Patriot Games: Military Displays at Professional Football Games

By Robert Gudmestad

Even if you are a casual fan of professional football, chances are that you have seen some type of militaristic display during an NFL game. The Super Bowl, for instance, is saturated in patriotic festivities and each of the thirty-two teams has a Salute to Service game during the regular season. It wasn’t always this way. Football has gone from essentially ignoring patriotic displays to enshrining militarism as a normal part of life in twenty-first century America.[i]

The NFL was a relatively small operation until the 1950s and, coincidentally, there were few patriotic displays at professional football games. Professional football barely tapped into World War II’s patriotic surge. The NFL did donate $680,000 to various wartime relief agencies and many teams did military drills during practice, but there were essentially no militaristic displays at games.

That changed dramatically in the 1950s. Postwar affluence and the increase in white-collar jobs, when combined with concerns about the power of the Soviet Union, led many Americans to fear that men were too effeminate and weak. These anxieties created fertile soil for the growth of football, which became a way to affirm masculinity and fight the supposed “muscle gap.” If you didn’t embrace football — which seemed to embody Cold War ideas of containment — you might be suspected of deviant behavior like homosexuality or communism.

It was in the 1950s that the singing of the National Anthem became commonplace before athletic contests in the United States, but professional football went further. As the commissioner Alvin “Pete” Rozelle later explained, the NFL made “a conscious effort…to bring the element of patriotism into the Super Bowl.” The NFL was responding to social anxiety from the Cold War. Before the Green Bay Packers won Super Bowl II in 1968, Air Force jets flew over the Orange Bowl. The 1969 contest upped the ante even further. In a game that became famous for Joe Namath’s guarantee of victory and the New York Jets upset victory over the Baltimore Colts, the halftime show featured a patriotic theme.[ii]

There was a burst of patriotism in 1991 when the United States fought in the Persian Gulf War. That year’s Super Bowl in Tampa was played less than two weeks after American and coalition troops fought Iraqi troops in Kuwait. The game’s halftime show was originally slated to be a salute to the Super Bowl’s twenty-five year history, but the Disney Corporation (which produced the show) changed the performance so that fifty children of American military personnel took the field. President George H. W. Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush briefly addressed the crowd and fans waved the free flags they received when entering the stadium. It was the pregame show, however, that attracted the most attention. Popular singer Whitney Houston, dressed in a red, white, and blue track suit, performed a memorable version of the National Anthem. While she sang, American soldiers and sailors standing at the 25 yard lines held giant flags of foreign allies or saluted the American flag. In the field’s center, children used umbrellas to form an American flag. When Houston finished singing, four F-16 fighter jets roared overhead. The result was “a pep rally to cheer on the American military.”[iii]

Patriotic displays at football games quieted down until the “Global War on Terror” changed everything. When United States troops invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, the resulting surge in patriotic sentiment was a boon for football and television. NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue “was insistent from the start that the whole mood of Super Bowl XXXVI become intensely patriotic.” He succeeded. Besides the usual pageantry, the game in New Orleans became a “midwinter version of the Fourth of July, a national pep rally wrapped in red, white and blue.” With the help of Fox Sports, the network that televised the contest, the pre-game show featured cut-away shots of United States troops stationed in Afghanistan, archived footage of the Vietnam War, a reading of the Declaration of Independence, and a re-enactment of the flag raising at Iwo Jima that morphed into the iconic flag from the World Trade Center.[iv]

To a greater degree than ever before, the Super Bowl became a “celebration of military power.” The live look-in to troops overseas has since become obligatory, the pregame show still has the reading of the Declaration of Independence when Fox broadcasts the game, and the contests in 2003 and 2005 included segments shot from a Navy destroyer and aircraft carrier. League spokesman Brian McCarthy acknowledged that the NFL has “a great appreciation for what the military does and feel honored to include the military in the Super Bowl.” While it might be “hard to discern the connection between Thomas Jefferson and the National Football League,” the NFL reaped goodwill benefits from latching on to the resurgence of American patriotism. Simply put, waving the flag became good for business. For its part, the military was eager to go along with the NFL’s presentation of events because it was an opportunity to explain the humanitarian mission in Afghanistan and soften the harsh realities of war. Fox’s coverage of the NFL was “high on patriotism but low on militarism, leaving out any hint of blood or fighting.”[v]

When Pat Tillman, a starting safety for the Arizona Cardinals, enlisted in the Army in 2002, it became a public relations boon for both the NFL and the military. Tillman and his brother Kevin became Army Rangers and served in Afghanistan. It was there that Pat Tillman was killed in the line of duty and was posthumously granted the Silver Star. The NFL immediately ordered that all players wear a “40” sticker (Tillman’s number) on the back of their helmets. The Cardinals retired his number and renamed the plaza outside their home stadium the “Pat Tillman Freedom Plaza.” ESPN even aired his funeral live. But when word surfaced that the Army covered up the fact that Tillman was killed by friendly fire, the NFL had no response. As Mary Tillman, Pat’s mother said in an interview, “The league [NFL] has exploited Pat, just like the military.” While the controversy surrounding Tillman’s death has died down, the Cardinals still portray him as an uncluttered American hero. The truth is harder to discern: Tillman had serious doubts about the American military effort and had made plans to meet with Noam Chomsky, an outspoken critic of the war.[vi]

In this new era of promiscuous mixing between football and patriotism, even the uniforms have become symbolic. Since 2011, each of the thirty-two NFL teams hosts a Salute to Service game where every player wears a military service branch sticker on his helmet, the sideline gear has camouflage elements, and coaches incorporate military symbolism into their clothing. Each team decides upon further military elements for the game itself, but flourishes include military personnel singing the National Anthem, flags and veterans on the field, flyovers, receptions for military personnel, and a “G.I. Joes vs. Pros” flag football game. What was once confined to the Super Bowl has seeped into thirty-two more contests. The Salute to Service program also sends coaches and players to military bases, raises money for military-themed charities, and gives an award to someone connected with the NFL who has promoted the interests of the military.[vii]

The NFL explains that it “takes pride in supporting military personnel and remains committed to raising awareness for the sacrifices they make on our behalf.” It also notes that “Supporting the military is part of the fabric of the NFL.” What it doesn’t make clear is that support for the armed forces is a clever marketing ploy. As Drew Magary of Deadspin puts it, the Salute to Service “is essentially the world’s cheapest licensing agreement.” Besides allowing the NFL to pose as “some kind of noble civic endeavor,” the program allows the league to expand the reach of its merchandising campaign. Fans can go online and buy all manner of camouflage material in the colors of their favorite team, including hats, shorts, phone cases, scarves, gloves, and even garden gnomes. The connection between a camouflage garden gnome and support for one’s country is murky.[viii]

To a certain degree, the intersection of football and the military seems natural. More than any other sport, football has borrowed military terminology — think of a blitz, a bomb, or the shotgun. The comedian George Carlin famously compared baseball to football but his monologue reveals a larger truth. Besides being saturated with references to war, football is essentially about controlling territory, much like a conventional war. The game itself can be brutally violent and it values hyper-masculinity and aggression. For all of these reasons, football is more likely than other American sports to be linked to notions of patriotism and militarism.[ix]

Critics argue that one of the effects of this intersection of patriotism and football is to dilute the concept of fidelity to one’s country. To put it bluntly, consumer behavior can become a proxy for patriotism. While football is not the only product or source of entertainment to send this message, it is arguably the most visible. Citizens are asked to buy a jersey, attend a game, or watch football on television as a means of supporting the troops. But it is also true that some of the money generated by the sale of camouflage uniforms supports worthy endeavors like the Wounded Warrior Projects. Whether or not a person agrees with such military displays at football games, it is clear that they are here to stay.

Robert Gudmestad is Associate Professor of History at Colorado State University. He can be reached at


[i] Other sports, of course, also have overt military displays at their games. An obvious example is the 2001 World Series between the New York Yankees and the Arizona Diamondbacks, which was played about a month after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. The point here is that football, more than any other sport, uses patriotism to promote itself.

[ii] Michael Oriard, “Flag Football: How the NFL became the American War Game,” Slate Magazine (on-line), November 17, 2009, (accessed January 13, 2014).

[iii] Jaap Kooijman, “Bombs Bursting in Air: The Gulf War, 9/11, and the Super Bowl Performances of ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ by Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey,” in Ruud Janssens and Rob Kroes, eds., Post-Cold War Europe, Post-Cold War America (Amsterdam: VU University Press, 2004), 187.

[iv] Michael Davis, “The Patriots Bowl: United We Sit, Watching a Football Game that’s become an American Ritual,” Washington Post, Feb. 2, 2002, Page F01, Final Edition (quotations). There was a short burst of patriotic displays during the 1991 Gulf War, but they did not outlive the conflict.

[v] Timothy Dewhirst and Matthew Farish, “Super Bowl XXXIX: Branded Patriotism,” The Star Phoenix, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Feb. 10, 2005, A11 (first quotation); Michael J. Carden, “NFL, Military Continue Super Bowl Traditions,” American Forces Press Service,, Accessed February 27, 2014 (second quotation); Tierney, “The Big City,” page 1 (third quotation); Oriard, “Flag Football,” (final quotation). Even the Super Bowl coin toss, which has featured Roger Staubach, George H. W. Bush, and Gen. David Petraeus (all who have connections to the military), supports routine military display.

[vi] Dave Zirin, “The NFL’s Tillman Offense,” Los Angeles Times, (accessed January 28, 2015) (quotation); Darren Urban, “10 Years After Pat Tillman,” Arizona Cardinals, (accessed January 28, 2015).

[vii] USAA insurance, which is geared towards members of the military and their families, co-sponsors the Salute to Service program. College teams also have military appreciation games with special martial flourishes, including camouflage uniforms.

[viii] “Salute to Service,” National Football League, (first and second quotations); Drew Magary, “The NFL’s Salute to Service is Horseshit,” Deadspin, (accessed June 5, 2014) (remaining quotations). A camouflage garden gnome will set you back $19.95.

[ix] Quoting Carlin, “In football, the object is for the quarterback, otherwise known as the field general, to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy in spite of the blitz even if he has to use the shotgun. With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing his aerial assault with a sustained ground attack, which punches holes in the forward wall of the enemy’s defensive line. In baseball, the object is to go home, and to be safe. I hope I’ll be safe at home, safe at home.” You can watch Carlin’s monologue at (accessed January 18, 2014).

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