Sweetness And Light

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The Score On Sports With Frank Deford

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The U.S. military views major sporting events as fertile ground for recruiting. At NASCAR races, for example, the U.S. Army even sponsors a car.

Our commentator Frank Deford has been watching the way this spending has become part of the political debate.

FRANK DEFORD: Even sports has gotten into the budget-cutting, when a House amendment was offered the other day that would prevent the Army from spending $7 million to sponsor NASCAR race car Number 39. But even in a slash-and-burn atmosphere, the amendment was soundly beaten. There are a lot of congressmen prepared to do away with a lot of good old-fashioned, all-American stuff, but keep your hands off my NASCAR.

And let's face it, seeing that whiz-bang Chevrolet Number 39 with U.S. Army splashed all over it whipping around the oval, chasing Jimmie Johnson, may well indeed entice some young fans to enlist. I do know this: When I watch games on TV, I see an awful lot of commercials for the Army and for the other services. You go where the fish are biting, and sports is one logical place where the military can get its message out to the right cohort of possible young recruits.

Besides, of all sports, I suspect the Army is closest to the automotive. If you like cars, there're an awful lot of what the military people always call vee-hick-els to monkey around with in the Army.

It's also true that in the United States, sports games are more associated with the military and mass displays of patriotism than are other amusements. I've always wondered why it is SOP, Standard Operating Procedure, for the national anthem to be performed at games, when no one would ever expect "The Star-Spangled Banner" to be played at the theater or the opera or a rock concert or at the start of the Academy Awards this Sunday.

Why is this strictly an athletic devotion?

And now, at the start of major sporting events, it's also obligatory to have military jets flash overhead. The Olympics sends up doves. We send up fighter planes. Moreover, some baseball teams now not only play the anthem, but use "God Bless, America" during the seventh-inning stretch. The Yankees even once physically tried to stop a patron from going to the men's room when Irving Berlin's song began. Really? Really?

Of course, the problem is that when you make the anthem just another part of the scenery, it loses its meaning. When Pee-wee Herman had a show on Broadway a couple months ago, he began by pretending it was grade school and having the theater rise and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Everybody went along, laughing. And I thought that's pretty much the attitude toward our anthem at sports events now.

Maybe it's not a joke, but it's just a rote imposition. It'd be better if "The Star-Spangled Banner" was saved for special occasions - championships.

And sure, if Chevrolet Number 39 works as a recruiting commercial, let the taxpayers ante up for it. But, hey, Congress, how about we cut the funding for fighter jets flying over stadiums?

INSKEEP: Commentator Frank Deford, the only man who could get NASCAR and Pee-wee Herman into the same sports commentary. He joins us on Wednesday on MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

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Sweetness And Light

Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light

The Score On Sports With Frank Deford