How we describe football and war sounds remarkably the same

THE WORD GAME

January 25, 1991|By Jean Marbella

Which one is the fighter pilot talking about bombing Iraq, and which the football quarterback talking about the big game?

"With the weapons I have, there's no stopping us."

"We went out there and ran our first play, and it worked great."

In these metaphorically mixed times, it's hard to tell. (For the record, though, the first was Buffalo Bill quarterback Jim Kelly anticipating Sunday's Super Bowl game, and the second was an unidentified fighter jock describing one of the first bombing raids on Iraq.)

Winning, losing. Game plans, battle plans. Activating troops, activating players. Bombs, blitzes, formations, flanks, trenches and drills. The warriors of football and the jocks of war speak in remarkably similar languages.

"It's funny, I hear these news reports, and the people from the military are using so many football terms. They're talking about the 'package,' or, 'It's going to be a side attack.' I close my eyes, and I think I'm back in the locker room," said Mark Murphy, a former defensive halfback for the Washington Redskins and now an attorney with the Justice Department.

The shared lingo has been there for some time -- the U.S. Secretary of Defense in 1949, for example, referred to Gen. Omar Bradley as "that brilliant quarterback, one of the best men on any all-time, all-American military team."

But the linguistic overlap seems even more glaring today, perhaps because the build-up to and beginning of the Gulf war has roughly coincided with the football playoffs leading up to the Super Bowl.

And so both go on in their not entirely separate ways. Just as the football blitz was named after the German blitzkriegs of World War II, perhaps it won't be long before linebackers start nicknaming themselves Scudbusters or coaches call sorties instead of plays.

Yet this cross-pollination of sport and war comes with some handwringing. The problem, of course, is that sports metaphors may be seen as trivializing warfare. And that's something many are aware of, in both camps.

"I'm actually struck these days by how much more circumspect [President] Bush and people like [Gen.] Colin Powell [chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] have been," said historian Donald J. Mrozek, who has written about the interplay of war and sports lingo. "I think the officers have clearly tried to restrain themselves when they talk to the press because they don't want to seem like they're liking what they're doing, which, after all, is destruction by bombs."

Indeed, Rear Admiral Douglas J. Katz, commander of the battle group attached to the USS America, corrected himself after using a reference to football while talking about the loss of an F-14 Tomcat in the air war with Iraq:

"The last one we lost, we're not sure how it happened. It's like anything else, you know, if you watch a football game, sometimes despite your best offense, out comes this guy streaking down the sidelines, and he catches the pass and goes in for a touchdown. I don't want to use that as an [analogy], because this is not a game."

Mr. Murphy, whose tour with the Skins was from 1977 to 1985, agrees.

"It's just a game," he said. "The coach used to say, 'This is life and death,' but we always knew it never was. But in war, it obviously is."

However, another former football player -- Stan White, who was a Baltimore Colts linebacker -- believes the mixed metaphors are inevitable, and not that objectionable.

"It's so similar, the way you're trying to attack and defeat the opponents on the other side," said Mr. White. "The terms fit like hand and glove -- you're flanking, you're attacking, it's a blitz. It's a non-lethal war, I guess."

No one is quite sure when or how the lines between battlefields and playing fields became so blurred. It's not surprising, though, that war and football use the same language since they're both about gaining territory and beating the opposition.

Some believe this is largely an American phenomenon, although the British have long believed that "warriors were developed on the playing fields of Eton," said sports psychologist Bruce Ogilvie, of San Jose, Calif.

And, more recently, Mr. Mrozek found an example of the British mixing up the two.

"After Britain was defeated in the World Cup soccer match by West Germany, one of their major newspapers ran an editorial that said we can take consolation from the fact that while Germany has beaten us at our national game, we have already beaten them twice in this century at theirs," Mr. Mrozek said.

It does seem irresistible both for generals to talk football and coaches to talk war, as the words flying out of the Gulf and Tampa these days demonstrate.

So take another shot: Who's talking about the Super Bowl and who about bombing Iraq?

"Our receivers will be coming up and they're dressed to kill."

"We're so relentless, keep doing it and keep doing it. And even if you stop it, we're going to keep doing it."

The first was Marine Maj. Andrew Lahaszow; the second, Bills' wide receiver Andre Reed.

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