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PLAY BALL, YOU ?!¢%&*#/S!
Bil Gilbert
November 25, 1968
Army officers (repeat: officers) are still convinced that soldiers stay in shape and out of trouble if they are kept busy at games
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November 25, 1968

Play Ball, You ?!¢%&*#/s!

Army officers (repeat: officers) are still convinced that soldiers stay in shape and out of trouble if they are kept busy at games

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Sports and soldiering go closely together. Many of the games people play are simply war games in civvies—boxing, wrestling, fencing, lacrosse, the pentathlon, biathlon. The javelin is a spear, the shot a cannonball, the scull a cutdown galley, polo a refined charge of the light brigade. Then, of course, there is the common language of the two, so to speak, disciplines. Sports and war scribes are forever describing fiercely contested battles, slashing attacks, beleaguered defenses, crushing defeats, stunning victories, and they frequently brood about strategy, tactics, reserves, morale, esprit de corps.

Nor is this relationship simply an allegorical, archaeological or accidental one. It is intrinsic. More games are played in armies than anyplace else, because armies are where young men who like to play games are at and also because old men who run armies have always encouraged, and not infrequently even ordered, games to be played. Very probably we throw the javelin not because a bunch of GIs from Cohort III got together in their spare time to heave the old spear but because they were gotten together by a career centurion. "O.K., you men, after chow we break out the #*¢*%+S! javelin. I want to see who can throw the #*¢*%+S! thing the farthest. It'll give you some rest and recreation, like a #*¢*%+S! game. But I want this understood. If any of those #*¢*%+S! from the Vth Cohort throw it farther than you do next Saturday, don't plan on any passes for the rest of the #*¢*%+S! month."

The millennium-long infatuation of the military establishment for games and gamesmen was, of course, made a legitimate relationship by the famous conclusion drawn to explain the events of June 17 and 18, 1815. "The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton," the Duke of Wellington said, and his pluperfect words on the subject always remain close to the lips of all athletic brass.

Predictably, however, the effects of the duke's sentiments have hardly been welcomed by enlisted men, whose favorite army sport is how to escape playing army sport. Speaking in rebuttal to Wellington, a specialist fourth class, who prepped on the sandlots of Indiana, declares: "These officers, they say, O.K. men, we want you to all sign up for soft-ball. You know why? You know where they go then—they go to the Officers' Club."

At the moment, the officer assigned by the United States Army to explain the Wellington Theory—and to have the contrary-thinking enlisted men execute it—is Colonel Don Miller. A big, obviously fit man of apparent high morale, Colonel Miller looks like what he once was, a varsity boxer at the University of Wisconsin, and what he now is, which is officially the top sport of the U.S. Army.

As chief of the Army Education and Morale Support directorate, in the Adjutant General's office, Miller is responsible for a variety of ancillary activities, including transporting dancing girls and rock 'n' roll groups to Vietnam for educational and morale reasons. However, a significant province of his administrative empire is the Army sports program, which occupies some 3,600 military and civilian employees, costs approximately $20 million a year and results in some 69 million acts of participation in something each year. All of this easily makes Miller the athletic director with the greatest jurisdiction in the country, and quite possibly the world, although comparative figures from the Moscow office of Colonel Boris Smirnoff are not available.

Considering his job and background, it is not surprising that Miller speaks not unlike a university athletic director when he begins to elaborate on the philosophy of his shop. "The Army," he says, "has learned that a strong sports program increases physical fitness, aggressiveness and loyalty, improves morale and provides wholesome recreational outlets for young men."

While Colonel Miller is a military man, what he says—"increases..., improves..., provides wholesome..., etc.,"—has been said and will surely be said again and again by the brass of the NCAA, AAU, USOC, by corporation executives, presidential consultants, school board directors, bowling-alley operators and many, many others who for one reason or another are sport promoters. So often is this dogma invoked to justify our current massive commitment—economic, energetic, emotional—to games-playing that it seems almost un-American to note that there is little hard evidence that supports the premise regarding the goodness of sports.

Take, for example, the linchpin assumption of both civilian and military philosophies of games: games are good for your health and they make you fit. There is some evidence that a certain amount of moderate exercise—walking, very slow running or calisthenics—may improve the quality and length of human life. However, there are only a few clinical studies which indicate that participation in conventional competitive sports does the same thing. In fact, here and there you will even get a whisper (as noted, all of this is faintly subversive) that games are actually bad for you.

"If you quote me I will deny it and maybe sue," a physician who is very big in sports medicine opened a discussion of the question. "However, the truth is that hard games constitute an unnatural and unnecessary strain on the system. I treat athletes when they are athletes for torn muscles, slipped discs, concussions, fractures, ulcers, fatigue, insomnia. I see them after they have quit playing. Many of them are hobbled by old injuries, seriously overweight because the muscle has turned to fat, prone to coronaries, restless because they miss the excitement and the adrenalin-stimulating situations. Considering the kind of world we live in, a slight, unmuscular man who sits at a desk adding up figures all day and watches a lot of television in the evening and avoids vigorous games like the plague is more likely to lead a long, healthy, happy life than an athlete."

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