Thursday, February 19, 2009

The intersection of sport and war

By Mike Corey * Other Mike Corey Posts

Since the Cold War ended, many Americans have displaced their sense of nationalism with team affiliation. This phenomenon is explained by this country's unchallenged status as a military superpower and the similarities between national identity and sports fandom.

In the meantime, other nations have rushed to replace the Soviet Union as a threat to U.S. hegemony. Ironically, it was not until the Beijing Olympics that such a successor, China, was able to convince Americans of its strength. Indeed, the presence of a rival-on the battlefield or the playing field-helps explain why so many have so seamlessly shifted their allegiances from nationalism to fandom.

Whereas athletics were once representative of our conflict with the Soviets-every four years at the Olympics, in particular-a transference of sorts has occurred. The fear and loathing of enemies of the state having been projected upon the enemies of the teams we support. Though national pride has not diminished as a result, we have divided ourselves by supporting one team or another.

And why? Because as Duke political scientist Donald Horowitz once wrote of national identification, "Allegiances are usually revived by the wartime experience." In the absence of any belligerent threat to our national power, the games we watch are the next best thing. So until our nationalist allegiances are revived-as they were briefly after 9/11-the tables will remain turned: We now tend to think of war as representative of sport.

The language of war has long been representative of the games we play. Woody Hayes, the legendary football coach at Ohio State University, had been a Navy captain before winning five national championships with the Buckeyes. He not only drew parallels to football and war on a daily basis, he became the general in the "10 Year War," the name given to a decade-long stretch of games against the Buckeyes' rival, Michigan.

But as the memory of Coach Hayes faded, and as the Cold War came to an end, America saw the rise of other militaristic coaches, none more prestigious than Duke's Mike Krzyzewski. A former Cadet at Army, Coach K has been known for winning, and for infusing war and sport.

"You fight battles, but you try to win wars, and the war ends in March," Coach K said in 1999.

That cyclical nature of sport distinguishes it from war, the unpredictability of which induces tremendous fear: the Red Scare, the Cuban Missile Crisis the unsettling dread of M.A.D. And most Americans could do nothing to prevent such a calamitous end. So these Americans turned to sport to cope with that fear.

My late father had been one such American. The son of a corner grocery store owner in Charleston, W. Va., he matriculated at Duke in 1965 as the Cold War engulfed Southeastern Asia. Fearful for his friends already dispatched to the conflict, and fearful that he too might be called to serve, he buried himself in his studies-and in college basketball.

"We got it all out of our system here," my father told me when he returned to Cameron Indoor Stadium in the Fall of 2001, toward the end of a game during Parents' Weekend. "We were accountable to nothing except the team and getting in the heads of whoever we were playing. And then we went back to reality."

Thinking about sports was far easier than thinking about that reality.

And reality has been quite different for that generation ever since. The psychological enormity of the war simply shifted to sport when the Soviet Union collapsed.

Reality for my generation has been quite different, too. We were raised during the dénouement of the Cold War, and were shaken by 9/11. The nationalism that sprung out of 9/11's aftermath has since diminished, save for those families generous enough to share their sons and daughters with the cause of freedom and security abroad and at home. And although we remember the tragedy, the ire we initially felt for our nomadic enemies in the War on Terror has weakened, our belligerent instincts concentrated upon the harmlessness of games rather than the harmfulness of war.

Pride in our country, however, remains strong. Over the years we have displayed it through our economy, our military, and recently, through our athleticism. Dominating the Summer Olympics since the Soviet sport machine crumbled, we've reveled in our superiority every four years, only to return to the athletic conflicts that enthrall us at home. In the process, we've identified ourselves more precisely, relating more closely to our neighborhood teams-high school, college, professional or otherwise-and not with the national team of diplomats and generals and soldiers leading us into battle against foreign foes.

And so it was fitting that when the United States' hegemony was challenged once again on the international stage we sent a coach to lead us in battle. Mike Krzyzewski rose to the challenge in China and helped reclaim the (basketball) glory that had long been ours. He facilitated a collaboration between NBA and college coaches, and between players of diverse talents rather than the 12 flashiest professionals he could find. The plan worked. And during the triumphant march to victory, sports pages and news pages alike were filled with reports on the "Redeem Team," while fandom and nationalism collided until the gold medal--and our good name--returned home.

Although Coach K won a battle for America, our competition with the world rages on. As we struggle through an economic downturn, and as the powers around us continue to catch up, one wonders what it will take to replicate the kind of collaboration that vaulted American basketball back to the forefront, while recapturing the sense of nationalism that has helped make this country so great.

Or perhaps we will have learned a new lesson from the games we play: The wars of sport are a much better reality than the wars we've come to know too well. The best wars are the ones that never begin.

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