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Gridiron Imperialism: How the NFL Propagandizes for the US Military

Image depicts a US Navy Salute at a football game. Via Creative Commons CC0

On September 12th, Gillette Stadium welcomed fans to a new New England Patriots game for the first time since January 2020. The tone surrounding the pregame ceremonies, however, had little to do with the pandemic or the return of football; rather, the team’s pregame ceremonies focused on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, and more recently, the United States’ disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan. The ceremony said nothing of the ill-advised war or its costs over two decades; rather, it glorified American interventionism. 

This ceremony was part of the broader trend of militarism that pervades the NFL. From military ceremonies prior to NFL games, and partnerships between military-affiliated groups and the League, to the much-discussed state of the National Anthem and the NFL, militarism pervades American football. This omnipotence of militarism plays a key role in crafting how everyday Americans feel about the military, leading to a sense of reverence for US militarism that manufactures public consent for ongoing American neoimperialist military interventions in the Middle East and across the globe.

The September 12th pregame ceremony began with an acknowledgment of the 20-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks before moving on to more recent events: the Afghanistan withdrawal and the Kabul airport bombing. The team held a moment of silence for the 13 American soldiers killed in the August 26th attack outside of Kabul’s airport, followed shortly after by a flyover of three US military planes intended to evoke patriotic fervor from the crowd before the National Anthem and, finally, the start of the 2021 NFL season. 

More notable was what the ceremony did not mention: Nothing was said of the more than 100 Afghan civilians who were also killed in the attack. This is consistent with broader coverage: Even typically liberal American news outlets like the New York Times and CNN ran headlines dominated by reports of American casualties, with Afghan deaths pushed to the periphery. According to eyewitnesses interviewed by BBC’s Secunder Kermani, many of those civilian deaths were caused by US gunfire in the aftermath of the attack, which has barely been addressed by US media. The flyover similarly drew a grim contrast to America’s retaliation to the Kabul airport bombing: a drone strike that killed no ISIS fighters and 10 civilians, including seven children, five of whom were under eight years old. For the attendees at the football game, though, American military aircraft were symbolic depictions of power and patriotism, a feeling entirely disconnected from the civilians worldwide for whom American aircraft spell only death and destruction. These propagandistic ceremonies are thrust upon football fans of all ideological alignments. Consequently, football provides militarism with a platform to reach anyone, no matter how inclined one may be to support the military. 

The NFL has a history of taking money from the Department of Defense (DOD). A 2015 investigation revealed that, between 2011 and 2014, 14 different NFL teams received a total of $5.4 million in taxpayer dollars from the DOD. The Patriots were not one of those teams. The funds were used towards ceremonies honoring veterans, full-field flag displays, and tickets for veterans, among other expenses. In 2016, the NFL audited itself and returned $723,734 to the DOD after an investigation led by Republican Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake into “paid patriotism.” In the aftermath of the investigation, the practice stopped and the NFL has not received direct funding from the DOD since 2016. 

Though the days of explicit ‘paid patriotism’ may be gone, the monetary connections between the League and the military remain strong. In many cases, the NFL needs no monetary incentive to propagandize the military; it simply does so.

Just because the NFL no longer receives Defense Department funding does not mean the league and the military have decoupled; in fact, the ties between the two remain extremely strong. This notion is present in the form of the NFL’s Salute to Service Initiative, which occupies a prominent position on the official NFL website. The League describes the initiative’s mission statement: “Salute to Service is a year-round effort to Honor, Empower, and Connect our nation’s service members, veterans, and their families. It is grounded in deep partnership with nonprofits and organizations that support the military community in the United States and across the world.” 

While these connections may not rise to the level of “paid patriotism,” they undeniably propagandize the military. Though the NFL works with groups like the Wounded Warrior Project that deal with the true, brutal impacts of military service, these impacts are not made apparent in the initiative’s marketing. Instead, the League’s advertising exclusively glorifies military service: The Salute to Service website is full of videos of NFL stars surprising veterans. The propagandistic effect of campaigns like this can be profound, especially for some of the League’s young, impressionable viewers. Viewers, especially younger ones, may already be inclined to glorify the military, seeing nothing of the violence and trauma of war; they only see veterans meeting NFL stars and getting tickets to the Super Bowl. This is, in its purest form, free propaganda for the US military done voluntarily and free of charge by the NFL. 

The connection between the NFL and the US military is epitomized by the story of Pat Tillman, an NFL player who joined the military and was accidentally killed in a covered-up friendly-fire incident. The Pat Tillman Foundation, one of the NFL’s Salute to Service partners, works to provide scholarships to veterans. The East-West Shrine Bowl, a scouting showcase for NFL Draft prospects, gives the Pat Tillman Award to the player who “best exemplifies character, intelligence, sportsmanship and service.” In such situations where Tillman is honored, the nature of his death is often ignored, aside from the fact that he was killed in action in Afghanistan in 2004. The Pat Tillman Foundation bio acknowledges “his untimely and tragic death via fratricide.” What these accounts, especially from the NFL, tend not to acknowledge is that the military took extraordinary measures to conceal his death. According to author Jon Krakauer, who wrote a posthumous biography of Tillman, he was immediately recommended for a Silver Star, which is unusual for incidents of friendly fire. Krakauer also says that Tillman’s clothing and gear went missing or were burned prior to a forensic investigation and that one of his squadmates was told to keep the nature of his death a secret. In reality, Tillman’s death was a tragic mistake, and he should still be alive today. Nevertheless, Tillman was treated as a heroic example of sacrifice and of leaving behind the wealth and glory of the NFL for military service in the wake of 9/11. The popular narrative, rather than acknowledging the military’s mistake and the truth of the tragedy, propagandized Tillman as an American “warrior” in every sense of the word who died heroically defending his country. 

Indeed, militarism and the modern NFL are intimately connected. Though the days of explicit “paid patriotism” may be gone, the monetary connections between the League and the military remain strong. In many cases, the NFL needs no monetary incentive to propagandize the military—it simply does so. Militarism and football have become so intertwined that a player protesting for racial justice by kneeling during the national anthem is immediately treated as an affront to the military; in this situation, some drew a direct line to Pat Tillman. While many veterans explicitly came out in support of Kaepernick and other protestors, the prevailing reactionary narrative was that kneeling for the National Anthem was equivalent to disrespecting veterans. This militarism that pervades the NFL is not harmless: It fits into a broader cultural trend wherein Americans are inundated with positive depictions of the military, creating an Americocentric and uncritical view of the US war machine.