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Home / Articles / Sudden death overtime: from the NFL to Iraq. Open Democracy. 11th November 2005


Sudden death overtime: from the NFL to Iraq

The distance from the Super Bowl to Baghdad is shrinking as the languages of sport and war converge, says Joe Boyd.

The American football season has begun. You can watch it in many satellite stations around the world and if you're a sports fan, I recommend it. Once you understand the rules, it's a perfect television spectacle; close-ups and replays make vivid what can be a confusing blur from a seat high up in an American stadium.

Sure, in a stadium in Kansas City you would get a better view of the fighter planes zooming over the stadium in tight formation prior to the kick-off. You would also be safe from British-style hooliganism: the huge American distances - and high ticket-prices - mean that rival fans rarely meet and when they do, they are well-behaved and mostly middle-class. But you would miss the zooms onto groups of fans benefiting from a bloc of free tickets, men and women in the uniform of one or other branch of the United States armed forces, or hear the announcer praise them as part of "our heroic fighting forces defending freedom and liberty".

Biceps and battle-cries

Gridiron football has been characterised as "war without the shooting". Diagrams of plays look like battle-plans, and the language of the game mirrors the vocabulary of warfare. What is new in recent years is the obverse - war has started to resemble sport. Everyone heard President Bush say "bring it on" as if he were touting a World Wrestling Federation grudge match, while CIA director George Tenet famously told his boss that the case for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was a "slam dunk".

Condoleezza Rice has declared her ambition to be not the first woman president of the US, but the first female commissioner of the National Football League (NFL). Sports jargon and imagery have popped up everywhere in Washington since Bush took office, while the soldiers in the newsreel footage from Iraq, with their body armour and huge helmets, look more and more like American football-players.

We have seen the statistics about how few Americans can locate London on a map, much less Baghdad or Kirkuk. Most Yankee males know a lot more about Shaquille O'Neal's scoring average than Abu Ghraib. Not only has sports provided a "bread and circuses" distraction allowing politicians and generals to get quietly on with their bloody business, but those same politicians and generals probably know a lot more about Peyton Manning's new record for touchdown passes in a season than they do about the nuances of Sunni and Shi'a versions of Islam. Sport's structured and contained world is far more satisfyingly comprehensible than the messy, complicated maze of a hostile foreign culture.

"Don't back down", "play to win", "an in-your-face dunk", "smash-mouth football": for someone who hears a lot of sports broadcasts, the language of American foreign and military policy sounds eerily familiar. The culture of sport has become a dangerous chemical in the American drinking water: people root for the "coalition forces" as they would for their favourite football team, with all the contempt for the opposition and the strutting aggression that accompanies a heated rivalry. Compromise and restraint are out of step with the national mood. A decade and half ago, the NFL instituted an extra period so that even a regular-season contest needn't end with something as wimpy and un-American as a draw. Is that what we are seeing now in Iraq: "sudden-death overtime"?

Play to win

"Soccer" has never caught on in the United States, even after the country hosted the 1996 world cup and was briefly entranced by "soccer moms" political promotion. What red-blooded American would, after all, tolerate a game that could end nil-nil? Basketball, perhaps the most American of all sports, can - at its NBA best - be a thrilling series of long artillery-like bulls-eyes and hand-to-hand slam-dunks, a world away from the just-wide, great-save, hit-the-woodwork frustration of a British soccer match. The structure of American playoffs provides a clear, unambiguous champion - none of this business about one club winning the Premier League, one the FA Cup and one the League Cup (whatever the sponsor's name on these trophies happens to be). Middle America seems confused and frustrated by the possibility that the Iraq misadventure may not produce a clear-cut victory. Views of the Palestinian conflict that portray Israel as anything other than the "home team" are rejected out-of-hand by most of the electorate.

The tale of Pat Tillman symbolises the intimate connections between the NFL and Pentagon and the complexities of current US domestic attitudes towards the "war on terrorism". American "college" (university) football serves as a developmental league for the professional game. Unlike British soccer, where the strong are always getting stronger, the worst teams get first choice of the new talent and Tillman was drafted into the NFL's perennial losers Arizona Cardinals in 1996.

He soon became a star defensive player, but turned down a new multi-million dollar contract in 2002 to join the army in the wake of 9/11 (the only active NFL player to do so). He was sent to Afghanistan and died in a firefight not long after he arrived. The army and the NFL combined to memorialise his heroic life and sacrifice, awarding him posthumous medals and promotions and televised tributes at NFL games. His jersey was retired, he was honoured at the football "Hall of Fame" and his name became a byword for the intimate relationship between American football and American military heroism.

As with so many of the US military's simplistic narratives, this one soon began to fall apart. He had, in fact, been killed by friendly fire when two army units opened fire on each other; the "enemy", despite the continued insistence of the military public-relations machine, was nowhere near. Eventually the cover-up was exposed and members of his company were punished for having burned his body and armour in order to conceal the source of his wounds. It was further revealed that Tillman's patriotism, while inspiring him to volunteer for duty, also led him to write letters condemning the invasion of Iraq.

Worse was to come: his favourite political writer turned out to be Noam Chomsky, with whom he was trying to arrange a meeting when he died. Tillman's uniform still hangs with honour in Cardinal Stadium, but like so much about the "contest" between America and the Bad Guys, his personality has refused to fit into the neat categories sports-obsessed America demands of its politics.

The religion of sport

The so-called "culture wars" have also been dragged into the rituals of NFL games. The ranks of pop, r&b and country music used to be combed to find the most hilariously unsuitable voice to mangle the pre-game Star Spangled Banner, but this kitsch moment has lately been replaced by more sober renderings, often from military choirs. And as for the lurid Super Bowl half-time entertainment, following the Janet Jackson nipple crisis of 2004, the next season's attraction was the Beatle-lite blandness of Paul McCartney.

College and professional coaches often lead their teams in pre- or post-game prayers. A leading football coach quit the sport to start the fundamentalist "Promise Keepers" organisation. The end-zone scoring celebrations that were once more exotic than a premiership striker's indecent assault on the corner flag have mutated in recent years. Footballers - as well as basketball stars and baseball batsmen - now often gaze reverently skyward and point, as if thanking God for betting a few bucks on them and invoking his droit du Seigneur to avoid having to shell out to the Heavenly Bookie.

The commissioner of the NBA, David Stern, has just stirred up a fuss by imposing an off-court "dress code" for players, in an attempt to clamp down on hip-hop fashion. Afro-American players have been predictably outraged, but Stern is, well, sticking to his guns. Following a free-for-all involving fans and players during a Detroit Pistons game last season, the league and its television backers have started to worry that the white middle-American audience may turn away from a sport dominated by blacks and foreigners.

Sport once served as a way of keeping young men in shape while sublimating their aggressive instincts in times of peace. The American genius for commercialisation has transformed it into a marketing plug for militarism and a Rorschach test for social reaction. The war for which young American - and British - men and women are being asked to leave their playing-fields and risk their lives, meanwhile, is a campaign as superficially slick and fundamentally juvenile as the playoffs of an all-American sport. The Super Bowl received more thoughtful analysis and overall coverage in the US media than the first round of the Iraqi elections the previous month. More beer and hot-dogs, anyone?