Monday, November 16, 2009

College football promotes military values

When Maryland’s star receiver Torrey Smith caught a pass in the second quarter of the Terps’ game vs. Virginia Tech Saturday, fans saw the familiar No. 82 streak past his defender for a 21-yard gain.
Above that No. 82, though, was not “SMITH,” but the word “COURAGE.”
Maryland’s players were wearing special military-style uniforms as part of a promotion for the Wounded Warriors project, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping veterans transition to civilian life. The uniforms, also worn by South Carolina’s players in a separate game, featured camouflage sleeves and various military ideals printed on the back, such as “DUTY,” “COMMITMENT” and “COUNTRY.”
In some ways, the promotion was similar to the WBCA Pink Zone campaign, which raises awareness about breast cancer with the help of various college women’s basketball teams who wear pink uniforms and shoes on a designated “Think Pink” day.
What’s different is that the pink uniforms and shoes relate directly to the organization. The uniforms worn by the football players, however, promoted military ideals and gave no hint to fans or media members about the actual Wounded Warriors project. In fact, the Wounded Warriors project has its own set of core ideals, such as “FUN,” “INTEGRITY” and “INNOVATION,” but those words were not on the jerseys.
The Wounded Warrior project is not about blind commitment to country, but about helping soldiers re-adjust to life after perilous combat experiences. As scholar Michael Butterworth argues, such promotions are seemingly “innocent” displays, but position the United States’ military as good and just, while at the same time silencing critique of American military policies. In the case here, media accounts were more about uplifting stories from the battlefield and less about the problems soldiers face in returning from war, such as high rates of suicide or post-traumatic stress syndrome. As the Associated Press wrote:

[The Terps' Matt] Grooms spent six months in Kuwait outfitting and fixing transport trucks in Iraq. He was nearly killed by a virus and was rattled by an American missile that exploded too close to camp. Still, he said it was “the best four years I’ve had.”

No one will argue with the value of the Wounded Warrior project. And considering various reports about the struggles soldiers face in readjusting to civilian life, it’s clearly a badly needed program in need of visibility and support. Too bad the promotion forgot to focus on the soldiers who need that support.
-Erin Whiteside


Michael Butterworth said...

Thanks for the nod, Erin. The idea that college football teams should sponsor such an organization not only serves to normalize the presence of the military in sport, but also raises real questions about why a purportedly amateur endeavor is invovled with this at all. In addition to the excellent points you've made here, I'd also add that the use of college football to promote Wounded Warriors makes it all too easy for us to praise the purpose of the non-profit, which simultaneously deflects criticism away from the failures of the actual U.S. military/government to assist veterans when they return home.

Michael Butterworth said...

Thanks for the nod, Erin. It's striking just how routine these kinds of promotions have become. Why, exactly, should college football--a purportedly amateur endeavor--be the site for such an effort? In addition to the excellent comments you've made here, I'd also note that the generic "support the troops" logic at use here not only normalizes the presence of the military in sports, it also deflects criticism away from those who have failed these veterans the most--the U.S. military and government. Really, why should a non-profit organization have to raise awareness of this issue at all? Of course, such a critique would be lost in the rhetoric of "courage," "duty," etc.