Military tributes at sporting events: True honors or hollow gestures?

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Members of the military hold the corner of a large flag during the pregame ceremonies before the opening day game between the Washington Nationals and the New York Mets in April. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)
Members of the military hold the corner of a large flag during the pregame ceremonies before the opening day game between the Washington Nationals and the New York Mets in April. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Military tributes at sporting events: True honors or hollow gestures?

by: Adam Kilgore | .
The Washington Post | .
published: May 28, 2015

Like most people, John Dever awoke Sept. 11, 2001, saw horrific images on the news and tried to make sense of what would come next. Dever worked in the San Diego Padres media relations department, and he was summoned to a meeting to decide how the team would stage a potential game that night. The schedule had not been cancelled; they still did not understand the scope of what had happened.

At the meeting, Dever spoke up with an idea. The traditional "Take Me Out To The Ballgame" would sound out of place during the seventh-inning stretch. He suggested the Padres should instead play, "God Bless America." The idea reached Padres owner Larry Lucchino, who had flown into Milwaukee for an owners meeting. He relayed the idea directly to Commissioner Bud Selig. A tradition was born.

"It kind of became a thing," said Dever, who worked for the Nationals their first 10 years in Washington. "It really ramped itself up."

In the period since the Sept. 11 attacks, military tributes at ballparks and stadiums have escalated in frequency, variety and scope. Ballparks across the country on Memorial Day will display solemn remembrance to fallen soldiers, but sporting events do not require a holiday to host a tribute to the armed services. On most any summer day at the ballpark — or any NFL Sunday, or NASCAR race, or golf tournament — the military will be recognized.

The pervasive tributes are seen by many as meaningful and important ceremonies to raise awareness and provide public gratitude. Some take a different view. No one doubts the merits of honoring soldiers and creating awareness of the travails veterans face. But the ubiquity of the tributes has led to concern that the ceremonies have become perfunctory, accompanied by obligatory applause that fades quickly and without thought, without a true appraisal of the costs. Does rote appreciation inhibit genuine gratitude? Can an attempted salute, even made with the purest motive, become an empty brand of patriotism?

"It's a box-checked kind of thing," said former Army Ranger Rory Fanning, who has become a vocal critic of America's foreign wars. "The way you support our soldiers is by asking them questions about what happened when they're overseas and to talk to them about what they did. I don't think sporting events is a proper place for that. There's very little critical discussion. These things have a way of washing over all those questions."

Fanning, who wrote the book "Worth Fighting For," does not question the intentions of fans showing gratitude to soldiers. "It's important to say Americans aren't a bunch of idiots for going along with this," he said. He believes veterans deserve more support, and cites a Department of Veteran Affairs study that notes 22 veterans commit suicide every day. But Fanning also fears that ritual thanking of troops stifles critical thinking about the military, and he believes it leads indirectly to more soldiers in harm's way.

"By thanking the military as regularly as we do, number one, it assumes that what the military is doing overseas is noble and just and right," Fanning said. ". . . By having this regular commercial for the military, there's a presumption that what happens overseas is good for the country."

'If I see it, I think it's special'

The counter is that visibility and awareness raised at sporting events matters. Major League Baseball has partnered with the charity Welcome Back Veterans for several years, starting with the prodding of New York Mets owner Fred Wilpon. The most important part has been the $20 million owners have raised or donated for Welcome Back Veterans, said Don Cook, the senior vice president of philanthropy for the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, which runs Welcome Back Veterans. But on-field tributes at the All-Star Game and the World Series have been meaningful, too.

"One of the worries I have, and a lot of us have, is as the two big wars have wound down, the veterans issues will fall off the radar screen," Cook said. "From the public perspective, I'm very glad baseball is here to help keep our warriors in front of people. It's the kind of thing, we all go back to our own lives. I worry that people start forgetting about them, think everything is okay, the government is taking care of them, when really it's everyone's responsibility. I'm thrilled MLB does it."

Cook does not worry about the frequency of tributes at ballparks, because most fans attend games infrequently and don't have a chance to grow desensitized.

"I probably go to two games a year," Cook said. "If I see it, I think it's special. I think it's wonderful."

In Washington, surrounded by military bases and headquarters, the Nationals have made military tributes "part of the gameday experience at Nationals Park," senior manager for community relations Nicole Murray said. "There's a lot of reason for doing it as deeply as we do."

In the middle of every fourth inning, the Nationals Park scoreboard implores fans to stand and wave their caps in salute to veterans, many of them wounded, sitting in the Presidents Club, given free tickets by the team. The Nationals host a four-game Patriotic Series and one game dedicated to each of the five military branches. They frequently invite a serviceman to hand the game ball to the starting pitcher, a tradition approved by General Manager Mike Rizzo, Murray said.

Military members and veterans frequently visit players during batting practice. The Nationals also provide support out of the spotlight, such as hosting events every Sunday home game for children of military members to make new friends and working with the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors.

Gregory McCarthy, the Nationals' vice president for community engagement, said the team considers the risk of going through the motions because of the sheer number of tributes.

"But you can also tell by the sincerity of the applause," McCarthy said. "People don't have to stand and applaud. They can continue to talk and eat if they want. They don't. I don't think it's become perfunctory at all.

"Having said that, it is incumbent upon us to keep it fresh every year. We do make tweaks from time to time. We talked with the Secretary of the Navy when he was here last week about some new things we can do, because we don't want to get stale. The tradition itself, I don't think it will ever get stale."

The 'Bank of America Salute'

The authenticity of some military tributes at sporting events came into question earlier this month, when the Department of Defense was revealed to have used taxpayer money to pay teams to stage them.

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., brought the practice to light when he outlined how the New York Jets accepted $115,000 from the National Guard to host ceremonies, including one that recognized a "Hometown Hero" on the field. Flake requested detailed information on the practice from the Department of Defense. While the results have not returned, Flake's office found that teams from every league, including the NCAA, have contracts with the Department of Defense. (A person with knowledge of Flake's request said the Nationals are not one of them.)

"Most of the teams do these salutes without compensation, without a contract," Flake said. "Some may have a local sponsor for it, which they note, or they just do it as a goodwill gesture from the team. It's always a popular item. It's probably almost as popular as the Kiss Cam. There's not a lack of patriotism at these games. People stand up during the Star-Spangled Banner, and that's a great thing. When you have this sponsored by the taxpayer or by the military, it just kind of, I think, diminishes the efforts of the teams and other who do it on their own."

Corporate sponsorship has in some instances blurred the significance of tributes. Before Game 1 of last year's World Series, Major League Baseball sent a news release extolling seven different ceremonies involving the military. The list included the "Budweiser Our Hero Seats" and the "Bank of America Salute." It allows for the callous interpretation that the ceremonies are merely advertising draped in the flag, that the soldiers and veterans on the field are being used as much as they are being honored.

In some cases the military has explicitly turned the ceremonies into a recruiting tool, making the prospect of being honored at a benefit to volunteering.

In a commercial for the Marines released this year, the camera takes the perspective of a Marine sitting on a subway train. A man asks, "So, why the Marines?" A montage flashes: Playing sports in childhood. Meeting a Marine recruiter. Pulling a rope at training. Blasting open a door in battle. Rescuing children from a war. Finally, his hands are holding and flapping a giant flag in the center of a massive football stadium, fireworks bursting in the sky.