Sports and War

By Michael Wood

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Why does society insist on comparing sport to war? This is something I’ve often wondered, but never really understood.

Deviance is defined as differing from the norm or accepted standards of society. Often we associate this term with an individual, whose words or actions may be unlike that of which we are used to, or a method, which seems detached from accepted practices. We do not, however, think about positive deviance, or, the intense conformity and over-acceptance of practices that are typically outside the norm.

Positive deviance can be found in all sports and is often responsible for many of the problems associated with the industry, particularly the functioning of the teams and athletes themselves as well as the structures that run them.

About a week ago, I watched a movie in my Issues in Sports class entitled “Football High.” It was produced by FRONTLINE, a leader in video documentaries and, what it calls, “thought-provoking journalism stories.” In an hour documentary, “Football High” followed a high school football team from Arkansas and reported on the growing trend of life-threatening injuries and brain damage caused by participating in high school football.

To make a long story short, injuries in high school sports have been on the rise, and football leads the way. Coaches know this and choose to continue to push the envelope. As long as the team wins, everybody is okay with it. This is a clear example of positive deviance.

What struck me as deviant, however, wasn’t the fact that football players were getting injured. We all know that hitting someone over and over again and practicing in 120 degree heat is dangerous. Rather, it was the behavior of the coaches who, at a high school level, compared playing the sport to going to war with your opponent’s team. Once again, everybody seems to be okay with this, so long as the winning continues.

 

I recently read “A People’s History of Sports in the United States” by Dave Zirin. The book aims to point out how American sports have changed with society over generations, and that in most cases, sports have changed society itself. The following is one thing that Zirin cited that stuck me, and directly relates to the analogy of sports and warfare.

Sportswriter Leonard Schecter once wrote of American sports in the 1970s, “We play our games, or watch them contested, with the same tenacious ferocity with which we fight war in Vietnam and with as little reason or sense. We are taught from the cradle that we have never lost a war and winning is everything. Tying is like kissing your sister and losing means nothing.”

What Schecter is pointing out is the dramatic effect that sport has on people’s psyche. It’s the social paradigm of treating sports with comparable or even the same intensity and fervor as one should treat a war, like placing it up on that same pedestal. I have never understood why people do this, but it constantly shows up throughout athletics of all levels and age groups. That passage was written in the ’70s, and yet, it’s still relevant today.

Coaches in nearly every sport treat their game like it’s a life or death situation, with no regard for what they are actually comparing it to. They say things like “keep battling out there” or “this is war, men.” I’ve even known some to compare it to great battles in history or, in one unfortunate case, the holocaust.

Mini-camps and preseason workouts are often dubbed “boot camp.” In reality, this is really quite disturbing. Soldiers go to boot camp to prepare themselves from what might be waiting to kill them around the next corner or checkpoint. Athletes have camp to work off whatever body fat they might have amassed during the time their sport of choice isn’t in season. These aren’t subtle differences, and yet, no one seems to be addressing them.

“Football is war,” I once heard a college coach say. “Fans like it violent, and as long as nobody is getting killed out there, nobody is going to ream me out for playing physical football.” Again, positive deviance.

 

Most people either aren’t bright enough to look for these subtle comparisons in everyday life, or they choose not to acknowledge them. The fact is, sports are constantly being compared to war in almost every fashion. Hell, even announcers get into the mix when they’re calling games on TV.

I don’t think I have to explain the difference between sports and war. One is a violent and unforgiving chain of events, and one is a privilege for those who can run and jump faster than everybody else. It’s an egregious assault on the former to compare the two at all, and an unforgivable insult to those who are involved in the chaos and uncertainty of an actual war. Nobody gets killed from a roadside bomb on a baseball field, and nobody wins a Stanley Cup in Iraq or Afghanistan.

 

It’s plain irresponsible to think that sports and war are at all alike. Is it because sports are physical that makes them akin to dropping into enemy territory with a very real chance of never coming back? Is it because you have to be in top physical form to participate in both means they’re comparable? Please, spare me your ignorance.

Maybe I’m old-fashioned, maybe I’m overreacting or maybe I’m wrong and just reading too much into these types of behavior, but I see no point in comparing a simple sporting event to a battle or a war. I don’t care how dire the circumstances for your season are or how badly you want to beat your opponent. A football game should never be compared to the Nazi occupation of France – yes, I’ve heard that one too. It’s a stupid, thoughtless, heartless and misguided analogy that holds no ground at all. Anywhere or ever.

Yet, as Schecter notes, people make the comparison, and they make it often. I don’t know why they made it earlier in history, and I don’t know why we still make it today, but as a fan and student of sports, it baffles me.

At the end of the day, it is just a game. It really is. Though for many, it’s much more, perhaps a brotherhood, maybe a cult or a family, but it’s never a war. No matter how you spin it.

Michael Wood is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]