Posted by: Mark Nielsen | January 4, 2009

Dissecting the U.S. Army All-American Bowl


Is this a high school all-star football game or a three-hour U.S. Army recruitment blitz of epic proportions?


[Just to be fair, I should say up-front that my concern in this post is with advertising, higher education, nationalism, militaristic rhetoric, and America’s youth… not football or individual players. If you’re looking for details on our top high school athletes, you’ll need to look elsewhere.]


Prior to Saturday’s first NFL Wild Card Game on NBC, the world was treated/subjected to the All-American Bowl, sponsored by the U.S. Army and San Antonio’s tourism industry.


It certainly makes sense that the Army would put up big sponsorship bucks for this game. For one thing, they’ve been falling well short of their needed recruitment numbers ever since the Iraq war began (and maybe much longer). Therefore the somewhat unsophisticated “heartland” teens and families who have a natural interest in watching this game are the heart of the U.S. Army’s target audience.


With the holidays and 2008 officially over, right about now all over America, millions of seniors who may or may not consider themselves college-type material are looking at the life transition coming up in June. They’re looking at their bank accounts, weighing their sale-able skills and job options, and wondering “How the heck am I gonna do this? What will I be, now that I’m supposedly a grown-up?”


So it behooves the Army to try catching the eye and ear of these “ripe”, concerned kids– who might not be panicking yet, but trust me, plenty of them are quietly nervous.


Thus– with big-time federal budget money, let’s not forget– the Army has plastered their Army “brand” and positive spin literally all over this high school all star game. “Army = All Stars= Awesome” is communicated everywhere :  in the visuals, graphics and iconography, on and around the field, in boldface print on the kids’ uniforms, in the blatantly propagandist “wounded vet” and “heroic soldier” stories told by the game announcers, in the sideline interviews, in the impressively organized squads lined up for their photo op, in the halftime festivities, in the presentations of awards, and of course during the commercial breaks, the Army’s saturation of the senses and association with all things honorable and mainstream is actually quite impressive. If they could send the sweet scent of apple pie through my tv speakers, they’d do that as well.


We’re talking tens of millions of advertising and promotional dollars being spent here, people. One could say it’s just your tax money going toward building up our national security and feeding the economy (for NBC, San Antonio, and/or any other beneficiaries of all that production value). Or, and this is closer to where I stand, one could say it’s millions of dollars of useless P.R., all to prop up the rationale for an unnessary war and the nation’s overarching, old-school, and wrongheaded dependence upon violence or threat of violence to get things done, both here and abroad. Even if these are good things getting done (defeating despots, giving Islamic girls an equal shot at a decent education, building dams in New Orleans… ha!), it’s still sort of warped, the way that each generation gets suckered into believing that the military is the best or only agency to do them.


But the military-industrial complex and crass poloticians have got great message discipline, and they’re smart about what makes people tick, so they keep selling us these damaged goods, dressed up as patriotic and responsible, playing upon our fears instead of our better  angels, and we keep buying


We buy because of our leaders’ severe poverty of imagination up till now (and here’s where I hope Obama will change the national atmosphere in a revolutionary way). Too many people with real money or power lack imagination, or lack trust in the people “on the ground”, the very people who’ve been kept ignorant for generations. So that lack of trust influences their spending on other (non-military) ways we can create jobs and train our young people, and the cycles of poverty continue.


Add in the federal government and Fortune 500’s lack of commitment to better science and engineering for its own sake (not it’s usefulness to keep the Soviets or Third World off our lawn, or to keep America fat and ignorant, …but ergonomically more comfortable). Now add in willful ignorance and a lack of awareness that peaceful problem-solving is actually more biblical, more widely effective in the long run, and cheaper (being preventative instead of crisis-driven).


Starting to see why there’s a need for the kind of rah-rah Army propaganda we saw on tv yesterday?


I’ve gone on too long already. Whether you agree or not, I’m sure you get the point. But for those who want nuts-and-bolts evidence for my interpretation above, I’ll include my edited notes below, written as I watched the game:


Gary Sinise -“trustworthy” voiceover talent for the current “Army Strong” campaign, which suggests, among other things, they’re an elite “corporation”//  his Lt Dan Band & charitable work for vets is admirable, yet deflects attention from the military’s poor track record in cleaning up its own messes and staying faithful to those who’ve served. Ask a vet who has to deal with a VA hospital; most will admit it’s a pretty shoddy system.


ROTC scholarship given out on sideline, (“big check”) & other awards – all with the backdrop of seated soldiers (are they really “guests” if they’re ordered to be there?), dressed in those cool-looking camouflage uni’s and black berets


Sideline breakaway: $100K ROTC scholarship given –player’s going to college in Colorado, home of Air Force Academy and one of the strongholds of the conservative/military mindset. Would they give it to a Vermont kid? If so, would they do it on national tv, put him ahead of the Colorado-bound kid, and make him a kid who didn’t have family in the military?


Scholarship kid’s dad is also in service, now in Korea (what, not Afghanistan?… too unpopular…) –Implication: good enuf for Dad, good enuf for jr to follow in his footsteps… Kid: “see you soon, Dad” (not “Watch your six, Dad.”… too much reminder of the actual danger in militarized zones would hurt recruiting.)


Most commercial breaks also start w an Army or Army Reserves commercial.


Army rhetorical elements in : football uni’s , NBC specially designed grafx, announcers’ storytelling about meeting current soldiers, sideline segments, the San Antonio game location (Remember the Alamo!), painted on-field emblems, fronts of sideline stands, preferred colors everywhere (brownie-green & gold), “seeing stars” (primary logo for Army, stars’ presence alongside NBC logo, ‘all-star’ kids on field), big 5″ U.S. flags on player unis


Sideline interview: NBA Hall of Fame shoo-in Karl Malone (father of a senior soon to play college football… and also a well-known conservative) waxes romantic about Army “heroes” – the schmooze fest continues


Not pictured: reality of drug abuse, mental health and other probs being as high or higher in military (or in vets) as in gen pop


“Army Strong” tag line seen/heard over and over, and the bold font of “” plastered on the field — this motto plays to stereotypical attitudes that cooperation, creativity and sensitivity (feminine traits?) aren’t as virtuous as “strength”. –Implied message: “Wanna be strong, and conquer your problems or fears or enemies? Well then, Go Army!”


Sideline interview w/ NY Giant punter Jeff Feagles, and ESPN’s Mike Golic, former Notre-Damer/ Philly Eagle and co-king of morning sportsradio drivetime = more legitimization of Army as a brand… no diff than the Nutri-System diet food that Golic endorses, or the NFL, or ESPN, or big-time colleges (the cute Golic and Feagles kids –soon off to play college football themselves– were pictured in a golf cart together at age six or seven… say it with me now: “Awwww. Adorable!”).


Announcers regularly discussing college recruitment of these athletes, with the implication (nothing direct) being that the military is just another equally viable alternative to college for an 18-year-old deciding what to do next. Is this true demographically? Economically?… that real success or earning power are equally served by either active service or four-year college? Then why ain’t more rich kids enlisting?


Addendum: The Cardinals/Falcons wildcard game afterward on NBC featured a segment on former Arizona Cardinal Pat Tillman, who left the NFL to “fight terrorism” in Afghanistan. Game announcer Chris Collinsworth suggested he should be automatic for election to the NFL Hall of Fame when he comes eligible soon, despite a short career, and with no consideration for his stats. No mention was made of the fact that Tillman was killed by “friendly fire”– in other words, killed by some dumb-ass, gung-ho representative of the very nation Tillman intended to serve, the U.S.A.      Here’s an idea: Let’s ask Pat which he’d prefer: to be voted into the Hall of Fame, or to be alive and have the Army shape up it’s clumsy, lying, exploitive ways (with its own people, not even counting the damage it does to the U.S. reputation and diplomatic goals in other nations).



  1. Just a fact check for your sideline breakaway. ROTC scholarships are given to anyone in any state regardless of military affiliation if they apply for and earn it just like any other scholarship. This kid had his choice of schools and he chose CO to be closer to family after retirement which had nothing to do with anything you mentioned. None of the crew or Army folks knew about his Dad’s status or location until just prior to broadcast when he told them so they graciously gave him a moment to acknowledge his dad so he didn’t feel so far away from him. His father has already served in unpopular combat zones on several occasions he just happens to be somewhere else at this moment and will be home soon which is why this student chose those words and was not scripted by someone else as you suggest. You have belittled this young man’s accomplishments and obviously have a real dislike for our military and its service members. His father has spent 24 years defending your freedoms and this 17 year old kid will spend several committed to defending you as well. Not because he has to or because his family wants him to, but because he has chosen a path of selfless service to our country.

  2. Sandy,

    Thank you for your input concerning the details of the promotional recruitment referenced in this blog. I didn’t see the game, so I appreciate hearing the other side. However, I take exception to your comments concerning the service of those who choose to serve in the military to defend our ‘freedom’. It is arrogant, presumptuous, condescending and deceptive to suggest that unjustified preemptive aggression is ‘defending our freedom’. I also doubt that most people join the military as a “path of selfless service to our country.” If this was indeed the motivation for joining, the military wouldn’t have to spend millions recruiting. We all know people rarely make truly altruistic decisions. Scholarships, benefits and the suggestion that you can “be all you can be” are what I would guess persuade most unsettled youth to sign up.

    I worry about my children being subjected to gang recruitment at our local school. But I also fear that they will be swayed by the aggressive and sophisticated tactics used by an institution that specializes in violence and writes off the slaughter of innocents as collateral damage ‘necessary in defending our freedom’. The fact that most of the aggression has less to do with freedom than money makes it difficult to listen to any rationalization of anything our military institution has to offer. I dread the day one of my kids comes home and says, “I’m going to boot camp.” I would rather hear about the DUI, pregnancy, tattoo, totaled car, or Las Vegas elopement (or any combination thereof) than to witness the loss of humanity in my child. While I respect your opinion, and I appreciate it and the fact that you are free to express it under our constitution, I am sorry that you will probably never understand or accept my belief: I hope I never get to the point where I am able to justify the killing of innocent people for political, economic or corporate interests.

    I also believe it is wrong to support our troops. I once considered the military in order to be able to attend college but realized I would not be able to live with that decision. I chose working up to three jobs and twenty years of debt instead. I cannot support the decision of someone who knowingly takes part in or enables the atrocities that have devastated hundreds of thousands of lives, just as I would not support joining a gang—even if that gang provided steady wages, benefits and college scholarships. Justifications don’t make sense to the innocent victims of military violence. It is just wrong.

  3. I appreciate Sandy’s input and correction as well. I had no intention of belittling the specific scholarship or his accomplishments. I know he earned it, and that ROTC scholars come from all over. But I still believe based on direct experience in the media world that there is plenty of calculation involved in who gets put “out front” on a national stage, and the kind of messages they are sending with broadcasts like this football game. The kid’s words were not scripted, but I still think it’s likely the overall scenario *was* . I can also admit to having a bias against the military as an institution, and powerful individuals over the years have made choices to create this institution as what it is today. However, regular army kids (and grownups) on the ground are certainly courageous and moral in most cases. I respect them for it. But they’re still participating in a system of problem-solving I don’t agree with. As for defending my freedoms, I don’t value those as *any* higher than the lives of those negatively impacted by violence, either here or abroad. It’s a shame when anyone is cannon-fodder for the uncaring individuals who put them in harm’s way in the first place.

    Pat, I appreciate hearing from you as well. I take a bit of exception to your calling a recruit somebody who has lost their “humanity”. We’re all a bit lost at times, especially at age 17-22, … some people are just grasping for a direction and discipline in their lives, and the military sometimes provides that (it has for my Marine nephew). I just wish there were other institutions that provided this, ones that don’t also train in blind compliance, effective use of violence, etc. Not all victims of violence are innocent, on either side of a conflict. If we read the great spiritual writers correctly, none of us is innocent, and should never claim to be.

  4. All can be very valid points of view depending on which direction you are coming from. Please know though without a doubt that there are people who serve that don’t do it for the money. I completely agree with you Pat about the issue of heavy recruitment in schools and I have told my share of recruiters to get lost, that’s why these kids still need their parents to guide them through the political bull especially at 17-22. As for the “institution of violence”, there are service members whose purpose is to save lives. This young man’s father is a medevac pilot and has spent years saving lives not slaughtering them. But the bottom line is we all make choices in life that we have to live with and for those in the military they take an oath to support and defend our constitution regardless of political views. Mark you don’t even want to get me started on the media. Talk about an institution with a negative impact on society, oh the stories I could tell you. However, regardless of any one political opinion including my own, my only purpose here was to help you realize that this 17 year old kid has worked hard and accomplished more then most ever will. And yes he truly believes that he can make a difference by serving his country and for that he has my respect and support. The picture that was originally painted couldn’t be further from the truth and I only wanted to change the view of him personally. As for the institutions involved we are all free to hold to our opinions, but the men and women in uniform including police, firemen, paramedics, etc. deserve to serve a country that respects their sacrifices.

  5. Agreed, Sandy. And I do respect their sacrifice. But they’re not the only ones who sacrifice or do good, or even risk their lives on my behalf. Yet there’s a hierarchy of values in place where a police officer or uniform means almost automatically that person is more highly touted (more heroic?) than the risk taken by a steelworker, or railroad employee, or humanitarian aid provider in the Congo. I’m just trying to point out there are communication patterns in place that try to foster unquestioning support of status quo, rather than critical thinking and decisionmaking about better ways to get things done, from an institutional change perspective. Military, civil authorities, or private business: they have recruitment quotas or goals to meet, bosses to please, and they’re gonna use ethically questionable methods at times to cover their own ass. It’s human nature, but we don’t have to *stay* in those patterns forever.

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