Volume 7 , Issue 5 - October 2012 Print | Email
Militarism, Public Memory, and the Pro Football Hall of Fame

In the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the subsequent declaration of a “war on terror,” references and tributes to the military were ubiquitous in American popular culture. Political scientist Jamesder Derian has referred to the conflationphoto - NFL Hall of Fame of media, entertainment, and militarism as the “military-industrial-media-entertainment network,” or “MIME-NET.” This phenomenon is not new, but has been amplified in recent years. Even as the United States has ended its war in Iraq and announced plans to do the same in Afghanistan, popular culture celebrations of the military have intensified. This has especially been the case in sports.

Sports leagues and media have produced an almost endless list of military-themed events and programming, including flyovers, ceremonial first-pitches and coin tosses by military personnel, songs performed by members of the Armed Forces, collaborations with military charities, games sponsored by military organizations or contractors, on-field enlistment ceremonies, and near-constant platitudes from broadcasters designed to “support the troops.” Among the more recent iterations of this is a traveling museum exhibit for the Pro Football Hall of Fame called, “Pro Football and the American Spirit.” This exhibit, housed in the Hall of Fame throughout 2008 and 2009, and currently traveling throughout the country, features multiple points of identification between the game—especially in the National Football League (NFL)—and the military. As such, it shapes an audience that is positioned to view war as necessary and noble, with the mythological warrior ethos of professional football serving as rhetorical support.

photo - NFL football display posterAs a part of a museum, “Pro Football and the American Spirit,” invites consideration from the perspective of memory studies. Numerous scholars across various disciplines have noted a growing interest in memory or, in the terminology of rhetorical studies, public memory. Put simply, how a culture remembers or memorializes the past reveals much about that culture’s anxieties and political concerns in the present. This explains why trauma generally, and war specifically, occupy a central place in public memory, especially in the United States.

The sport of football is already linked rhetorically to war and militarism. Much of this discourse is based on the mythology of the “warrior,” a term that conveniently conflates soldiers and football players. Key to this myth is sacrifice, for in both endeavors the warrior must give up his body for a greater cause. Although many sports depend on individual deference to team, the physical toll of football and the metaphorical “war” over territory makes it an ideal vehicle for affirming the virtues of war.

Sacrifice is related to memory, for those who have sacrificed—their lives in war and their bodies in football—are those who earn the greatest honor. “Pro Football and the American Spirit” thus makes use of the warrior myth and the theme of sacrifice in an exhibit that, in the words of the Hall of Fame’s website, “recalls the stories of triumphs, tragedy, and personal sacrifice made by the more than 1,200 players, coaches, and administrators who interrupted or delayed their pro football careers to serve their country during times of military conflict.” I visited the exhibit in Canton, OH on March 12, 2009, before it embarked on its tour. Based on this visit, I argue that “Pro Football and the American Spirit” exploits the football/war metaphor in ways that affirm the necessity of war and marginalize any competing images of heroism and citizenship.

The traveling exhibit details the military service of professional football players from World War II to the present day. Each conflict was presented in a circular chronology, which meant that World War II and the War on Terror were next to one another. Although an argument can be made this was simply a matter of chance, it is also important to note these wars have been compared regularly in the past decade, both because 9/11 was frequently compared to the bombing of Pearl Harbor and because these two wars are largely understood as “just” or “virtuous” causes for the United States. The flip side of this equation is the ambiguity symbolized by the wars in Korea and especially Vietnam, and it is striking that these two conflicts were less visibly displayed than other moments of war or patriotism.

Given that 9/11 is a relatively recent tragedy and that the War on Terror continues to affect American life, perhaps the most striking display was the tribute to Pat Tillman, called “Duty and Courage.” After the 2001 terrorist attacks, Tillman gave up his photo - Pat Tillmanlucrative National Football League contract to join the U.S. Army Rangers. He was subsequently killed in Afghanistan in 2004 and his death was initially used to valorize the “ultimate sacrifice” made by many in the name of “freedom” and “democracy.” However, this story was later revealed to be incomplete and the discovery that Tillman was ambivalent about the war and that he had been killed by friendly fire” diminished the myth’s potency. More damaging were allegations that the military and members of the Bush administration knowingly manipulated his memory in service of their rhetorical justifications for the War on Terror.

The complexity of this story, however, was simplified and sanitized in “Pro Football and the American Spirit.” Although biographical text noted Tillman’s death by fratricide, the visuals contained in the display were far more powerful. Indeed, the glass case prominently displayed his Arizona Cardinals jersey and Army Ranger uniform, as well as a large copy of what has now become an iconic photograph of Tillman running onto the field, helmet in hand and hair flying from his head. This image, which first appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated after his death, provided the blueprint for the 8-foot tall statue of Pat Tillman located in the “Freedom Plaza” outside of the University of Phoenix Stadium where the Arizona Cardinals play. Thus, the inclusion of the image in the exhibit echoes uses of the photo elsewhere, all of which articulate with one another to cement the mythologizing of his death.

The display of Pat Tillman is representative of the overall effect of the exhibit. Throughout “Pro Football and the American Spirit” visitors are invited to valorize war and militarism. Accordingly, citizenship is understood in narrow terms of patriotism, with football serving as the most vocal supporter of America’s cause. At no point in the exhibit are those with dissenting views acknowledged, resulting in an implicit argument that dissent from war must be antithetical to the “American spirit.” In this way, the public memory of football’s contributions to war serves not only to memorialize the past but also to discipline acceptable modes of behavior in the present.

Throughout the exhibit, video kiosks play short features that show various instances of football’s wartime nobility. In Canton, one such kiosk was located immediately behind the Pat Tillman exhibit. In the narration provided by legendary broadcaster Pat Summerall, visitors are told, “Whenever America called, the mighty of the NFL responded with courage and sacrifice, showing they treasure freedom above all else. . . . In war and in football, the will to win and the will to excel are the things that endure.” These words provide an appropriate summary of the exhibit as a whole, for “Pro Football and the American Spirit” offers a full-throated endorsement of the conflation of football with war while celebrating the sport’s symbolic importance to American identity. 


photo - Michael L. ButterworthMichaelL. Butterworth is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Communication in the School of Media and Communication at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, OH, USA. He is the author of Baseball and rhetorics of purity: The national pastime and American identity during the War on Terror, published in 2010 by the Universityof Alabama Press. This essay appeared in the October 2012 issue of Communication Currents and is translated from the scholarly article: Butterworth, M.L. (2012). Militarism and memorializing at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, 9, 241-258. Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies and Communication Currents are publications of the National Communication Association.
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