The Bond Between War and Football: It Started Right Here

Re: the Globe story last week that much of the military-inspired pageantry at football games is a recruitment effort paid for by the Department of Defense. The teams on the receiving end of that largesse (the Patriots, Falcons, Bills and Ravens top the list) have bristled at the notion that they have been in it for the money. They insist that pre-game and halftime ceremonies honoring active service members and veterans have always been part of the whole Sunday afternoon ritual and will continue to be, whether or not the Pentagon chips in.

Even though the NFL and its franchises usually are in it for the money, I believe them this time (although I agree that accepting taxpayer dollars cheapens their efforts). Football and war are inseparable. The story of why that is so is one of the subjects of a brilliant book by Stanford Professor George M. Fredrickson, The Inner Civil War. The only copy of it at my public library is currently checked out to me, so I’ll tell you a little about it.

The link between our military institutions and our athletic ones started right here in Boston. Four Bostonians, who were of fighting age during the Civil War and then went on to prominence in American intellectual life, did more than anyone else to forge the bond between our armed forces and our sports teams (the name “Patriots” didn’t win the nickname contest back in 1960 for nothing). All four of those men, understandably, needed to make sense of the Civil War as a formative event in their lives — to feel assured that, despite its horror, the war had yielded up a lesson or bestowed a virtue.

Start with the philosopher William James (1842-1910). The only one of the four who did not serve in the Civil War (for unspecific reasons relating to his health about which he later expressed guilt) posed this question: even considering all the bloodshed and suffering of the Civil War, how many of us would like to see it utterly expunged from our history? The answer, he believed, was hardly anybody, because “those ancestors, those efforts, those memories and legends, are the most ideal part of what we now own together, a sacred spiritual possession worth more than all the blood poured out.” This paradox — that armed conflict is both unspeakable and invaluable — led him, most famously in an essay entitled “The Moral Equivalent of War,” to search for ways in which the “strenuous honor” of battle could continue to be cultivated but harnessed for peaceful purposes.

Next up, Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841-1935). A veteran of the battles at Antietam and Chancellorsville, Holmes went on to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court for thirty years. In an 1895 essay entitled “Soldier’s Faith,” Holmes echoed the paradox that William James had spoken of: war is horrible and dull but “when time has passed you see that its message was divine.” And one of the places Holmes found the strenuous honor that James was searching for was in sport, especially sport that carried a risk of injury: “Dangerous sport is an excellent way of developing courage. I gaze with delight upon our polo players. If once in a while in our rough riding a neck is broken, I regard it not as a waste but as a price well paid for the breeding of a race fit for headship and command.”

Then, Henry Lee Higginson (1834-1919). A veteran of the First Battle of Bull Run, Higginson later became wealthy enough at his father’s brokerage firm not only to give us the Boston Symphony Orchestra but also, in 1890, to give Harvard a 31-acre plot of land in Allston to be called “The Soldier’s Field” in honor of his fellow soldiers who had died in the Civil War. Soldier’s Field was to be dedicated to athletics, because sports make “full-grown well developed men ready to do good work of all kinds.” Harvard Stadium was built on Soldier’s Field soon after. It’s the home of the Harvard Crimson football team and was the one-time home of the Boston Patriots.

And finally, Francis Amasa Walker (1840-1897). A veteran of Chancellorsville who went on to become the President of MIT, Walker summed up the similarity of virtues between the Civil War and football in a 1893 Phi Beta Kappa address: The Civil War showed us the nobility of “strength of will, firmness of purpose, resolution to endure and capacity for action,” he said. He went on to praise Soldiers Field as a place where “something akin to patriotism is developed. It is a good thing that the body of students should now and then be stirred to the very depths of their souls that they should love passionately even if a little animosity toward rivals must mingle with their patriotic fervor.”

That’s how the bond between war and football got started. It continues, through the 1926 dedication of another Soldier’s Field, this one built in Chicago in honor of those who had died in World War I (the inaugural Soldier’s Field game in Chicago pitted Army against Navy and ended in a tie), through thousands of flag unfurlings and Star Spangled Banner playings and fighter jet flyovers at halftimes, to the Pat Tillman story, to today.

I have doubts about the wisdom of the war-and-football bond, but I have no doubts about its power.

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