The missing quality to all of the Veterans Day celebrations at sports events over the weekend once again was veterans. Did anyone else notice this? There were plenty of men and women in uniform, of course, brought to the various stadiums and gymnasiums for the big thank you FOR WHAT YOU DO, the men and women looking slightly nervous at the prospect of sitting in the expensive big-time seats, sort of like kids from the orphanage taken to the circus for a day, but there was little first-hand commentary about life in the military.
“It’s a tough life, being in the service,” Phil Simms did not say to Jim Nantz on CBS television. “I remember basic at Camp Lejeune. You think a pro football training camp is tough?”
“What about the loneliness?” Nantz did not reply. “I remember being stationed in Korea, 19 years old, so far away from home…”
Most of the people involved in most of the celebrations never had served in the armed forces. That was a fact. There were no tales, say, of Drew Brees’ two-year time as a helicopter pilot. Or Kobe Bryant’s many missions as a paratrooper. Or Peyton Manning’s desk job at the Pentagon.
None of that ever happens in today’s all-volunteer version of the armed forces. The heroes on the hardwood and the gridiron are insulated like most of the rest of us from the consequences of armed combat. They never have to go.
“Jay Cutler learned that in the Marines,” Al Michaels never said to Cris Collinsworth. “That elusiveness helped him out a lot when he was over there in Iraq.”
“Well, he better have learned pretty well,” Collinsworth never said in return. “Because J.J. Watt is a former Navy SEAL in Afghanistan.”
Since the military draft was ended in 1973, the athlete has been absolved from service. He may be the best and the brightest -- at least the most physically adept -- of all of us, but that is what disqualifies him from the uniform. He can make a lot more money in another uniform.
Gone is the time when Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio and most of the major leagues marched off to World War II. Ted even went back to Korea. Gone is the Vietnam era when most athletes at least had to join the National Guard to stay close to home and their careers, when a few, like Roger Staubach and Rocky Bleier, left home and came back from war to play the game again. Gone is the citizen army.
The draft was the equalizer. Even the famous citizens had to become involved in a citizen army. The absence of the draft has left the job to someone else. That is an unsettling modern American truth, best forgotten when the brass bands play.
“Tell me about your time in the service,” not one of those famous hosts said to his panel of famous retired athletes and coaches on those NFL halftime shows Sunday. “Tell me about your time digging that foxhole with your entrenching tool.”
“Well, it was like this…” not one of those retired athletes or coaches replied.
The most noticeable professional athlete of today, maybe the only professional athlete of today, who is a combat veteran is rookie Dallas Mavericks center Bernard James. His story shows how different the military of today is from the military past.
A 10th-grade dropout at 16, he joined the U.S. Air Force at 17. He wound up spending six years in the service, rose to staff sergeant, served tours in Iraq, Qatar and Afghanistan. He didn’t start college until he was 23, only played the last two years in the big time at Florida State. Aided by the fact he was now 6-foot-10, not to mention very determined, he was able to fashion this second career. A miracle.
In a Q&A on NBA.com, Jeff Caplan interviewed James for Veterans Day. One of the questions Caplan asked was what James would tell ordinary Americans about the troops still serving in Afghanistan.
“I would just want to tell them to imagine men and women that are still in service over the now, imagine them as your family members,” James said. “What if that was your daughter or son over there? That’s the type of support they need is like the support you would give a family member. … A lot of times over there, you’re so cut off that sometimes it feels like you don’t exist any more, like you as a person, not as a soldier. It feels like you don’t exist any more, so just to kind of get that reassurance, I guess, or that reminder that there are still some people thinking about you, that love and care about you. It’s really a good feeling.”
And so a college basketball game was played in an airplane hangar in Germany and another on an aircraft carrier in San Diego (two other games on aircraft carriers were canceled due to condensation on the court) this weekend to celebrate Veterans Day. And so the NBA ran a string of observances under the banner of “NBA Cares: Hoops For Troops” to celebrate. And so the NFL, of course, was wall-to-wall camouflage and red, white and blue at all locations in “Salute To Service.” The celebration at my local mega-stadium in Foxborough, Mass., featured the obligatory 100-yard American flag, the obligatory C-5 flyover, plus the dedication of a special seat that will remain empty at all times to honor all servicemen who are missing in action.
I suppose all of it was necessary and true, pageant and patriotism, showing that we all care, hurts no one, but it also seemed a bit hollow and exploitive. Our most famous athletic warriors aren’t part of the wars any more.
Except for Bernard James.
Happy Veterans Day, Bernard James.