Kain Colter's comparison was innocent, really. It was something he would never think to be disrespectful.
When testifying at the Northwestern football unionization hearing in February, when Colter was asked to give some perspective on the challenges of being a college football player, he compared playing football to the thing he'd seen it compared to most often in his college career.
"I like to think of it like the military," he said. "They spend months and weeks preparing for operations. We spend months getting ready for our operations."
The comment drew ire from critics who recognized the absurdity of that statement. There is no conceivable comparison between preparing to play Ohio State and preparing for war. One is a game, one is necessary for national security. One is about pride, one is a matter of life and death. Nobody would dare suggest that what Northwestern's football team does is as significant as what the Navy SEALs do on a daily basis.
But this comparison made sense to Colter, even if it's not the one Northwestern intended for him to get, because for four years, he saw his college football team mentioned synonymously with the military in what has become a common, yet perhaps uncomfortable, trend in college football.
Northwestern isn't the only team to incorporate military comparisons, rhetoric and promotion into its culture. Plenty of teams train with units in the armed forces as part of preseason camp. But the fusion of military and football culture is as evident at Northwestern as it is anywhere in the country but the service academies — the only places that actually have a substantive military component to what they do.
This June, for the third straight year, Northwestern trained with the Navy SEALs as part of a team-building exercise.
Every year, Northwestern has an American flag "N" on its field and helmets.
And last year, Northwestern wore American flag uniforms that drew criticism for having what some thought looked like "blood spatter" on them.
To be clear, Northwestern doesn't mean to be disingenuous or disrespectful at all in its incorporation of military themes into football. The SEALs have enjoyed their partnership with Northwestern — Pat Fitzgerald called it a series of "personal relationships" that set this all up.
"The parallels, I think, are about the life lessons and the team lessons you can learn," Fitzgerald said at Big Ten Media Days. "We were able to train under, work through and work together, and we're very thankful that they share their expertise."
This all makes sense. Fitzgerald is looking for ways to use the brotherhood aspect of the military to bring his team together, not compare the actual duties of the team and of football players to Navy SEALs. The SEALs training is meant to inspire team-building. The flag uniforms benefited the Wounded Warrior Project, and that criticism, in particular, bothered Fitzgerald.
"I think it goes back to, what is your intent?" he said. "I was shocked to hear the things I did about our uniforms last year when we're raising money for the Wounded Warrior Project."
But on touchy subjects like this one, intent is irrelevant. And while Fitzgerald and Northwestern truly do want to support the troops with these efforts, there's something uncomfortable about the military comparisons. That point was raised by SB Nation's Matt Ufford — a Northwestern grad and a veteran — who criticized the promotion that he viewed as more disingenuous than respectful.
Sporting events, particularly around Veterans Day, have a habit of condensing military service into an easily digestible slice of patriotism. The PA announcer says words like "heroic" and "sacrifice" without context or meaning while soldiers and sailors stand in camouflage or dress uniforms, a 38-second tribute that squeezes an emotional trigger for the audience while whitewashing the devastating effects of war -- its 500-pound bombs and rubbled buildings, its stolen sons and daughters, its impossible and unfair cruelty.
Northwestern's flag uniforms perpetuate this dishonest interpretation, and a 10 percent cut of jersey sales* to a veterans non-profit isn't enough to sell me on a lie. Putting words like HONOR, COURAGE, and DUTY in place of players' names only dilutes the meaning of words that guide an ethos for people who stand silently on a sports field between commercials so the crowd can feel something about America.
Simply put, Ufford said he wanted to "disembark the bullshit train to Jingotown."
Sports far beyond the scope of Northwestern football tend to have a jingoistic aspect to them.
Throw on an American flag-themed uniform, do some SEAL training, compare the football field to the battlefield and team chemistry/brotherhood to the brotherhood displayed on the battlefield, and suddenly, the message becomes less about respect and more like, "We understand you — we treat our duties with the same significance you do," even if it's not intended that way.
When it reaches that point — the point where the duties of a football player are considered to be within the same realm of the duties of a soldier — hasn't the tribute gone too far?
Northwestern will continue its military promotions and military-themed football exercises, because the school believes doing so is good for the program and good for the armed forces. And I believe they do it with the best intentions.
But when respect becomes a comparison — this idea that jingoistic/patriotic promotion is necessary in sports because of some false equivalency between football and the military — then it's fair to wonder, as many have, when support crosses an inappropriate line, regardless of how it's intended.