We will remember them, but should sport?
A poppy, the symbol of Remembrance Day, sits on a memorial in Ypres, Belgium. (Getty Images)
November 11th, 2013
02:46 PM ET

We will remember them, but should sport?

Gaining territory, a tactical advantage, physical combat, winners and losers.

Sports journalism could easily be confused with the scribblings of a war correspondent, but of course there really is no comparison between a man on the ball and a man with a gun. It’s only a matter of life or death for one of them.

But in the United States, professional athletes and soldiers are increasingly sharing common ground and it’s not just because they’re all "in uniform."

Support for the military was one of the biggest differences I observed when I moved from London to Atlanta last year.

In the U.S., it’s everywhere you look: the television network NBC is running a prominent campaign, “I’ve got your six” - which means I've got your back covered - shops and insurance companies provide discounts for veterans and my seven-year-old children have just written to soldiers for a school project.

It’s through sport that I’m most cognizant of the military though. It’s hard to miss the marching bands, the flybys and returning veterans being saluted or applauded at packed stadiums.

At key times like Veterans and Memorial Day you can expect to see star players like Lebron James taking to the airwaves to express their gratitude for the sacrifice.

Televised college games are played on aircraft carriers, UFC events are held at airbases and all of the main professional leagues actively raise funds for veterans’ hospitals and charities.

In Britain, the national anthem is sung only at national sporting events but in the U.S. you’ll hear "The Star Spangled Banner" before every football, baseball, basketball and hockey game.

After the devastating terror attacks on 9/11, the patriotic hymn "America the Beautiful" is also now sung during baseball games.

It can feel a bit awkward if you are a foreigner, mumbling along to the words, unsure of where to put your hands, while everyone else has theirs proudly planted against their chests.

There is a sense that since the 9/11 attacks, the military has been more closely entwined with the major sports in the U.S.

This is a country where roughly 15% of the population has experience of serving in the military and 97% is directly connected to someone who has served - involvement in two world wars, Korea and Vietnam has created millions of vets and thousands more have been made in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Sports organizations say that their arenas are the ideal place to recognize the troops’ commitment and sacrifice. Games represent community congregations numbering in the tens of thousands - millions more are watching on TV and saying thanks is the "the right thing to do."

But is there more to it than that? Sports marketing expert Kevin Adler says that professional athletic organizations, or any other corporate entities for that matter, aren’t in the do-the-right-thing business. The altruism is ultimately self-serving.

He told me: “They’ve tapped into the zeitgeist of supporting and appreciating the military and used that as a marketing platform, but it's not wrong if it raises awareness and promotes engagement around that cause.”

It’s a far cry from the previous generation, when troops returning from Vietnam were treated appallingly and shunned.

All wars are political but the people most affected by them are usually those with the least say in the matter.

The difference between now and Vietnam is that people can recognize that; wearing a uniform doesn’t mean you agree with the mission.

Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I and the Tour de France bike race will visit the scene of some of the most brutal fighting.

An estimated 900,000 casualties were sustained by German and Allied forces at Ypres and what is now a relatively sleepy Belgian town will host the fifth stage of the 2014 event.

Ypres also hosts an Under-12 football tournament to commemorate "The Christmas Truce."

Legend has it that in 1914, warring forces silenced their guns to kick a ball around between the trenches - now the English Premier League promotes the event to honor the sacrifice made by previous generations of footballers.

In Britain, the relationship between sport and the military isn’t as obvious as it in the U.S., but things are changing.

The "Help for Heroes" charity, which was established in 2007, has drastically changed British attitudes towards servicemen and women wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Specially arranged rugby matches featuring some of the world’s most legendary players have raised millions of dollars and retired footballers have done the same playing for the Heroes Cup.

Serving troops and wounded veterans can now benefit from the "Tickets for Troops" organization which provides complimentary access to major events. Around 70% of the tickets available are for sporting events, donated by the top teams in the land.

British sport and the nation's armed forces are never more closely linked than this time each year, with sporting events marking Remembrance weekend with moments of silence and the laying of wreaths.

Remembrance Day, an annual day dedicated to those Commonwealth soldiers who have died in service, falls on November 11 each year, marking the end of First World War hostilities in 1918 on the 11th day of the 11th month at 11 a.m.

The occasion is marked by millions with the wearing of poppies, although controversy raged when football's world governing body FIFA prohibited the England team from displaying an embroidered poppy on its shirt during a match against Spain in 2011.

FIFA eventually lifted its ban following a plea from the British government, but an earlier statement from the Swiss-based body warned that allowing the wearing of poppies would "open the door to similar initiatives from all over the world, jeopardizing the neutrality of football."

While some might see the close relationship between sport and the military as an important way of supporting troops, FIFA's words raise the question, can these links be too close for comfort.

It has also been suggested to me that these very public shows of support for the armed forces are more for the benefit and conscience of the sports fans in the arenas than the troops they are supposed to be honoring.

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Filed under:  U.S. Sport
soundoff (9 Responses)
  1. Huw Thomas

    There seems to be a form of religious idolatry attached to the poppy and remembrance. I have to say it is an abomination in the eyes of the Eternal Almighty. We are admonished to remember one death, the death of the Eternal Son.

    November 11, 2013 at 3:43 pm | Reply
    • tiltonroad1

      Well the bits of my relatives bodies still lie out on the Western Front as do many others and all they ask of us is to buy a poppy and remember one day, not much to ask is it ?

      November 12, 2013 at 6:22 pm | Reply
  2. walicarr

    Thanks for this piece. Appreciate your thoughtful, nuanced perspective, and the comparison between U.S. and Britain. My younger son is in the Navy, the 4th generation in the family to serve. We had family members who served in the "forgotten" Korean War, and the "shunned" Vietnam War. I'm happy to see the attention given to our servicemembers; we can never thank them enough. But, like you, I sometimes wonder about the true motive behind the support from sports organizations and corporations in the advertising-crazy world. Thanks again.

    November 11, 2013 at 3:44 pm | Reply
  3. Jan De Schepper

    Ypres is not a French town but a Belgian town ! And it is not a sleeping town ! Everyday there is a remembrance with 'The Last Post' under the Menense Poort, visited by hundreds of people every day !

    November 11, 2013 at 5:25 pm | Reply
    • garymorleyCNN

      This has been corrected, thanks

      November 12, 2013 at 10:24 am | Reply
      • Jan De Schepper

        Your'e wellcome ! Thanks for the correction.

        Jan De Schepper

        November 13, 2013 at 7:19 pm |
  4. Susan

    I am a US citizen and find the constant presence of patriotic displays and anthems at sporting events to be very intrusive, even a bit offensive. I think the onslaught of such patriotic ferver in sports trivializes our remembering our veterans and currently serving military. Yes, the national anthem has always been played before a game – that I like. But now, displays of patriotism occur throughout the game. In my favorite sport, baseball, there is the traditional seventh-inning stretch and was meant to be just that – stand up and stretch your legs. Now it includes another patriotic song. Too much, too much. I do applaud the Chicago Cubs, who remain true to the fact that this is a sporting event first and foremost. During the seventh-inning stretch, Cub fans stand up and sing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame". Good for them.

    November 12, 2013 at 9:10 am | Reply
  5. tiltonroad1

    The only patriotic feeling in Britain is when one of the national teams are playing and that should be enough.

    November 12, 2013 at 6:13 pm | Reply
  6. tiltonroad1

    Sport in Britain on a domestic front is hardly ever patriotic as the article above states, minutes silence nearest to the 11th or the national anthem at the cup finals is all you get.
    Having been to Ypres I can assure you its not a sleepy town and the people there do us proud at the Menin Gate (Fire Brigade) and I thank them for that.

    November 12, 2013 at 6:31 pm | Reply

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