Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

I salute you, Jets logo

After all, pro sports has always served as a proxy for real warfare

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At the risk of retrieving the rotted remains of a horse from the glue factory just to bash it again, it's pretty safe to say Winnipeg is still digesting its hockey team's air force-inspired emblem.

The stylized roundel that serves as the Winnipeg Jets' new logo has sparked the biggest debate over design in this city since utilitarian critics heaped abuse upon Esplanade Riel, the pointy pedestrian bridge whose now-beloved image is synonymous with Winnipeg itself.

Last week, when I wrote a column praising the simplicity of the logo's design, some readers were disappointed I didn't take umbrage to the military association.

"Sure, it is a handsome design," wrote a longtime acquaintance who proudly calls himself a pacifist. "(But) the militarization of a sports team is a terrible idea, especially in a city that, for example, contains more Mennonites than military members.

"It is a real letdown, perpetuates a right-wing and frankly un-Canadian ideology introduced to the game by (Stephen) Harper and (Don) Cherry and disgraces the character of our city."

My old pal went on to compare the unveiling of the Jets' logo to a morality play, where hero yearns for something for years, only to be disappointed when the desired outcome actually happens.

"I think it is one of the saddest events for our city in a long while," he wrote. "It makes me feel ashamed and embarrassed."

This reader is not alone. Over the past week, many Winnipeg hockey fans have expressed similar opinions, to the point where I'm confident a significant minority of Jets supporters are uncomfortable with the logo's military provenance.

But at the risk of once again disappointing the pacifists, I don't understand the logic behind their discomfort. That's because professional sport has always served as a proxy for the warfare that used to be a more commonplace aspect of Western society.

At the risk of simplifying history to cartoonish proportions, there may not be much of a distinction between warfare and organized sport, if you go back far enough.

In the days of city states and feudal fiefdoms, peasants living under the euphemistic "protection" of armed militias hoped "their guys" would go out and beat "the other guys" to prevent their hamlets or villages from being ransacked and pillaged and women raped by strangers who tended to behave rather badly when they were on the road.

I'm not suggesting warfare evolved directly into pro sport. But you don't need to be overly perceptive to find similarities between a stadium full of people cheering on a team and a medieval square full of soldiers, with cheering patriots at their side or a Soviet-era plaza full of missiles rolling by carefully choreographed crowds.

In the modern context, organized sport serves as a relatively bloodless surrogate for actual war. While people still get hurt on the ice at hockey games, on the turf at football games and in the beer-soaked stands at European soccer matches, the collective madness that takes over professional-sport audiences doesn't look and feel much different than the fervour found at an old military rally.

I don't say this because I dislike professional sport. I share season tickets for both the CFL's Winnipeg Blue Bombers and the NHL's Winnipeg Jets. I've been a fan of both leagues my whole life.

But even I get creeped out by the jingoism when I attend a Minnesota Vikings game in Minneapolis and the majority of the 70,000 fans in attendance are clad in the same purple-and-gold merchandise. Anyone who isn't looks like an interloper.

I'm no cultural anthropologist, but professional sport probably taps into some unfortunate but undeniable human desire to lose oneself in the collective madness of a massive and occasionally idiotic crowd. And that's precisely the same desire that fuelled the military rallies in societies that committed horrible things in the name of nationalism.

But here's where I part ways from the pacifist crowd: There's no denying far fewer people get hurt by professional sport than get hurt by warfare. Even mortal enemies like India and Pakistan understand it's safer to play cricket with each other than send more militants into Kashmir or point more nukes over the Karakorams.

Again, professional sport tends to only kill its participants, through steroid use and brain injuries and the long-term side effects of other forms of physical and chemical abuse. Warfare kills people. From a harm-reduction perspective, I choose pro sport.

Of course, I've just set up a straw man, as any pacifist would agree pro sport is better for humanity than warfare. But I only took my argument to absurd levels because I don't understand how any pacifist can be blind to the connection between both endeavours.

All True North Sports & Entertainment, the owners of the Winnipeg Jets, has done is make the relationship between pro sport and the military more obvious than it usually tends to be. Although it must be said, there isn't anything overly subtle about the use of violent imagery by major-league clubs that have been around a lot longer than the nouveau Winnipeg Jets.

North American pro sports is laden with clubs named or designed after institutions a lot less venerable than the Canadian Armed Forces. The Pittsburgh Pirates, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Oakland Raiders are named after roving bands of murderous thieves.

Of course, you could argue these names were chosen at a less sensitive time in North American history, when it also seemed wise to choose racist names like Edmonton Eskimos, Washington Redskins and Cleveland Indians.

But I reject the notion the Jets association with the air force is insensitive. Canada's air force has little to be ashamed about. We helped win the Second World War, the closest thing to the proverbial "just war" in our history. We didn't bomb Vietnam. We didn't bomb Iraq, the second time around. We did intervene in Kosovo and Libya with good intentions despite mixed results.

And I also don't believe the logo is overly jingoistic because pro sport is jingoistic from the start, as I explained earlier.

If you feel uncomfortable cheering for a team with a fighter jet on its jersey, why do you feel comfortable cheering for a team of large men who run around a sheet of ice hitting other large men -- and occasionally punching them?

So at the risk of upsetting the legacy of J.S. Woodsworth and all the other great pacifists in Winnipeg's history, I am no more troubled by the fighter plane on the Jets jersey than I am troubled by the fang-toothed dinosaur on the Toronto Raptors' shirts.

And I'm a lot less troubled by a jet than I am by the implied message behind the Edmonton Oilers' nickname, which celebrates non-renewable energy.

And herein lies the crux of my argument: "Edmonton sucks." Did I mention pro sport could be mindless?

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 31, 2011 A1

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott.

Bartley appears every second Wednesday on CityTV’s Breakfast Television. His work has also appeared on CBC Radio and in publications such as National Geographic Traveler, explore magazine and Western Living.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

On Twitter: @bkives
Email: bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

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