When Sports Wave the Flag -- for Dollars

Some tributes to the troops at events strike a wrong note when they seem to be a prop for popcorn, ticket sales, and TV ratings

By Mark Hyman

Opening Day for the World Series champions Anaheim Angels was nothing if not thundering. Before the first pitch on Mar. 30, four F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jets in tight formation roared above Edison Field as the sellout crowd roared below.

Echoes of America's war effort have been front and center at sporting events since coalition forces moved into Iraq last month. They even fell out of the sky at the Florida Marlins' first home game as an Air Force Academy jump team parachuted onto the field trailing a massive Stars & Stripes.


  It's right and righteous to back the troops and applaud their stunning sacrifice. We put our sports heroes on pedestals as high as the Goodyear blimp. But their acts of pseudo valor -- grabbing a clutch rebound or knifing into the end zone for the winning score -- look positively puny compared with the courage of a 19-year-old female soldier from Palestine, W.Va., former prisoner of war Jessica Lynch.

So if showing solidarity with the troops is so right, why do some sports tributes feel so wrong?

Perhaps it's because glorifying armaments smacks of Soviet-era parades. And in a few cases, it's because America's sports moguls are selling patriotism right along with the pennants and popcorn. The Arena Football League, which isn't overburdened by fans, distributed 10,000 U.S. flags as a come-on to customers attending the Dallas-San Jose game on Apr. 6. The hometown Desperados invited military families in the Dallas area to attend for free. A few were interviewed on an NBC telecast beamed to servicefolk overseas.


  How would a reporter know this? Because NBC issued a press release about the "Salute the Troops" show, leaving few self-congratulatory phrases unturned. "We sat down with NBC and were able to do some creative things to show our support for the troops," says Desperados owner Jerry Jones. Using public sentiment to pump up ticket sales and ratings "wasn't our objective," he adds. Sure, Delta Force bobblehead dolls weren't for sale, but can that be far behind?

Activists can also appear to be exploiting patriotic passions during war. Addressing a rally outside City Hall in New York, Martha Burk, who's crusading for women to be admitted to Augusta National -- home of the Masters -- said the club's policies were "an insult to the 250,000 women serving in the military." Faced with withering criticism, she later said she had been misunderstood.

Wars and sports have a tangled history here. General Abner Doubleday probably was given credit for inventing baseball -- a claim that now appears to be indefensible -- partly because he was a Union hero of the Civil War. During World War I, Major League Baseball clubs helped bankroll the War Dept. by buying $8 million in Liberty War Bonds.


  In wartime, sporting events have been uniquely popular gathering spots for fans to root, root, root for the troops. "Modern sport has become an emblem for a society's fitness and strength. So the struggle on the field is connected to something larger," says Mike Mullan, a Swarthmore College professor who teaches a course called "War, Sport, and the Construction of the Masculine Identity."

Americans are generally less tolerant of fans or athletes who use the mighty pulpit of pro sports to object to U.S. foreign policy. Steve Nash, a Dallas Mavericks player, wore a T-shirt to the National Basketball Assn.'s All-Star festivities in February that read: "No War, Shoot for Peace." Nash, a Canadian born in South Africa, was promptly dressed down by fellow star David Robinson, the only active NBA player to have attended a military academy.

Mavs owner Mark Cuban seems to have it right. "I've always felt it's better not to commercialize tragic events or the loss of troops," Cuban says in an e-mail to BusinessWeek. So before their games, the Mavs honor the sacrifice of our troops with a simple moment of silence. It can be heard all the way to the streets of Baghdad.

Hyman is BusinessWeek contributing editor for Sports Business

Edited by Ciro Scotti

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