carpet on which Obama walked on his way to the mound.

Teams have long used big events to honor the military, and it's a relationship that works well for both sides. It's rare for military members who sacrifice so much to be recognized in such a public setting, and the teams can feel good about making the gesture to a segment of the community that deserves it.

[+] EnlargeOakland Athletics Opening Day
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesCertainly nothin' wrong with a show of patriotism, especially on Opening Day. But are we keeping it in the right balance?

(Members of the military also can serve as shields for politicians who know they can provide a buffer in a public setting.)

However, as I stood in the press box and watched this particular scene unfold, I wondered whether the relationship has become too familiar, too cozy.

We spend a lot of time and energy debating the efficacy of defining our sports in war terms. During the past eight or nine years, we've become less inclined to describe games as battles and athletes as courageous for playing with minor injuries. We rise up in righteous indignation when someone like Kellen Winslow Jr. overstates his status in the world by calling himself a soldier and his sport a war. This doesn't fly with us -- he's disrespecting the troops, he doesn't know his place, all that stuff.

But I'm wondering whether it might be worse when the opposite is true, when we approach war as if it were a sporting event.

I know this is not the usual sports fare, but here's what got me wondering:

The men and women who held the flags at Nationals Park were all veterans of Iraq or Afghanistan. The men and women who lined the red carpet were all injured veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan.

As the injured vets were announced by name, they were cheered by the sellout crowd. As the cheering picked up, a chant started and ultimately drowned out the clapping. The chant, as you might imagine, was "U-S-A! U-S-A!"

I preface this by saying I am sometimes accused -- and convicted -- of overthinking an issue. I'm also inclined to ascribe motives that aren't in evidence or inject too much meaning into the meaningless.

But this chanting bothered me and triggered all of this mental meandering.

[+] EnlargeObama
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty ImagesThe commander-in-chief's ceremonial first pitch at Nationals Park came in front of rows of wounded vets.

The "U-S-A!" chant, to me, is better suited to following a Shaun White performance in the halfpipe or a Mike Eruzione goal against the Russians -- not the introduction of a group that included a young man who lost a leg.

In this context, it sounded wrong. Set aside our country's ambivalent feelings about the wars, because those feelings are best addressed to politicians and not soldiers. But to me, the chanting is tone-deaf. The moment called for something a little more somber than a nationalistic chant.

The juxtaposition of sports and the military -- teams such as the San Diego Padres wearing camouflage uniforms, for example -- has made us "fans" of our troops the way we're fans of our teams. It's not necessarily wrong, but the ground does seem a little slippery. It's not a question of supporting our troops but understanding and appreciating them in the right context.

The gap between the military and nonmilitary -- in both understanding and shared sacrifice -- is bigger than it ever has been during wartime. There is a role for sports and athletes to play in closing that gap: Drew Brees, to name one, has been instrumental in raising awareness of the sacrifices and realities that members of the military face.

But there are nuances involved, and those nuances make it uncomfortable to listen to a rousing chant while a brave man stands there with an empty pant leg.


In a totally unrelated development, Tiger Woods is being accompanied at the Masters by a security detail of about 90 guards to protect him from the wilds of Augusta National, that bastion of rogue and anarchist behavior.

They're carrying photos of Tiger's alleged mistresses, and for their first reported act, they approached a woman on the fifth hole Monday and asked, "Are you the stripper?"

According to numerous reports, a television producer who witnessed the incident asked the woman for her reaction. "I'm not sure what to feel yet," she said.

It's an awesome bit of public relations for men's golf -- security guards in an all-male club asking female spectators whether they're strippers or adult film stars.

And the irony is rich: Tiger is being guarded by a phalanx of goons -- or at least those employing goonlike behavior -- to protect him from those women whose existence he so secretly protected from the rest of the world.

Does this sound like the actions of a changed man?

The goon told the woman, "We have to be extra careful," which raises another question:

What if one of the women does show up at Augusta? Is that illegal?

What if she bought her ticket before Thanksgiving?

After all, she could be just out of rehab, too, looking to make amends.

ESPN The Magazine senior writer Tim Keown co-wrote Josh Hamilton's autobiography, "Beyond Belief: Finding the Strength to Come Back," which is available on Amazon.com. Sound off to Tim here.

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Tim Keown | email

Senior writer, ESPN.com