The NFL and foreign policy

Some of you are not going to like this post, which will draw the invidious parallel between America’s excessive reliance on military force in international affairs with the National Football League’s reliance on violence, both on and off the field. But I do think there is something in it.

NPR this morning delved into the NFL’s problems.* It has two:

  1. violence by its players against women and children off the field
  2. violence on the field that is causing serious health problems.

The former has been grabbing lots of headlines lately. The latter is the long-term threat to the game. Like boxing, football depends on hits so strong that many of its greats are ending their lives either disabled or early. Knowing this, it is difficult to understand any parent who allows a child to play the tackle version of the game.

Sport as a metaphor for life is not a new idea. The popularity of professional football in America has grown enormously in recent decades. It would be surprising if that did not manifest itself in other spheres. I once asked a foreign minister who had played football for Tulane what he had learned from the game that was applicable to diplomacy. “Hit the opponent hard,” he said. That lesson is being applied increasingly not only in football but also in the other game that has grown enormously in popularity in recent decades:  basketball is now a contact sport. Soccer, sad to say, is also headed in the same direction, though it is far behind football and basketball.

Let me be clear:  I am not against physical competition. But there is relatively safe physical competition (basketball and soccer still fall in that category) and relatively dangerous physical competition. Football is over my threshold, as is boxing. Both reward maximum damage to the opponent, so long as it is delivered in a licit fashion. Neither basketball nor soccer does that, yet.

In international affairs, there are opponents who merit maximum damage. The Islamic State in Syria and the Levant (ISIL) is one of them. I am not among those who advocate negotiations with mass murderers. But even in the war on ISIL, we need to be careful not to rely exclusively on kinetic effects (that is what the military calls shooting at people and other targets). ISIL was successful in Iraq because the Sunni community there actively and passively supported it, preferring the jihadists to the Iraqi army and other security forces. Anyone who understands why a virtually all-white police force in Ferguson, Missouri is likely to be ineffectual should understand why mostly Shia security forces in virtually all-Sunni provinces of Iraq would also be ineffectual.

The military traditionally regards efforts to influence people other than by kinetic effects information or psychological warfare intended to win “hearts and minds.” But the material aspects are increasingly important:  winning a war now means not only defeating the enemy but somehow restoring services to the people he governed. Otherwise, you end up spawning more conflict, or terrorism. It was above all failure to delivery security to Sunnis that created the conditions in which ISIL flourished in Anbar and Ninewa provinces.

There is no equivalent in American football to service delivery and winning hearts and minds. If you want to win, you score more points than your opponent, delivering in the process as many hard blows as possible, within the ample range of the permissible. Intellect plays an important role in football, as the choice of plays and when to run them is critical to strategy. But what we cheer and admire on the field is mainly the kinetic aspect of the sport. And we unfortunately do the same with our foreign policy.

PS: Here is the NPR piece:

PPS: For those who are still doubting that violence on the field causes serious health problems: Scientists Dissected the Brains of 79 NFL Players. What They Found Is Disturbing. | Mother Jones.

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