THEY PLAYED A COLLEGE BASKETBALL game on the deck of an aircraft carrier Sunday, a perfectly ridiculous thing to do, for a number of reasons. Up there on the deck of the USS Midway, anchored in its permanent berth in breezy San Diego harbour, ninth-ranked Syracuse battled that wind and a bright SoCal sun to defeat twentieth-ranked San Diego State (the “home” team, though I doubt anybody felt very much at home) 62-49. It was the first game of the year for both teams, and the final season opener for Syracuse before they depart for their new conference, leaving their traditional home in the Big East and following the money into the ACC, with its seductive promises of guaranteed home dates against Duke and Carolina, plus greater TV exposure. Syracuse took a run at a national title last year, spending much of the winter ranked right up top, but eventually losing to Ohio St. in the NCAA Tournament semis. Meanwhile SDSU, now in their fourteenth season under coach Steve Fisher, were bounced in the second round by NC State.
None of which explains why the Orange and the Aztecs were playing a regular season game outdoors, on the deck of a decommissioned ship-turned-museum. It would be one thing, a person supposes, to play an exhibition game for the men and women in uniform. But to play one that counts, in the aforementioned sun and wind, with all the potential glitches that go along with temporary courts (aboard the Midway the surface bubbled at midcourt and had to be re-adhered, sanded and beaten into place; also, one shot clock refused to function) seems downright masochistic. These are teams with real title aspirations, and to risk a loss resulting from adverse conditions (Sunday’s wind made shooting from the field a bad idea, and free throws a chore), or losing a player to injury caused by less-than-ideal equipment. Indeed, two other games atop ships also scheduled for this past weekend, in Charleston, South Carolina and Jacksonville, Florida, were both scrapped due to problems with condensation on the court. The Syracuse-SDSU matchup was originally scheduled for Friday night, but a threat of rain forced to move to Sunday.
All in all, you’d have to question the wisdom of planning outdoor basketball games, to say nothing of playing them atop boats bobbing in the ocean. But then, given that all this is done in the name of honouring those who’ve performed or are performing military service, it isn’t really surprising at all. It’s just the latest expression of sport’s serious crush on men and women in uniform. In the spirit of that affection, sports federations have a habit of staging these sorts of events, usually clustered around Veterans/Remembrance Day, or Memorial Day, or momentous anniversaries like 9/11. They drape their arenas in bunting and ribbons, deck their teams out in special uniforms, and invite veterans to sing the anthem, or throw out the first pitch, or sit in the best seats in the house. It’s the least we can do, they say.
THE RAPTORS WEAR CAMO ALTS, and they’re not alone. The NFL just played a spate of games in stadiums with the words SALUTE TO SERVICE stencilled across the endzones. In baseball, the Memorial Day weekend is tinted red, white, and blue, and since 9/11 every 7th inning stretch has been subject to a rendition of “God Bless America.” There are countless other examples; In this age of war, it seems teams are trying to outdo one another in the area of patriotic and pro-military displays. But of course, the relationship between sport and war is nothing new. Indeed, theirs are a sort of parallel history.
Chalk it up to the fact that, for both, we turn to men and women in their physical prime. Fighting age coincides with playing age, and success at both requires similar sets of skills, both physical and mental. But more than that, there is an aspect of collective yearning, an expression of we-ness. War used to bind us, at least within political boundaries or allied regions; it was capable of tying people to a common effort (please know that though I’m very much against war, I understand it as an inescapable historical reality, and within the context of this essay I’m arguing that war brought citizens together in ways that were not wholly negative). But in the early twenty-first century we are further and further alienated from the face of war — we wage them, yes, but we as a populace are less directly involved, and indeed even our soldiers are able to do their jobs using joysticks, sitting several thousand miles away from the enemy, playing video games where the stakes are foreign lives. We have found, in many unsavoury senses, the perfect sort of war: a highly technological conflict that can be waged in our name, but without causing privation at home. We are free to continue our lives of mass consumption and endless distraction. It is simply something the government does, out of view. We do not do it together. We do not share it, at least not in the way that we once did. The collective enterprise has been removed from the act.
But it doesn’t take much to see where we do find that common affirmation: in sport. We supplant those warring impulses, so tied with national identity for the bulk of the modern era, with a strain of civic pride tied to “our” teams. We dress mere games in militaristic pageantry; we don the appropriate colours. We couch play in the language of war. Nationalism receives its due lip service, but the average NFL fan is more emotionally invested in his team than he is in his country.
There’s probably a biological argument to be made, too, by someone far more intelligent than me, about how war and sport ignite the same spots in the brain, or send the same signals and fluids to the muscles. Maybe they feel the same to the participants, too. I don’t know. I’ve played sports, but never, thankfully, engaged in war. But I’m confident in saying that within our collective brain, fighting and competing, mourning and cheering are so closely linked, and quite easily confused. It’s a curious facet of our lives, that joy can so easily spill over into suffering and sorrow. But that’s the human parade, isn’t it, the drunken march of history. Given the choice, I think we can all agree that our best hope is to see to it that the Earth is dotted with more basketball courts and football fields than aircraft carriers and army bases, our young people clad in the uniform of team instead of country, their efforts aimed at affirming life instead of destroying it. In the meantime, expect to find the two pursuits thrown together, twin expressions of our giddy restlessness and our fervour and our rampant self-regard; fighting and playing. The two sides of us.