Q: How long have football players and commentators been saying things like “This game is war to the end” or “The linemen are fighting it out in the trenches”? I find it inappropriate to talk of a game as a war when soldiers are in combat today.
A: This reminds me of the statement attributed to the Duke of Wellington in the mid-19th century: “The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.”
As for your question, the link between football and the military goes back to the beginning of the 20th century, according to an article earlier this month in the Washington Post.
At the time, the writer Les Carpenter says, coaches like Yale’s Walter Camp and Harvard’s Percy Haughton used military textbooks as guides to motivate their teams on the field.
Not long after World War I, Carpenter adds, Gen. Douglas MacArthur wrote these lines while he was the superintendent of the US Military Academy at West Point: “Upon the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that upon other fields, on other days will bear the fruits of victory.” (Sounds like Wellington, doesn’t it?)
And Vince Lombardi, an assistant coach at West Point before his championship years with the Green Bay Packers in the ‘60s, didn’t mince words: “You’ve got to win the war with the man in front of you. You’ve got to get your man.”
Interestingly, according to the article, the NFL is now moving away from the use of “warrior athlete” imagery. It seems that league officials do indeed consider such language inappropriate at a time of real war. “It’s a matter of common sense,” the NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell, is quoted as saying.