Militarization of team sports gets a big endorsement from Canadian media (2007)

Like comic Bill Mahr, I’m starting to understand why writer Hunter S. Thompson blew his head off. What’s the use of gonzo journalism in a world gone gonzo? What do you do when satire is overtaken by the state?

Consider the pomp and circumstance surrounding the transport of the Grey Cup trophy last week. In it’s voyage to the host city of Toronto, the CFL’s Holy Grail was "given the VIP treatment," according to CBC anchorman Peter Mansbridge. Bagpipes ushered the thing out of its home at the Canadian Football Hall of Fame and into a waiting limousine. Cut to a shot of the Cup reclining in the limo’s back seat, traveling Trump-style through the streets of Hamilton.

The guest of honour had a police escort to the Ivor Wynne stadium, where it was picked up by police helicopter and flown to a nearby airport, and transferred to a Canadian forces helicopter. The Canadian navy entered the picture to escort the Cup across a lake, and hand it off to the Canadian army, who transported it in a military convoy to Toronto City Hall. That’s right, the Grey cup was traveling in a fricking TANK.

So began the Cup’s "one week party," with all three branches of the Canadian forces participating, reporter Kas Roussy eagerly observed, and "giving new meaning to the expression ‘traveling in style.’" Reality check here, Pete and Kas. We’re talking about an inanimate object.

We’re also talking about the militarization of Canadian culture and an operation that looks as much psy-op as public relations. The forces’ 22-page manifesto, "Operation Sterling Silver," riffed off a previous military event staged last year for the Grey Cup in Winnipeg. You might call this marketing opportunity a ‘win-win situation’ for team sports and Team America. The CFL gets a little buzz from cammo n’ ammo, while the Canadian forces go for mindshare, rebranding football as the military’s beer-guzzling, torso-painted younger brother.

Life is starting to imitate artillery. It’s the new normal for Canada, for everything from military recruitment ads in movie theatres to police cars detailed with yellow ribbons. In military jargon, the Canadian forces are "penetrating soft targets" – which happen to be hearts and minds from St. John’s to Port Hardy.

The Grey Cup/Canadian forces non-event was celebrated with the expected hoopla from "respectable" Canadian media. The CBC’s cheerleading was consistent with their reporting on the war in Afghanistan. Before Prime Minister Paul Martin was bitch-slapped out of office for his non-role in the Gomery affair and his non-support for Star Wars, Mothercorp still had some vestiges of journalistic integrity left. Yet ever since the crowning of Stephen Harper, the CBC has gone crazy for anything in a uniform. Nor only has Peter Mansbridge hosted several newscasts directly from army bases in Canada, his delivery on war stories has become more Fox News stentorian, his booming voice inflected with canned excitement. As for the reports themselves, the fine arts of embedding have ensured the nature of Canada’s mission goes largely unaddressed and unquestioned on the air.

During the nonstop celebration of the anniversary of Vimy Ridge, there was endless talk from Canadian pundits how "Canada came of age" during the First World War battle, as if a nation’s identity is determined only through war.

But now that war is being conflated with organized sports, it would be nice if Canada’s media darlings offered some token signs of intellectual resistance - especially considering the target audience for pigskins and propaganda crosses generational lines. In the same way that US Central Command partners with Marvel Comics to produce stories of superheroes battling swarthy super villains from foreign lands, so too does the Canadian forces and its political/corporate overlords aim for family-friendly parades that make war look sportsmanlike and fun.

Of course, real war has no more resemblance to a Grey Cup convoy than a MASH unit to a Saturday morning cartoon. It takes a lot of public relations to reposition the Angel of Death as Canada’s Next Top Model. You need all the archetypal baggage of flag and fatherland to convince the domestic herd to sign on for a chidren’s crusade against the heathen. A compliant public broadcaster helps.

As the Bush White House ratchets up the tensions with Tehran, do we have any doubt where Harper will stand on an expanded war in the Mideast? Give this guy a majority government and you can expect more sanctimony and spin, along with cynical exploitation of the young’s innate sense of heroism. But ultimately the universe cares less about ballistics than balance. While there are still parents to cheer the next military convoy carrying a gleaming prize to a host city, there will still be parents to grieve sons and daughters returning home in caskets.

Geoff Olson