Tuesday, March 8, 2011

War of words

I recently received an invitation to a banquet in honor of a young Cleveland native killed in 2005 while serving as a gunner in Iraq. Last week, meanwhile, an Akron native now plying his trade in Miami sent the following tweet:

A certain Akron native's Miami mansion- not exactly a Baghdad shanty.

“20+ games left in phase 2. I’m ReFOCUSED! No prisoners, I have no friends when at WAR besides (sic) my Soldiers.”

Unlike the tragically killed Clevelander, the former Akronite has never been to war, and in fact when not playing professional basketball lives quite comfortably in his $9 million, six-bedroom mansion overlooking Biscayne Bay outside of South Beach. I don’t know the guy personally, although I’d bet green money that he dashed off his “war” missive without a second thought of its ramifications or meaning - this despite numerous examples over the years of his athletic contemporaries getting scolded for using military imagery when it comes to their far safer professions.

I’m not here to chastise or finger-point, but to work through what to me is an enigma. Just what is it with athletes and war metaphors?

Our Akron friend is hardly the first jock to blithely toss out a “soldier” reference when talking about sports. Former Browns tight end Kellen Winslow infamously called himself a “fucking soldier” during a post-game rant while playing at The University of Miami. Ray Lewis “went there” too, although his inappropriate word of choice was “warrior.” Kobe Bryant was criticized for appearing in a commercial for the “Call of Duty: Black Ops” video game where he’s seen running around a battlefield in street clothes and wielding an assault rifle.

Coaches are not immune to this kind of cultural shortsightedness. Last fall, Tennessee football coach Derek Dooley compared his team's lack of leadership on the field to the Germans' lack of leadership on the beaches of Normandy during D-Day. There's a book about the Ohio State-Michigan gridiron rivalry called The 100-Yard War, so Dooley’s awkwardly phrased figure of speech was nothing new either to college football or to high-profile athletics in general.

Calling these remarks insensitive and disrespectful is the obvious way to go here. That’s the thing, though. The foolishness of comparing sports to war seems so clear you have to wonder why people keep doing it, particularly in light of not only the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also through the heavily publicized story of Pat Tillman, the former NFL player killed by other American troops in a 2004 “friendly fire” incident in Afghanistan. You’d think athletes of all people would at least connect with “one of their own” dying on a real battleground.

Perhaps the answer to this question can be gleaned when looking outward from the imagined viewpoint of the stereotypically pampered, clueless athlete archetype to the attitude of the regular work-a-day American public. In a CNN poll administered before last fall’s midterm elections, only 9% of Americans listed war as the biggest problem facing the country.

I’m guilty of carrying this attitude as much as anybody. Paying my bills preys on my mind more than a long-standing conflict taking place a world away. And one night last week, right around the time I got that banquet invitation, in fact, I turned off national news war coverage in favor of an online replay of Charlie Sheen’s demented “20/20” interview.

Of course, I care to an extent about what’s happening in Afghanistan and Iraq and Egypt and Tunisia and Libya and Israel - the last of which I’ve actually visited - but those nations and their problems seem far away and they certainly don’t impact my day-to-day.

Such shallowness on my part is a difficult truth to face, and I’m just a fella working for a living. Imagine if you were a millionaire athlete whose life under the lights may have its trials, but in the end you can still come home to your beautiful mansion overlooking that gorgeous white-sand beach. Why would you give a damn about anything outside your hermitically sealed and incredibly opulent sphere?

Maybe there’s no good answer to all this, and I’m certainly getting far afield from any salient point. I’d only ask athletes and coaches to find another way to motivate themselves for the big game.