Tag Archives: Sports and War

“Aktiv, Attraktiv, Anders”? The Bundeswehr’s Deployment of German Athletes as Sports Soldiers

August is typically a month of well-deserved vacation time for many of us. The Italians lovingly refer to this time of the year as Ferragosto – Assumption Day, a national holiday that is celebrated on August 15 and marks the beginning of a nationwide vacation period. Thanks to a generous departmental summer fellowship I was relieved from any teaching duties this summer and could solely focus on a few research projects.

In June I had received an email from Michael Butterworth that invited me to participate in an anthology on Global Sports and Militarism (forthcoming with Routledge in 2016). The symbioses between sports, media, and the military has always been a research interest of mine. My first publication, “Commemorating 9/11 NFL-Style: Insights Into America’s Culture of Militarism” in the Journal of Sport and Social Issues explored the NFL’s commemoration ceremonies on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 as a unique instance of sports–media-military convergence through their meticulous implementation across multiple games, broadcasting channels, and geographic locations. Addressing the valorization of troops, the sanitizing of war, as well as territorial conquest, I argued in this article that the NFL’s 9/11 commemoration ceremonies are complicit in the silent re-empowerment of the neoliberal state in times of perpetual war.

Participating in the global sports anthology not only allowed me to take a bit of a break from dissertating this summer, but I was also able to combine my vacation trip to Germany with some work by proposing a chapter on the German army’s ongoing investment in sports for the purpose of nation building, particularly through the figure of the sports soldier.


As several high-profile athletes are Bundeswehr soldiers, I scrutinize the symbiotic relationships between the armed forces and German sport associations in light of the Bundeswehr’s attempts to re-brand itself after the suspension of the draft in 2011. Seventy years after the end of World War II, German society opposes unilateral military actions and remains suspicious of attempts to re-militarize the country. Similarly, the display of overtly nationalistic sentiments during sporting competitions still make many Germans uncomfortable. While the presence of different military branches and the honoring of troops during baseball and football games in the U.S. have simply become part of public memorializing post-9/11, a tribute to fallen soldiers of the German army in Afghanistan during a soccer match of the German Bundesliga remains unthinkable.

Given the, sometimes fraught, interconnection between sports and militarism in Germany (we only need to think of the 1936 Nazi summer Olympics in Berlin), I interrogate the tactical collusion between sports and military service that the Bundeswehr currently employs to interpellate and recruit diverse German citizens as sports soldiers.

After setting up contacts through the Bundeswehr’s press office and gaining permission from the German Department of Defense I was able to visit an army base in Bruchsal, which is home to one of the 15 special sporting groups that the Bundeswehr supports. Visiting Bruchsal gave me a first sense of what a sports soldier’s daily training and routine looks like. The interviews with four athletes and the head of the sports group were super interesting and very informative. While I have not been able to evaluate all of my recordings – below are few “preliminary findings” from my visit.


The Bundeswehr currently provides financial and material support to around 744 top athletes from various disciplines (including, for example, soccer, wrestling, boxing, rowing, parachuting, gymnastics, skiing, and bobsledding to name a few), who are nominated annually by their respective sport associations. Admission into the Bundeswehr cadre is highly selective and extremely competitive. Sports soldiers are typically those who are able to qualify for the Olympics and world championships. Several interviewees repeatedly commented on the pressures they felt to remain in the cadre and deliver top performance year after year.

In general, the athletes seemed very happy and proud to call the Bundeswehr their employer. For many German athletes in so called “Randsportarten” – fringe sports – that do not garner enough media attention and support from corporate sponsors (think, for example, about the immense presence of companies such as Nike, Visa, Adidas or Coca Cola during the FIFA World Cup), the Bundeswehr becomes the only means for them to solely focus on their athletic success and development.

As a sports soldier athletes are provided with a certain level of financial security and the Bundeswehr also encourages athletes to plan beyond their athletic career by promoting higher education, military service, or job training in the private sector. While all interviewees acknowledged the difficulty of a dual focus on sports and education, several athletes had earned secondary degrees or higher military ranks. The young female weightlifter I spoke with, for example, is currently completing an online BA in sports management. All athletes repeatedly expressed their deep gratitude to be taken care of and be part of the Bundeswehr.


While sports soldiers have to complete some basic military training, they do not face the same stipulations of regular soldiers. For example, sports soldiers do not have to live on base, complete extensive military training, or participate in military operations abroad. Nonetheless, the athletes seemed to feel a strong sense of belonging with the regular troops. The wrestler I interviewed, specifically commented on how he enjoyed moral support and entertainment visits with troops stationed abroad and that he regretted not being officially part of those missions.

So what does the Bundeswehr gain from supporting sports soldiers with around 32 Million Euros every year?

While it is too early in my research to come to any conclusive evidence, my impression is that through the recent professionalization of the army, the cadre of its diverse and highly driven sports soldiers becomes particularly viable to promote “a healthy patriotism without nationalism” as a promotional brochure of the German Department of Defense put it (2010, p. 9). The success of German sports soldiers at international competitions does not only help to further Germany’s global reputation, but the use of sports soldiers also aides domestically by aligning and integrating the Bundeswehr more closely with civil society: after all, its new slogan reads “Wir Dienen Deutschland” – “We serve Germany.”


The strategic deployment of sports soldiers for recruitment purposes functioning to (re)brand the Bundeswehr as a fun, welcoming, and inclusive institution – billing itself as “active, attractive, different” certainly demands some critical attention and exploration. Especially because the Bundeswehr, similar to the U.S. military, claims to offer – especially for women and ethnic minorities – equal opportunities and an appealing work environment without addressing persistent issues of racism and sexism, nor the complex issues of participating in ongoing counter-terrorism operations abroad.

So much for now but I’ll be sure to post updates as the article develops.



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Commemorating 9/11 NFL Style

As I promised a few weeks back, it finally might be a good point to talk about some of my recent research in more detail today; especially since I’ve been “forced” by no one else than Mr. Gil Rodman himself to present at this Wednesday’s  WNR, so in a way I’m trying to kill two birds with one stone here. And you may consider yourself lucky to get an exclusive preview (but be warned: it’s a rather lengthy entry).

September 11, 2011 marked the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. It was a “day that has been documented, dissected and debated unlike any other in human history” (Farhi, 2011). Brian Williams expressed the looming gloom that evening on NBC’s Nightly News: “as hell rained down on earth from the sky and changed all our lives forever … tens of thousands of people gathered to mark this darkest day in modern American history” (NBC Nightly News, 2011). Through various mass media outlets, the tributes, reflections and searches for a deeper meaning “poured forth in a kind of collective media-fed group therapy” (Farhi, 2011).

In an article for Harper Magazine, David Rieff (2011) concludes that this creation of “large scale solidarity” reaffirmed group loyalty rather than the establishment of historical accuracy with consideration for this event in all its moral and political complexity. Where were you that day and what do you remember?

And while I purposely shunned the media for most of the day to escape American television networks’ presentation of more than 75 hours of news programming (Hale, 2011) in the form of live broadcasting, documentaries, memorials, and dramas, all connected to the event; in the end, I could not escape it at all. While watching NBC’s Sunday Night Football, I was exposed to a carefully crafted pregame commemoration ceremony representing a unique instance of sport rhetoric functioning as an extremely persuasive vehicle for sustaining and extending a culture of militarism in U.S. society.

Butterworth and Moskal (2009) argue that American identity is constituted in and by a culture of militarism, “wherein Americans are implicated in a structural relationship between government, the military, and entertainment industries to the extent that it has become functionally impossible to live outside the rhetorical production of war” (p. 413).

As I watched roaring images of the Sunday broadcast of the National Football League, with the unrolling of an American flag the size of the entire field, NYFD fire fighters, NYPD police, and members of the armed forces lined up between football players, Robert DeNiro eulogizing civilian victims, a member of the Army Band performing Taps, hyped up crowds chanting “USA, USA!,” George W. Bush walking out on the field to flip the inaugural coin, and a highly emotional performance of the “Star Spangled Banner” – I was wondering what all this could possibly mean, ten years after September 11, 2001.

So I started doing some research on the development of what late General Dwight D. Eisenhower in his farewell address in 1961 termed the development of a military-industrial complex.

With broad technological, societal, and geo-political changes that occurred in the 1980s and 1990s, mass media have been increasingly drawn into an alliance with military interests, which has since been described by varying terms, such as “the military entertainment complex,” “militainment,” “the military-industrial-media-entertainment network,” or the “military-information-entertainment complex” to name a few.

For Nick Turse (2008) in The Complex: How the Military Invades our Everyday Lives, today’s excessive high-tech military complex reaches deeper into American lives and the American psyche than Eisenhower could have ever imagined. The by-products of the corporate-military-entertainment merger, intended to project a hip image, are startling: from NASCAR and rodeo events which widely portray sponsorship by branches of the armed forces; recruiting campaigns that use the latest social networking technology (GoArmy.com, Facebook and Twitter pages) to capture the attention of teens; to the involvement with popular (civilian) brands, such as Disney, Starbucks, Oakley, or Coca-Cola; “Just like the fictional Matrix, the Complex is nearly everywhere and involved in almost everything, and very few people aren’t plugged into it in some way, shape, or form” (Turse, 2008, p. 17).

September 11, 2011: A Game Day Like Any Other?

So how do the NFL’s commemoration ceremonies fit into this? An official press release by the NFL (2011) announcing the commemoration ceremonies for September 11, 2011 affirmatively read:

        The games and broadcasts on that opening Sunday will unite fans to recognize those who lost their lives, honor the     families who lost loved ones, and salute the American spirit, the early responders on 9/11, and other heroes that contributed to the nation’s recovery. The schedule of games for that day was designed to appropriately commemorate 9/11 on a national level and what it represents to Americans. (para. 1-2)

In my paper, I’m specifically looking at pre-game broadcasting as well as the pregame ceremonies and halftime shows held during those shows. Here, I briefly want to look at NBC’s Sunday Night Football to show how these crafted pregame commemoration ceremonies created an extremely persuasive vehicle for sustaining and extending a culture of militarism to desperately garner support for two largely failed wars, and to reassert national identity through excessive displays of patriotism and hegemonic masculinity.

I’s strongly encourage you to look at two clips here (one from the gre-game ceremony, the other from the half-time show) as they are pretty indicative of what was going on during the NFL’s commemoration ceremonies on September 11, 2011.

It is troubling to realize how citizen identity is re-constituted by the military-entertainment matrix of NBC’s Sunday Night Football – where an assimilation of the citizen by the military apparatus takes place and citizens are seduced by an entertaining war spectacle: “Citizen identity becomes a battle space to be micro-managed” (Stahl, 2010, p. 38). The MIME-NET attempts to absorb citizen identity into passive, assimilated consumers of war by expanding a culture of militarism via vehicles such as the NFL’s 9/11 commemorations by providing a “distraction from the real thing” as sports writer William C. Rhoden (2003) emphasizes.

It further plays a central ideological role for mobilizing and reasserting patriarchal values that construct, mediate, and maintain hegemonic forms of masculinity and femininity. Boggs and Pollard (2007) argue that “With few exceptions the military has been a domain of patriarchal, masculinist traditions—social hierarchy, violence, conquest, sexism, homophobia, gun worship—and the United States has never been one of the exceptions” (p. 37).

By conducting a critical discourse analysis it becomes clear that the commemorations held by the NFL to honor the victims of 9/11 are one of many components that feed into the expansion of the MIME-NET. The NFL’s commemoration ceremonies are largely a spectacle of the culture of militarism, produced in part by militaristic messages from sponsors, advertisers, and broadcasters functioning to instill one-dimensional “support the troops” rhetoric to reassert national identity and support for the war, while also relying on hegemonic masculinity portrayals.

I argue that by seizing the NFL, as can be seen especially with these commemoration ceremonies, the military expands the already familiar conflation of sport and war, and simultaneously trivializes the seriousness of war as it emphasizes the seriousness of supporting the American military: “This rhetorical division offers a delimited conception of appropriate American identity, thereby normalizing war in general and endorsing the ‘war on terror’ specifically” (Butterworth & Moskal, 2009, p. 411).

We should ask ourselves what the balance is likely to be between the costs of remembrance and its benefits. I would argue that these ceremonies nourish flawed illusions about our ability to accurately remember with severe socio-political consequences: “After all, to remember may not just mean to grieve; it may also mean to harbor a vision of securing justice or vengeance long after it is time to put the guns away” (Rieff, 2011, p. 48). The process of an encroaching militarization of public space and our everyday culture has clearly been in the making for over a decade now, if not since Operation Desert Storm. Instead of seeing increasingly critical stances and voices raising concern about this, it seems as if the majority of the American public silently watches and consumes militainment without much hesitation.

While I regard Giroux’s (2010) claim that “The glorification of military values is quickly approaching the level of fascist idealization” (p. 195) as slightly exaggerated, I do agree that “Militarism in this scenario diminishes both the legitimate reasons for a military presence in society and the necessary struggle for the promise of democracy itself” (Giroux, 2010, p. 195). Critically examining these one-dimensional sport/war tropes in the NFL’s 9/11 commemoration ceremonies demonstrates that engaged citizenship in a functioning democracy needs to be aware and demand a critique of a militarization that threatens and works to eliminate those public spaces necessary for democratic debate and discourse. By exposing hegemonic portrayals of masculinity that are patriarchal at root and by disclosing the empty, jingoistic patriotism that is so pervasive in these broadcasts, we can attempt to lay bare and resist a culture of militarism.

If this has caught your interest, than you may want to consider swinging by the Department of Communication’s WNR (Ford Hall 225, B 10) tomorrow at 12.15pm – hope to see you there!

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