What Patriotism Means to the NFL

In the 1960s, the league waved the flag while helping players dodge the draft.

Pink sings the national anthem prior to Super Bowl LII between the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles at U.S. Bank Stadium on Feb. 4 in Minneapolis.
Pink sings the national anthem prior to Super Bowl LII between the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles at U.S. Bank Stadium on Feb. 4 in Minneapolis. Rob Carr/Getty Images

On this week’s edition of Slate’s sports podcast Hang Up and Listen, Stefan Fatsis noted that the NFL’s patriotic pageantry doesn’t necessarily match its actions. An adapted transcript is below, and you can listen to the full audio version by clicking on the player beneath this paragraph.

The National Football League has been exploiting patriotism since the second Super Bowl game, in January 1968 at the Orange Bowl in Miami, where Air Force jets staged a pregame flyover. The next year, in the same stadium, the halftime show theme was “America, Thanks.” As a voiceover intoned the words of the American Creed and Martin Luther King Jr., the Florida A&M University marching band formed an eagle and spelled out “USA.” “It was a conscious effort on our part to bring the element of patriotism into the Super Bowl,” NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle would later recall.

Standing in sharp contrast to the staged jingoism with which the NFL has since become inextricably linked was its actual response to the actual war being waged at the time in Vietnam. “[A]t the very moment the league was fashioning these flag extravaganzas for the sake of branding,” Washington Post sports columnist Sally Jenkins wrote over the weekend, “it was also draft dodging.”

Jenkins cited a contemporaneous Life magazine story about how NFL team owners pulled strings so players could avoid the draft and serve instead in local reserve units. I dug up the Life story on Google Books. It was part of a Dec. 9, 1966, cover package titled “The Draft—Who Beats It and How.” The main piece, by reporter Donald Jackson, examined flaws in the law governing the draft and how deferments, exemptions, and other loopholes had fostered “a pervasive and probably healthy skepticism about the entire system.” The NFL earned its own separate case study: “Bald Case in Point: Pro Football’s Magical Immunity.”

Published a month before the first Super Bowl, the story revealed how the NFL was choosing its own commercial needs over genuine patriotism in wartime. The league’s rosters had been decimated during World War II, when hundreds of players served in the military and teams had to merge in order to survive. Now the NFL was trying to avoid a similar fate—and succeeding. In 1966, Life reported, 27 percent of men between the ages of 18 and 35 were classified as 1-A, or eligible for military service. But only two of the 960 NFL players were drafted that year.

The magazine revealed that NFL teams—“having invested hefty bonuses to sign these fast-depreciating talents”—were intervening directly so players could avoid facing calls from their local draft boards and possible lengthy commitments to the armed forces. Instead, players were placed in local military reserve and National Guard units, which were unlikely to be activated to fight in Vietnam. Players could fulfill the terms of their service during the offseason and not miss a down.

Life explained how it was done. “Nearly every team has a front-office military affairs specialist, as indispensable as a place kicker,” the story said. “As the draft board closes in, this man sees that the threatened player applies for membership in a Guard or reserve outfit. Unit commanders, who are often fans themselves, are happy to sign up the football players, often leapfrogging them over the waiting list. Ordinary citizens have to sweat out their turn and run the risk of being drafted while they wait.”

Life detailed how seven teams managed to help players skirt the draft. The Dallas Cowboys, the magazine found, had 10 players assigned to a Texas National Guard division. The commanding general of a D.C.-area guard unit—which boasted five members of the Washington team—happened to be a commissioner of D.C. Stadium, where the team played. Three Boston Patriots players “were recently listed as AWOL by the Massachusetts National Guard until they promised to start attending drills.”

Life noted that most NFL clubs refused to talk about how they kept their draft-eligible young men football-eligible. But having NFL studs suit up in fatigues was good PR for the military, so some officers were happy to chat. In Green Bay, all it took to relieve a player of draft worry was a phone call to a military official, Life reported: “How would you like a couple of Packers in your outfit?” The magazine said a National Guard officer admitted that first-year linebacker Phil Vandersea “had been jumped in ahead of a dozen men on the waiting list,” while two collegiate draft picks “flew to Wisconsin long enough to be signed up in the Guard while they were still in school in other states.”

“We have an arrangement with the Colts,” Maj. Gen. George Gelston Jr. of the Maryland National Guard told Life. “When they have a player with a military problem, they send him to us.” The military problem was that players might have to serve in the military. The Philadelphia Eagles had been stashing players in the 103rd Engineers unit of the Pennsylvania National Guard for a decade. “If we had been called up in 1961 during the Berlin crisis, the Eagles would have been left without a backfield,” one officer was quoted as saying. Life pictured Tom Woodeshick, a running back who was serving as a “water purification specialist,” wearing his guard uniform and leaning against a military truck.

It wasn’t just local military officers who bailed out the NFL. The Miami Dolphins, Life reported, sent a club official to Selective Service headquarters in Washington, where he appealed and won a deferment for “star linebacker” Frank Emanuel, who had been wanted by his local draft board in Virginia. The deferment allowed Emanuel to play the entire season with the Dolphins.

The military was sympathetic to football because football was ingrained in the culture of the military. Life described Master Sgt. Hurst Loudenslager of the Maryland National Guard, which featured five members of the Baltimore Colts, as “a totally dedicated, sign-carrying super-rooter. He attends every Colts home game, never misses an airport sendoff for away games, and flies the Colt flag outside his Baltimore home.” Loudenslager “once even got to try on a Colt uniform.” The magazine printed the photo. It shows the chubby sergeant posing dramatically—right hand taped and thrust toward the camera, left leg raised in a runner’s stance, ball tucked firmly in his left arm.

The two NFL players drafted into the military in 1966 were St. Louis Cardinals rookie quarterback Gary Snook and second-year New York Giants halfback Smith Reed. Neither played in the NFL again. Only six active NFL players served in Vietnam. One of them, Bob Kalsu, a starting guard for the Buffalo Bills in 1968, was killed in action in 1970. According to a July 2001 Sports Illustrated profile written by William Nack, Kalsu could have chosen to serve in the reserves. He turned down that opportunity. “I’m no better than anybody else,” he said.