The Super Bowl’s Military Fables

The Associated Press called it, “The Budweiser Ad That Made You Cry During The Super Bowl.” There was Lieutenant Chuck Nadd returning home from Afghanistan only to be thrown a surprise “welcome home” parade by the good people at Budweiser. He and his wife even traveled through the celebration pulled by Clydesdales “aboard the famously-red Budweiser beer wagon.”

Then, after the ad ended, there was Lt. Chuck Nadd, in the stands at Met Life Stadium watching the Super Bowl. (Hopefully, he did not have to take public transportation there. The Clydesdales would have been a faster ride.)

Seeing Lt. Nadd at the big game was an audacious triple lindy of product placement. You had the military, the NFL and, of course, the smooth taste of Budweiser, all in one Fox camera shot of corporate Americana. (Budweiser is actually owned by a Belgian/Brazilian consortium but details…)

Commercials like these, not to mention the NFL showing live shots of troops watching the game from Kandahar, have become so par for the course it does not even register. It also serves a purpose for the NFL above and beyond a nod of respectful recognition to the troops. Drew Magary at Deadspin captured this last November. He wrote:

Any time the NFL slaps a camo ribbon on their unis, any time Fox cuts to a bunch of happy veterans… it helps portray the league as some kind of noble civic endeavor when it’s actually just an entertainment venture and moneymaking apparatus designed to rake in billions of dollars and fuck your town out of stadium money. The Falcons, to take one example, managed to euchre $200 million out of taxpayers for their new stadium. One stroke of a pen, and Arthur Blank has an extra $200 million to put Sicilian marble in his luxury box shitters. Compare that to the $800,000 the league donated last year [to military charities]. That $800,000 helps buy the American flag the Falcons and other teams get to hide behind any time you start to wonder if the league really does have the public’s interests at heart.

This is all true. The NFL uses the military like Lourdes, all its sins of corporate welfare, medical malpractice, and institutionalized racism are washed away in a red, white and blue cleansing courtesy of Uncle Sam. There is another side of this as well. Yes, the NFL benefits by cloaking itself in the military but the military also benefits by linking arms with the NFL. It makes the military look like a game, an adventure, a burst of adrenaline. You are Marshawn Lynch in beast mode, only you’re holding an M-16 instead of a football. Sure, you will make 1/100 that of an NFL player, but you get the sense of teamwork and the rush you associate with the NFL on Sundays.

I spoke with Mary Tillman, the mother of NFL player turned Army Ranger Pat Tillman, who was killed in Afghanistan ten years ago this April. “I don’t like that ads for the military are shown at all on TV, especially during sporting events,” she said, “A feeling of camaraderie is important to all humans and I think the camaraderie of sport provides the most reward. Many young men join the military in order to get that feeling of belonging, that feeling of brotherhood. It is irresponsible to try to entice young people into military service with subliminal messages.”

Mary Tillman is absolutely correct. You hear what the NFL and the armed forces want you to hear. You never hear about what you might be asked to do overseas and how that might change you. One of my friends joined the military in the late 1990s for college money, not knowing the United States was about to enter a decade of war. He was one of the most gregarious people I knew, an athlete who was the sort of person that would break up daily scuffles on the court. After five years in Iraq and Afghanistan, he made it home. I saw him and although much quieter, he was still a kind, open person. He was so open, he told me matter-of-factly that his marriage ended because he could not stop choking his wife and screaming in his sleep.

I also was friends with a woman who joined the Army. It is in many ways a similar story. She thought that she could get money for college in the peacetime of the 1990s and found herself on the outskirts on Baghdad. Three years ago, she told me a story about being out one late night on patrol. She had to go to the bathroom far from any facilities. She knew fellow female soldiers that wore adult diapers because they worried that using the bathroom outside could leave them vulnerable to sexual assault from a supposed “brother” soldier. She would not do that and went to the bathroom and was attacked. She told me she fought off the soldier with three well-placed knees to the nuts, but spent her remainder of time looking over both shoulders, until she cracked from the pressure, as she put it, “of seeing crazy everywhere” and was sent home on mental disability. Sure enough, as of 2009, according to the government’s own figures, “prevalence of military sexual assault among female veterans ranges from 20-48%, and 80% of female veterans have reported being sexually harassed.”

The NFL and the Pentagon walk comfortably together not only because they present pumped-up versions of masculine invulnerability as admirable qualities. They also rely on dishonest narratives about what happens to the good people who go through their grinder. Just as we are only now finally waking up to the fact that generations of former NFL players end up penniless and suffering from tragic neurological damage, the Pentagon highlights people like Lt. Chuck Nadd, the people who make it home intact, with reservoirs of love, community and support systems. They say to young people, “You too could be Chuck Nadd.” They don’t say that, as a soldier, you are equipment, and like the NFL, the Pentagon is pitiless when it comes to damaged goods.

Dave Zirin is the author of Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games we Love (Scribner). He can be reached at: Read other articles by David, or visit David's website.