Conflation of Military and Sports to Give Us Basketball Game on Ship Used for Rendition, Torture

Colorado-born Abdulrahman al-Awlaki will never get to choose between college sports and the military. A drone strike ordered by Obama killed him in October.

The sickness in American culture today that praises violence has seeped into college athletics in a manner that leaves me cold. I am appalled when college football or baseball teams “honor” the military by incorporating camouflage motifs into their uniforms. College sports are college sports and the military is the military. Yes, in both college sports and the military young people of the same age group are the primary participants, but sports at one time were merely entertaining pastimes and the military ultimately comes down to being about killing and maiming. Directing the team spirit of college sports toward military praise always comes off to me as an attempt to move praise of the military to a level of unquestioning support that can only have bad consequences.

We have been reminded recently that unquestioning support of college sports also leads to bad consequences. The debacle at Penn State was enabled in large part by the elevation of the Penn State football coaching staff to a level where they were treated as completely above the law, even when it came to sexual abuse of young boys. Unquestioning support of the military (George W. Bush: “You’re either with us or against us”) likewise has enabled it to move above the law. The Great War on Terror under George W. Bush and Dick Cheney relied heavily on the illegal practices of rendition and torture. Barack Obama, as suggested by Tom Junod, seems to have moved another large step beyond the law into extrajudicial killing:

But what if the the kind of militant who was captured and tortured under Bush is the kind of militant who is simply being killed under President Obama?

Listen to the announcer’s words near the beginning of this YouTube of the national anthem being played at a game at this year’s NCAA College World Series in Omaha. Why is it necessary to say “And now ladies and gentlemen, please join us in honoring America and those who support our freedom at home and abroad” at a college baseball game? Isn’t honoring the country enough? Why do we need more of a military reference beyond the military color guard? This was not a one-off event. Virtually the same script was used at every regional and super-regional game I attended here in Gainesville where teams were vying for the right to go to Omaha, so it clearly is part of the script put into place by the NCAA. Normal home games for the Gators during the regular season did not employ the language.

But now the conflation of the military and college sports has moved to a level where the symbolism is just too warped for me to allow it to go unchallenged. Last year, I was content merely to spout lots of snark on Twitter about conflating college sports and the military while the 2011 Carrier Classic was played on the USS Carl Vinson. This year, however, my Florida Gators will be playing in the game and it will be held on the USS Bataan. I have written previously on the Bataan. It has a particularly upsetting history, as I quoted Clive Stafford-Smith and the Reprieve project:

USS Bataan is one of the US government’s most infamous ‘floating prisons’. At least nine prisoners are confirmed to have been held aboard the ship, including Ibn Al-Sheikh Al-Libi, who recently died in mysterious circumstances in Libyan custody.

Al Libi’s case reflects the greatest catastrophe of the US rendition programme. In January 2002 he was flown to the USS Bataan, which was then cruising the northern Arabian Sea, and his interrogation began. From there he was rendered to Egypt where he was forced under torture to confess that Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein were in league on WMD – statements publicly repeated by George Bush and Colin Powell to justify going to war in Iraq. Many thousands of lives later we all know this to have been false, and Al Libi’s journey through the secret prison system ended when he was sent to Libya to disappear. He duly died in Libyan custody in May 2009.

Other prisoners held aboard the USS Bataan include John Walker Lindh and David Hicks.

So the Bataan stands front and center as a symbol for some of the very worst cases of torture in America’s descent to “the dark side“. Yes, the ship did also find use in relief efforts after Katrina, the Asian tsunami and the earthquake in Haiti, but to bring this particular ship back as the site for an event that is meant to conflate praise of college sports with praise for the military is just too much for me.

Consider this statement about the game from Ray Mabus, Secretary of the Navy, carried at the University of Florida’s sports website:

“The Navy is America’s Away Team; when we are on the job, we operate forward around the globe and often out of sight of the American people,” said Mabus. “This is a unique opportunity to showcase the Navy and Marine Corps team, and to join together to honor our veterans and active duty military.”

So let’s celebrate “America’s Away Team” on the vessel that “awayed” people under dubious legal circumstances to deliver them into torture and even death. Not me, thank you. I’ll pass on attending or watching this game.

Postscript:  I wouldn’t shell out the $1000 ticket price for this game anyway. Not only is it set up to conflate sports and the military, it is priced for only the 1%, just as many major college football and basketball tickets are priced. That’s why my only season tickets at Florida are for baseball.

I should also add that I hold no malice toward enlisted military personnel. In fact, in my opinion, the proper way for the NCAA to honor military personnel is to (quietly, without self-congratulatory fanfare) provide tickets free of charge to active duty personnel who can attend games. It’s just that we should never conflate our favorite college team with the military and, even more importantly, we should never refer to the fighting apparatus of the military as our “team” in anything approaching a sports context as Maybus did. When did the general concept of deployment and use of the military move from a “last resort” to something that we unquestioningly cheer? And how long will the world be paying the price for us making that transition?

10 replies
  1. Phil Perspective says:

    Is this really any surprise though? Just look at the latest Navy commercial. The James Earl Jones-sounding voice: “The U.S. Navy, a Global force for good.” WTF?!?

  2. rkilowatt says:

    Thanks, Jim for for having to say this. And having said it, this site will expand its effectiveness .

    Sports –It’s a team thing. A loyalty trap. A cog in True-Believers syndrome.

  3. John B. says:

    at football games where I live they have military flyovers ahead of every home game…too much IMO.

  4. tom says:

    Looking forward to a great game at a neat location.

    College football games are priced for the 1%? Is that a joke? If not, it should be. A ticket to a Gator football game is about $50.

    1%? LMAO.

  5. Jim White says:

    @tom: Maybe $50 for a single game ticket against the Sisters of Perpetual Mercy, but if you want to see a game against a real opponent, it takes a season ticket. Even now, after two really bad seasons, the minimum “contribution” per seat for season tickets is $100 for bleacher seats. For anything with a seatback, it’s gonna set you back an extra $225 a seat plus the per game ticket price.

    Price chart here:

    So no, I’m not joking. Average folks do scrimp to go to games, but they are being gouged mercilessly to do so.

  6. prostratedragon says:

    Thanks, Jim, I quite concur. Have never been comfortable with sporting events for general audiences staged at military venues just because we tend to be too susceptible to assonance, and agree that Stateside, free tickets to active duty members would be a better gift.

    Mich tickets work about like UF, with only a few individual game tickets/packages available at all. Right now they’re running $75/per right now for, say UMass or AirForce, and $95 for MSU, prices which beat all but the cheap seats when one of the great orchestras comes to town. Already-enrolled students can get a season ticket for $195, which is not bad in comparison except that, you know, it’s one hundred ninety-five dollars. Anyone else interested in season tickets can use the information to be found between these lines. Seems to be the first big play in a five-year plan.

  7. thatvisionthing says:

    Jim, re the Bataan —

    Yes, the ship did also find use in relief efforts after Katrina

    — I thought it was famous for being unused, though present, for most of Katrina, apparently per Rumsfeld’s orders.

    U.S.S. BATAAN SITS OFF SHORE, VIRTUALLY UNUSED: “The USS Bataan, a 844-foot ship designed to dispatch Marines in amphibious assaults, has helicopters, doctors, hospital beds, food and water. It also can make its own water, up to 100,000 gallons a day. And it just happened to be in the Gulf of Mexico when Katrina came roaring ashore. The Bataan rode out the storm and then followed it toward shore, awaiting relief orders. Helicopter pilots flying from its deck were some of the first to begin plucking stranded New Orleans residents. But now the Bataan’s hospital facilities, including six operating rooms and beds for 600 patients, are empty.” [Chicago Tribune, 9/4/05]

    I think that was while patients were (maybe?) being euthanized at failing, desperate Memorial Hospital onshore.

    Would make for nice color commentary background by the announcers of the carrier football game. Hospital ship Bataan there for Lindh prison black op, not there for Katrina’s patients, think Rumsfeld.

  8. thatvisionthing says:

    Plus when you talk about the military’s use of sports, specifically football, and scripts, I’m thinking: Pat Tillman. And what happens when a player goes offscript. New play put in.

  9. thatvisionthing says:

    Also, when I was looking for the old Bataan-Katrina comments on fdl, I found this comment that links to NY Times story of 8/30/05, how two Pensacola Navy helicopters out doing military mission to Mississippi heard New Orleans distress calls and answered, rescued 100 from rooftops, then got reprimanded for going outside scope of orders when they returned to base. Like the Florida lifeguards who got fired for saving someone’s life outside their area.

    Which sounds a lot like the FL Hurlburt Field Air Force helicopter pilots (first link in @7, to 2009 GQ story on Rumsfeld) waiting to be deployed during Katrina… waiting… waiting… But Defense Secretary Rumsfeld wouldn’t allow.

  10. thatvisionthing says:

    All my roads are leading to Rumsfeld here. – 2007

    “I was ordered not to tell them (the family),” testified Bryan O’Neal, the Army Ranger who was next to Tillman when he died.

    O’Neal said he was given the order by then-Lt. Col. Jeff Bailey, the battalion commander who oversaw their platoon. “He basically just said, ‘Do not let Kevin know, he’s probably in a bad place knowing that his brother’s dead.”‘

    He added that Bailey made clear he would “get in trouble” if he told.

    In the hours immediately after his brother’s death, “crucial evidence was destroyed – including Pat’s uniform, equipment and notebook,” Kevin Tillman said. “The autopsy was not done according to regulation and the field hospital report was falsified.

    “We believe this narrative was intended to deceive the family but more importantly the American public. Revealing that Pat’s death was a fratricide would have been yet another political disaster in a month of political disasters … so the truth needed to be suppressed.”

    The committee asked how high up the chain of command the information about Tillman’s friendly fire death went.

    Tillman’s mother Mary said she believed the former defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld must have known before the family. “The fact that he would have died by friendly fire and no one told Rumsfeld is ludicrous.”

    The “narrative” … pay no attention to that man behind the curtain

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