[VIEWPOINT]In the eye of the beholderI found something troubling in a recent article on the New York Times Web site, based in part on reporting in the U.S. military newspaper Stars and Stripes.
The article recounted the reaction of some U.S. military members to the refusal of FIFA, the organizer of the World Cup soccer tournament, to provide free coverage of the World Cup games to the Armed Forces Network. U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and those on board ships would have no other way of seeing any of the games, the article explained.
Quoting from the Times online story: “Scott Sandahl, a master sergeant at the Yokota Air Base in Japan, said Monday in the military newspaper Stars and Stripes: ‘It’s sad that money has dictated that military service members won’t see the World Cup. This is the biggest sport in the world. For people stationed overseas, it’s a big part of the culture all around us.
“This is the big-money rights holders saying they don’t care, that the U.S. military isn’t worth donating or giving it at a fraction of the cost to AFN.”
The Times story also quoted the U.S. military broadcasting agency as saying no money had been budgeted for sports broadcasting.
While the disappointment to a soccer fan in uniform is understandable, there seems to be a disconnect in the logic here. Why, pray tell, should an international business entity donate broadcasting rights for the benefit of one country’s armed forces? Sergeant Sandahl had it at least partly right: Although I am not sure that money alone was the basis for the decision, it seems very clear that from FIFA’s point of view, the U.S. military indeed wasn’t worth a donation or deep discount.
Should that be such a surprise? Perhaps only from the American domestic perspective that whatever political debate rages inside the United States, the men and women in U.S. military uniforms are following orders and deserve the support and respect of the general public. That’s a laudable sentiment, but it is not one that transfers automatically to the rest of the world. What would be the benefit to FIFA of singling out the very embodiment of a globally controversial government and that government’s even more controversial foreign policies for special favorable treatment?
A press statement by the Armed Forces Network suggested that it had tried to get the rights but was blocked by competitors who had already acquired exclusive broadcast rights. Commander Greg Kicks, a Pentagon spokesman, was then quoted in the Times article as saying, “We rely on the generosity of many organizations to support our military members by providing sports programming free of charge.” Apparently, the problem involved both contract rights and cash.
I suspect that had FIFA been approached by the U.S. military to make a commercial arrangement for broadcasting rights, there still might have been some hesitation before FIFA agreed to the deal. But if a commercial deal had been struck, FIFA would have had a defense against charges of a pro-U.S. political bias: Business is business and politics didn’t intrude into a commercial arrangement. But giving away the broadcast rights could easily have left FIFA open to a political backlash among its member nations.
The U.S. military establishment recognizes that the domestic U.S. perception of “our brave boys and girls in uniform” differs from the perception of American troops in a significant part of the rest of the world. “Buddy systems” for traveling off base, constant reminders to be vigilant and tips for melting into the landscape abroad are reiterated in spot announcements on military radio and television. I hope that Sergeant Sandahl’s reaction reflected only disappointment at not being able to watch the games live and not a perception that his uniform is seen universally as a benign symbol of humane values.
Even parts of the U.S. conservative movement, I suspect, do not understand those differences in perceptions of uniforms, even within U.S. society. I am still astounded at comments by the conservative radio commentator Rush Limbaugh a couple of years ago. He described an incident in which a uniformed police officer went into a high school to protest the alleged left-wing bias of a course being taught there. Mr. Limbaugh went on at length about how ridiculous it was for anyone (he meant “liberals”) to find the police officer’s action disquieting, or to complain that his actions while in uniform implied some coercion.
Al Franken was right, I concluded after listening to Mr. Limbaugh rant for a while. It should be no great intellectual feat to understand that uniforms, military or police, do not universally inspire trust and an upwelling of benevolence.
And finally, you would have thought that a few million dollars, or perhaps less, to buy rights for broadcasting the soccer games to GIs in the Middle East and on board ships would have been fairly easy to come up with ― if there was strong demand for the programming.
* The writer is the editor of the JoongAng Daily.
by John Hoog