War & Sports (Part I)

Editor’s Note: This started out as an article about Don Cherry getting fired and turned into an exploration of the militarization of professional sports. You can read Part II here.


It hadn’t occurred to me to write about Don Cherry’s firing — I tend to avoid issues that are being covered like the dew by mainstream media — until I saw people in my Facebook feed defending him.

For those of you who have somehow remained blissfully ignorant of Cherry’s last stand, he used his annual Remembrance Day episode of Coach’s Corner — the five-minute segment he and Ron MacLean host during the first intermission of Hockey Night in Canada (HNIC) broadcasts — to say this:

You know, I was talking to a veteran, I said, I’m not going to run the poppy thing anymore because, what’s the sense? I live in Mississauga, nobody wears…very few people wear…a poppy. Downtown Toronto, forget it, downtown Toronto, nobody wears a poppy…He says, wait a minute, how bout running it for the people that buy them? Now you go to the small cities and you know, the rows on rows, you people love you they come here whatever it is, you love our way of life, you love our milk and honey, at least you could pay a couple of bucks for a poppy, so something like that. These guys paid for your way of life that you enjoy in Canada. These guys paid…the biggest price.

Now, granted, Cherry’s remarks are always open to interpretation because the language he employs is no more than a reasonable facsimile of English and he often veers into pure stream of consciousness (note the “rows on rows” that slipped into that statement above, presumably a reference to “In Flanders Fields,” but who actually knows?). In fact, there was a short-lived YouTube channel devoted to transcribing his Coach’s Corner comments and it was fabulous:


And just in case you, like me, were attributing the scattershot approach to commentary to Cherry’s advanced age (he’s 85), I give you this “Throwback Thursday” clip:


In fact, according to this 2017 New York Times profile, Cherry’s abuse of the language almost got him booted from the CBC soon after he was hired, in 1980, by HNIC executive producer Ralph Mellanby:

Mellanby loved Cherry’s showmanship, but by the early 1980s, CBC executives wanted him out because he was mangling names and butchering the language. “I said, ‘If Cherry goes, I go,’” Mellanby said, and management backed off.

So yeah, Cherry is not always easy to understand, but those defenders asking me to believe that when he said “you people” he was referring to “all Canadians” are asking me to ignore that the actual reference, however garbled, was to you people “that come here” by which he clearly meant immigrants.


I have more sympathy with those who see this as a free speech issue — I am actually in favor of television personalities having more leeway to speak their minds, to be open about their biases rather than pretending to have none. But who on Canadian television has had more freedom to speak his mind than Cherry?

Writing in La Presse (under the headline, “Don Cherry fired 25 years too late“), Alexandre Pratt remembered an exchange between Cherry and MacLean from the early ’90s concerning Darius Kasparitis of the New York Islanders, a player Cherry liked, despite his being — horror of horrors — European. (Lithuanian, to be exact.) MacLean noted this contradiction and Cherry defended himself by saying:

There were even some good guys among the Nazis!

For which he was…allowed to continue working for the national broadcaster (and crapping all over the French) at a salary that must have broken the hearts of cash-strapped regional radio directors from coast to coast to coast.

In 2012, as the CBC faced a 10% cut in its federal funding, the Globe & Mail suggested that Cherry’s annual salary, estimated at $800,000, might make him “a big fat target for CBC cuts.”

It didn’t.

But Cherry’s days as a CBC employee were numbered for an entirely different reason — in 2013, Rogers Media inked a $5.2 billion-over-12-years deal with the NHL for Canadian national broadcast rights and although it looked at first like the end of Coach’s Corner, Cherry and MacLean hung on — the former at a salary that NYT profile put at “about $1 million” (noting this was “below market value”).

It was the Rogers Media subsidiary Sportsnet that fired Cherry on Remembrance Day, setting me to wondering not whether or not Cherry should have been let go (I think he should have been let go years ago), but about why the host of a five-minute segment supposedly devoted to hockey analysis was talking about poppies in the first place.

The answer to that is kind of interesting.


I can’t swear to this because I don’t have access to the entire Coach’s Corner archives, but my strong hunch is that Cherry’s persona as the country’s greatest supporter of the military is a post-9/11 phenomenon.

I say this because the “militarization” of professional sports is largely a post-9/11 phenomenon, and a well-documented one at that. Here’s the American writer Norman Mailer warning about it in 2003:

The dire prospect that opens, therefore, is that America is going to become a mega-banana republic where the army will have more and more importance in Americans’ lives. It will be an ever greater and greater overlay on the American system. And before it is all over, democracy, noble and delicate as it is, may give way…

Indeed, democracy is the special condition — a condition we will be called upon to defend in the coming years. That will be enormously difficult because the combination of the corporation, the military and the complete investiture of the flag with mass spectator sports has set up a pre-fascistic atmosphere in America already.

Mailer, it should be noted, was a veteran, having served in the U.S. Army in WWII, and I found that quote of his in a post (called “Why Can’t We Just Play Ball?“) by another veteran, retired Air Force lieutenant colonel William Astore, who wrote:

What started as a post-9/11 drive to get an American public to “thank” the troops endlessly for their service in distant conflicts — stifling criticism of those wars by linking it to ingratitude — has morphed into a new form of national reverence. And much credit goes to professional sports for that transformation. In conjunction with the military and marketed by corporations, they have reshaped the very practice of patriotism in America.

Another Tom Dispatch contributor, Andrew Bacevich, illustrated this point by describing his 2011 Independence Day experience at Boston’s Fenway Park, where the Red Sox were about to play the Toronto Blue Jays. The pre-game festivities included the Air Force, the Navy, the Marine Corps and a flyover by four U.S. Air Force F-15C Eagles.

Then came a staged military family reunion, as a young officer serving on the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier appeared on the Jumbotron to tell her family, gathered on the field below, that she wished she could join them at Fenway. As the video played, the officer herself emerged from behind a flag covering the leftfield wall. The family was surprised. The crowd went wild. The point of it all, in Bacevich’s view, was pretty damned cynical:

Put simply, the message that citizens wish to convey to their soldiers is this: although choosing not to be with you, we are still for you (so long as being for you entails nothing on our part).  Cheering for the troops, in effect, provides a convenient mechanism for voiding obligation and easing guilty consciences.

The late German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer had a name for this unearned self-forgiveness and undeserved self-regard. He called it cheap grace. Were he alive today, Bonhoeffer might suggest that a taste for cheap grace, compounded by an appetite for false freedom, is leading Americans down the road to perdition.

And where the Americans go, we often follow.

If you’re wondering what that 2011 Fenway Park scene looked like, just watch this 2019 scene from Toronto, where the Maple Leafs have been celebrating Canadian Armed Forces Appreciation Night since 2006:



Harnessing sporting events to increase support for the military (and stifle criticism of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) was a right-wing conservative inspiration — a product of the George W. Bush/Dick Cheney era — but its influence on American politics has lingered. Once you’ve weaponized patriotism, its hard to stand it down.

Likewise, here in Canada, Stephen Harper’s twin obsessions with the military and hockey have outlasted his government — that military family reunion on ice noted above happened earlier this year. Conservatives have successfully defined “patriotism” as “militarism” (Harper literally tried to convince us to think of ourselves as a nation of “Proud Warriors”) and scared everyone patriotic. Cherry’s attempt to bully people into wearing poppies is part and parcel of this. But if you think critically for just a moment about his message, your eyes will cross:

Canadian soldiers fought and died so that you could be free to shut up and do what Don Cherry tells you to.

Howard Bryant, an American sports journalist and author, reports that he was told by a baseball executive that his sport promotes the military “not out of patriotism but out of fear — the fear of being called unpatriotic.”

That said, many sports franchises promoted the US military because the US military paid them to.

But that’s a subject for Part II of this article.