As long as I can remember, I’ve been a sports fan. As long as I can remember, I’ve been interested in the military. Until recently, I experienced those as two separate and distinct worlds. While I was in the military—I served for 20 years as an officer in the US Air Force—I did, of course, play sports. As a young lieutenant, I was in a racquetball tournament at my base in Colorado. At Squadron Officer School in Alabama, I took part in volleyball and flickerball (a bizarre Air Force sport). At the Air Force Academy, I was on a softball team, and when we finally won a game, all of us signed the ball. I also enjoyed being in a military bowling league. I even had my own ball with my name engraved on it.
Don’t misunderstand me. I was never particularly skilled at any sport, but I did thoroughly enjoy, playing partly because it was such a welcome break from work—a reprieve from wearing a uniform, saluting, following orders, and all the rest. Sports were sports. Military service was military service. And never the twain shall meet.
Since 9/11, however, sports and the military have become increasingly fused in this country. Professional athletes now consider it perfectly natural to don uniforms that feature camouflage patterns. (They do this, teams say, as a form of “military appreciation.”) Indeed, for only $39.99 you, too, can buy your own Major League Baseball–sanctioned camo cap at MLB’s official site. And then, of course, you can use that cap in any stadium to shade your eyes as you watch flyovers, parades, reunions of service members returning from our country’s war zones and their families, and a multitude of other increasingly militarized ceremonies that celebrate both veterans and troops in uniform at sports stadiums across what, in the post-9/11 years, has come to be known as “the homeland.” These days, you can hardly miss moments when, for instance, playing fields are covered with gigantic American flags, often unfurled and held either by scores of military personnel or civilian defense contractors. Such ceremonies are invariably touted as natural expressions of patriotism, part of a continual public expression of gratitude for America’s “war fighters” and “heroes.” These are, in other words, uncontroversial displays of pride, even though a study ordered by Republican Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake revealed that the US taxpayer, via the Pentagon, has regularly forked over tens of millions of dollars ($53 million between 2012 and 2015 alone) to corporate-owned teams to put on just such displays.