November 13, 2003

Comparing Athletics and the Battlefield

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Part I: In which the author introduces us to Kellen Winslow, bare breasts, and the highest crime in media.

Last Saturday night, after Tennessee dashed the BCS hopes of Miami by handing them their second straight loss, All-American tight end and All-World mouthpiece Kellen Winslow Jr. vented his frustration: “It’s war … They’re out there to kill you, so I’m out there to kill them … They’re going after my legs. I’m going to come right back at them. I’m a f@#$ing soldier!”

Winslow later apologized for those comments and will not start for the Hurricanes this weekend against Syracuse, though head coach Larry Coker said the decision was a result of Winslow’s two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties against Va. Tech and Tennessee, not his locker room tirade.

Athletes at every level lose their tempers all the time. Actually, as incidents like this go, Winslow comes off as almost angelic. It’s not like he threw someone through the front window of a bar (Charles Barkley), cold-cocked a teammate at practice (Bill Romanowski), or ripped a urinal out of the wall (Kevin Brown). All he is guilty of is becoming emotional after losing the game that ended the relevance of his last college season. You can almost sympathize.

Ah, but this is the United States in the year 2003. Winslow is guilty of the highest of all media crimes — comparing sports to war. Luckily for Winslow, Attorney General John Ashcroft hasn’t issued an arrest warrant. He was busy spending $8,000 to drape a cloth over the naked nubile breast of the statue of Lady Justice and missed the entire telecast.

There’s something wrong if Winslow is being raked over the coals for having the temerity to compare the violent mentality of football to that of war and not for being an immature, overrated prima donna who is a loooooong way from living up to the memory of his Hall of Fame father. But that is the way things are now, in a world without a Trade Center.

Part II: In which the author risks being held without trial in a rat-infested cell to illuminate the stupidity of a nation.

Why is it that we can no longer use words like “dogfight,” “fully-loaded,” “trenches,” and “bomb” without having to apologize? Why is “Rocket” Ismail all of a sudden merely Raghib Ismail?

For some reason, it is thought that such comparisons to battle devalue and insult our soldiers who are fighting, bleeding, dying, and committing suicide in Iraq. It’s a detriment to their memory and their mission to think of a football game as a battle when bullets are flying over their heads and landmines are exploding at their feet. Surely, comparing the drama in the bottom of the ninth to the drama of a Baghdad firefight is blatantly inaccurate. But is it insulting? Is it detrimental to the point that we as a society should avoid such language?

Of course it’s not. Assuming that when Chris Berman refers to a Sammy Sosa home run as “a long bomb,” he somehow affects the mentality of our soldiers abroad isn’t just silly, it’s asinine. There is a sense of false patriotism that has pervaded this country for the past two years, and it makes me sick. People who have never voted and can’t name five presidents smother their cars with American flags and assume that doing so makes them good citizens. Our civil liberties are peeled back line by line under the guise of securing the homeland and we all stand by and say “ok.”

But you know what? I can live with that. Democracy is at work, and I’m sure that our elected officials are doing what’s best for us. I accept this (But really — and I think that even my journalistic colleagues over at the Cornell Review would agree with me on this — aren’t you slightly afraid that Bush will run the country into the ground like he did the Texas Rangers? Like, he’ll make the political equivalent of the Sammy Sosa trade and leave office with a legacy of losing? Does anyone else think about these things?). But after Pearl Harbor, during WWII, and throughout the conflicts that followed, sports remained unclouded by the machinations of the political world. There were no outcries against the journalists of those periods, no changes made to athletic events to make them “more patriotic.”

Of course, we did start singing the national anthem before all sporting events. But the key word there is “before”, not during.

I’ve got to draw the line when the powers that be mess with sports. It is insisted that “God Bless America” is sung during the seventh inning stretch of every baseball game, as if making the visiting pitcher stew in the dugout for an extra 10 minutes brings us together as a nation. What? Is the national anthem not adequate tribute?

The great thing about this country is freedom. We should have the freedom to watch a baseball game without seeing people pretend to care about politics. I should be able to freely refer to Vlad Guerrero’s arm as a howitzer, because damn, he sure can throw.

Part III: In which the author makes a fair and balanced comparison of sports and war.

Politics aside, the real issue is the relationship between athletics and combat. There is a reason that descriptions of sporting events so often call upon war for adequate adjectives. The two ideals have been intertwined since for as long as they have existed. The first sports originated in classical military training. The javelin, the shot-put, and the discus throw are all Olympic events; each implement was a weapon in ancient times. What of running? Jumping? Need I explain boxing and wrestling?

Let me be blunt: sports ARE war. Period. Look into the eyes of a linebacker as he takes on a running back, or a sprinter as she makes the final turn of the 400m finals, and tell me that sports are not life and death. Athletes will say that sports are just games, because it is the politically correct thing to say. But in their heart of hearts they believe differently. When their guards are down, like Kellen Winslow’s was on Saturday, you will hear the truth.

I know that anything I say here will be viewed as ridiculous, mostly because I lack the skill to accurately articulate something about which I feel so strongly. But I shall try.

When I row against another crew, I am at war. There are moments, when the lactic acid burns through my muscles and the pain takes away my vision, that I would turn my back on everyone I have ever known if it would allow me to pull just a little bit harder and move the shell just a little bit faster. The race is a fight, a battle, and the determination and desire involved is no less than a soldier’s. How can I make that statement, you ask, since I have never been to war? Well, how do you know that I am wrong, if you have never been an athlete? Because, if you are an athlete, in your heart of hearts you know that I am right.

There is a moment in every sport where the athlete must decide how much of himself he is willing to lay on the line. The only difference between an athlete and a soldier is that the soldier has answered that question simply by enlisting.

We refer to athletics as mere games, and are taught to think of them as trivial at best. Yet, I remember how my grandfather broke down in tears when he told me about watching the USA beat the Soviet Union in the 1980 Olympic ice hockey semifinals. I remember watching old footage of Jesse Owens outsprinting Nazis. I remember Jackie Robinson. I remember not sleeping for three days after the Red Sox lost to the Yankees a month ago. Sports are war, and the battlefield is in our hearts and minds.

Part IV: In which the author paints a vision for the future.

In ancient times, sports were the substitute for war. During the festivals that came to be known as the Olympics,
warring peoples laid down their arms (which the U.S. sadly did not do during the 2002 Winter Games), believing that there was more honor in out-running a man than in killing him. The great athletes became leaders of men, and were lauded as heroes. We have taken democracy from our ancestors, and we still have coliseums where the masses call for violence; why has the ideal of heroic athleticism become taboo?

We live in a world where military might is the defining arbiter of power, and all we have accomplished is discover about a thousand different ways to kill each other. There is a higher standard than how many nuclear weapons a country has, and it is right there in the history books. War tells us only who is more ruthless, not who is right. Elections do not decide who is best to govern, only who is more manipulative. The answer is clear — the conflicts of this world should be settled by the honor and glory of sports.

If you want to be President of the United States, instead of making promises you’ll never live up to and fake-smiling your way through an election, all you have to do is win the decathlon. The eyes of the nation will focus on the L.A. Coliseum (naturally) and we’ll all watch as John Kerry bitch-slaps Bush in the high jump (although, I’d probably have to give Dubya the edge in the 1500m).

Instead of fighting, countries will settle disputes on the field. The balance of power would shift astronomically, considering that the USA has LOST almost every single world sport tournament in the last few years, including the World Basketball Championships, both the men’s and women’s World Cup, and the Little League World Series. We can’t even win the America’s Cup, and it’s named after us.

The war in Iraq? Just send over Lance Armstrong and let him sort things out.

Lance: “Can you beat me in a race from Baghdad to Nasiriya?”

Saddam: “No.”

Lance: “Well, then stop killing the Kurds and building weapons, and give us a fair price on oil.”

Saddam: “Do as the One-Testicled One says!”

What’s not to like?

Archived article by Per Ostman