War & Sports (Part II)

Editor’s Note: This is Part II of what 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 I here.


Back in 2015, this relationship between the military and professional sports was the subject of US congressional investigation led by Arizona Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake (both Republicans).

Tackling Paid Patriotism

This is the actual cover of the report.

Their report, “Tackling Paid Patriotism,” found that between 2012 and 2015 (under a Democratic president, Obama), the US Department of Defense (DOD) had spent $53 million on marketing and advertising contracts with American sports teams, over $10 million of which went to teams in the National Football League (NFL), Major League Baseball (MLB), National Basketball Association (NBA), National Hockey League (NHL) and Major League Soccer (MLS).

McCain and Flake, it should be noted, were fine with the notion of the military recruiting at sporting events and noted that “some of what was contracted” with the professional sports leagues appeared to be “legitimate” expenses — like space for recruiting booths at games. What they objected to was spending for which the DOD could not account (30% of that $10 million), spending that seemed like perks for DOD officials (game tickets and viewing suites) and spending on what they termed “paid patriotism”:

These paid tributes included on-field color guard, enlistment and reenlistment ceremonies, performances of the national anthem, full-field flag details, ceremonial first pitches͕ and puck drops. The National Guard paid teams for the “opportunity” to sponsor military appreciation nights and to recognize its birthday. It paid the Buffalo Bills to sponsor its Salute to the Service game. DOD even paid teams for the “opportunity” to perform surprise welcome home promotions for troops returning from deployments and to recognize wounded warriors.

The Arizona senators felt that:

Given the immense sacrifices made by our service members, it seems more appropriate that any organization with a genuine interest in honoring them, and deriving public credit as a result, should do so at its own expense and not at that of the American taxpayer.

Football teams were the biggest recipients of this DOD spending and the Atlanta Falcons were the biggest football recipients, receiving $879,000 for “paid patriotism and perks” between 2012 and 2015.

(In fact, as early as 2009, the DOD had dumped millions of dollars into the NFL in exchange for displays of patriotism. Fun fact: this was the first year that players, who used to stay in the locker room during the national anthem, were moved to the field in an effort to make them look more patriotic.)

But a couple of NHL franchises made out quite well too — the Minnesota Wild did best, receiving $570,000, followed by Don Cherry’s old team, the Boston Bruins, at $280,000. Among the perks the Bruins were paid for was “access to one luxury box for 18 people and one executive view suite for 25 people on military appreciation night” 2013.

As a result of the report, McCain, Flake and Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal filed and amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016 prohibiting the DOD from paying to honor American soldiers at sporting events (and encouraging professional sports leagues that had received such money to give it to charity). It was approved by the Senate on 10 November 2015.


Here in Canada, six of the seven Canadian NHL teams host appreciation nights for the Canadian Military — the holdout is the Montreal Canadiens, but they splash out on Remembrance Day as much of the rest of the teams. Writing on the Hockey in Society blog (which explores “social issues in hockey), Brett Pardy noted that:

[T]eams ask season ticket holders to donate tickets to members of the Canadian military. Such events have a relatively recent history, started by Ottawa in 2003 and joined by the other English Canadian teams in 2006.

The calls for donations frame this as an opportunity to thank the military members for serving the country – Calgary Flames CEO Ken King sees it as a chance to thank the military “for your sacrifice and continued commitment to providing us a country where we feel safe, protected and enjoy all the liberties of freedom.” This notion of thanks is carried into the games through pre-game ceremonies and commercial break stoppage features (though also an opportunity to sell camo-print merchandise).

(If you’ve read Part I one of this article, you’ll recognize what Pardy is describing there as “cheap grace.”)

Pardy argues that if Canada’s militarization is less marked than that of the United States, it’s “not for the lack of trying on the part of the more conservative elements of Canadian culture (as can too often be seen in the NHL).” Elsewhere on the blog, Courtney Szto gets even even more specific, identifying Don Cherry as “the mouth piece for the connection between hockey and our military” which she illustrates with the following examples (although I am sure she had an embarrassment of riches to choose from):

  • in reference to Colton Orr, Cherry stated: “This is how fighters get ready.  This is a man.  This is a guy.  This is the guy you want at the end of the trench.”
  • during Coach’s Corner’s “Salute to Canadian Fallen Heroes” – “hockey players and the military are the same”.
  • during the 2011 Bridgestone Winter Classic, Cherry was shown signing machine guns in Afghanistan and posing for photos with our men (didn’t see any women) in uniform.

Pardy also notes that military professionals are the only ones NHL teams ever seem to “thank” for their service “despite many other groups providing more for the country (while receiving less recognition).” He suggests this is because the beliefs associated with militarism (although not necessarily with all those in military) — like the use of force to resolve differences and the division of the world into allies and enemies — are beliefs shared by the NHL.


Sports author and journalist Howard Bryant thinks the way the military is represented at sporting events “obscures the realities of war and, by focusing on soldiers, inoculates the government from antiwar criticism.”

Bryant spoke with William Astore, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, who called it a form of mental manipulation:

“Under the Bush-Cheney administration, we weren’t even able to see the caskets of dead soldiers,” Astore says. “The cost of war — that very ugly face of war — was being kept from us.

“And the only time we see it, sometimes, is when they bring out a wounded soldier, for example. And maybe he or she has lost two or three limbs, but they’re brought out into an NFL stadium or an MLB baseball game. And the impression that you get is, ‘Everything’s OK, see?’ But we don’t see this person struggling to get around at home. And maybe being depressed because they’ve suffered this horrible wound in war.

Crewmembers from Coast Guard Air Station Clearwater, Fla., fly two HH-60 Jayhawk Helicopters behind an HC-130 Hercules search plane over Raymond James Stadium in Tampa for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers military appreciation game 22 Nov. 2009. (Photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Robert Simpson, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)]

Crewmembers from Coast Guard Air Station Clearwater, Fla., fly two HH-60 Jayhawk Helicopters behind an HC-130 Hercules search plane over Raymond James Stadium in Tampa for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers military appreciation game 22 Nov. 2009. (Photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Robert Simpson, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

And while Senators Flake and McCain were fine with the military recruiting at sporting events, Astore had some objections:

I lived in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, for nine years. Of course, that’s the home of the Little League World Series. And one year, an Air Force van showed up. So kids, little leaguers, could come and go into this van and play video games. And the Air Force thought this was a great idea for recruitment. And I thought to myself, ‘This is completely inappropriate.’

I mean the Little League World Series should be for children. They’re not even teenagers yet. And for baseball, yeah. It should not be an opportunity for any military service to show up and try to recruit youngsters.

When I was interested in the military in high school, I went to see my civilian guidance counselor. There wasn’t a Marine recruiter challenging me to a pull-up contest. So I see these kinds of things as a gradual process of the militarization of our society. And I just see it as something that we, as a democracy, should be guarding against.

Reading this got me back to thinking about Cherry, who is always addressing his Coach’s Corner remarks to the “kids” he thinks are watching. Given the amount of airtime he devotes to the Canadian military, I think you could argue he’s an unofficial recruiter (albeit, not one officially sanctioned by the Canadian Military — although the Royal Military College in Kingston offered him an honorary degree in 2011, which he declined for fear of upstaging the two actual soldiers being honored at the same ceremony).

I find myself wondering what kids would make of segments like this 2006 Remembrance Day show, during which Cherry had the camera close in on a picture he’d received of a group of Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan. As the camera panned over the heavily armed men in camouflage, Cherry kept up a weird running commentary about how “beautiful” they were and how much they looked “like hockey players,” while MacLean, whose parents were members of the Canadian armed forces but who never served himself, made an explicit connection between war and sports:

You know why they love you, though, Don? Because you never picked your spots. I know it was only hockey, but you didn’t pick your spots. You think they picked their spots? They’re over there never weighing the costs or the sacrifice they’re making for us.



While Cherry glorifies war he doesn’t “obscure” its realities — he often offers tributes to dead soldiers, and in his 2018 Remembrance Day segment, explained (for the benefit of the kids, presumably) that:

When you’re a sniper, you’re never taken prisoner, you’re always, on either side, you’re shot right away.

But his general enthusiasm for all things military — and his mawkish celebration of soldiers’ sacrifices and their beauty and their similarity to hockey players — could certainly be construed as a recruitment tool.

Bottom line: he’s always talking to the kids and he’s always talking up the military. It would be interesting to know if he’d inspired anyone to join the service.


What I hadn’t realized, before I started researching the subject, was that sports and the military have become quite well fused in the United Kingdom too: it turns out English Premier League Football Clubs have been staging over-the-top Armistice Day celebrations for years, prompting the Independent’s chief football writer, Miguel Delaney, to suggest the time has come for football “to start asking some difficult questions about remembrance.”

Questions like:

How have the military become so embedded in football?

When did this properly start? How is it going to finish?

Who is benefiting, because it sometimes doesn’t seem it’s the injured or aggrieved that are supposed to?

And my favorite:

How has the basic act of buying a poppy to commemorate the dead and maybe contribute a bit to the afflicted so given way to what often feels like glorification of the military?

That such wretched excess apparently wasn’t part of Premier League games only 15 years ago tells me everything I need to know about where it came from — it’s got to be the same post-9/11 fever that swept North America, helped along, in Britain, by the Daily Mail which Delaney says “browbeat” football clubs into putting the poppy on their uniforms for Armistice Day.

But the “shows of respect” didn’t stop there — they now begin two weeks before November 11 and include everything from huge, poppy-covered flags; to huge, poppy-covered cakes; to an actual cannon being fired in a stadium; to this, which this appeared on the pitch at Prenton Park, home of the Tranmere Rovers Football Club, on November 9 and must surely represent peak poppy:

As Delaney writes:

The football activities around Remembrance Weekend are genuinely difficult to satirise at this point, most of it a newspaper cartoon made flesh.

He means that literally — Guardian cartoonist David Squires, though he’s apparently being trying valiantly for years, can barely keep ahead of the realities of football’s love affair with the poppy.

The phenomenon is particularly strange in the context of the English Premier League which, as of 2017, had the highest percentage of foreign players — 69.2% — of any league in Europe.

Which means there are players who have good reason not to wear a poppy — like James McClean of West Bromwhich Albion, an Irishman born on the Creggan estate in Derry, which was home to six of the people killed by the British Army on Bloody Sunday in 1972.

I don’t know if the UK military has the kind of overt, financial relationships with professional sports teams that the American military does, but the link to recruitment activity definitely exists. As Delaney points out, if the point of Armistice Day ceremonies were “quiet remembrance” there would be no recruitment vans outside stadiums, which “has been the case at Stoke City.”

It is similarly telling that you only really seem to see these vans at football grounds in the country’s more economically deprived areas and not, say, at somewhere like the Emirates with its mostly middle-class support.

That is what is so disconcerting about it, and you don’t have to go too far back in history for parallels with the authorities exploiting the working class to fight their wars.

Some of the sights at Remembrance weekend make it difficult not to think this is all a more modern and sophisticated version of that, as well as a giant recruitment ad.


And now for something of a twist ending: I actually do wear a poppy for Remembrance Day and it’s not because I’m afraid of Don Cherry.

I wear it because when I was reporter at the Eastern Graphic back in the late ’80s, I worked on two Remembrance Day editions of the paper and had the chance to interview some WWII veterans from the Island.

What I remember about those interviews — and those men — is that they were happy to tell stories about funny things that had happened to them and funny guys they had known but they did not want to talk about the war. I remember the way they’d close down when I asked anything about the actual battles and one telling me something like, “That’s nothing to talk about.”

I got the message, loud and clear, that war is a terrible thing, and I wear a poppy in acknowledgment of that fact.

But I figure why you wear a poppy — or if you wear a poppy — is up to you and I would feel decidedly un-Canadian trying to browbeat you into wearing one.