Why the National Guard Bought the Rights to RFK Stadium in Washington

Washington, DC

“It’s a perfect marriage,” bleated Washington, DC City Council member Vincent Orange. He was not talking about Charles and Camilla although the marriage in question is just as repellent. The unctuous Orange was celebrating the National Guard’s proposed $6 million purchase of “stadium naming rights” for Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, home of Major League Baseball’s Washington Nationals. According to the Washington Post this deal is all but certain. Now, in the middle of Southeast DC, the Washington Nats will come to you “Live from National Guard Field at RFK.”

This is the first time a branch of the armed forces has thrown its helmet into the stadium name game. It’s worth understanding why.

As recently as the early 1990s, the names of sports arenas still held pretensions of dignity, tradition, and a kind of bloated grandeur. There was Veterans Stadium, the Boston Garden, Memorial Stadium, Candlestick Park, Tiger Stadium, and the Spectrum.

Then, in the 90s, when by executive order all that was holy was officially profaned, new stadiums sprung like weeds with their “naming rights” sold to the highest bidder. The century old Tiger Stadium was abandoned to rot, for the sparkling new Comerica Park. The San Francisco Giants weren’t playing at Candlestick. It was PacBell first, and now Barry Bonds will be chasing Hank Aaron’s home run record in SBC Park. The Houston Astros were left with the most corporate egg on their faces, going from the Astrodome to being the home of the gloriously named Enron Field. After some unpleasantness ensued, they switched to the current Minute Maid Park, an unfortunate name when no player wants to be associated with “the juice.”

The National Guard’s attempted RFK purchase is as fitting in 2005 as was Enron’s mid ’90s hubris. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the Pentagon need the guard to grow, and grow now. Recruitment is down more than 30%. Dissatisfaction among guard members is at an all time high. Lt. Gen. James Helmly, the commanding officer of the Army Reserve, said in January that the Guard and the Reserve are “rapidly degenerating into a ‘broken’ force.”

There are reasons the Guard is stretched tighter than Dick Cheney’s Bikini Briefs. The Bush White House has radically reinvented this wing of the armed forces to achieve their imperial ambitions. In the late 1960’s, the National Guard was a prized place for country club chicken hawks like Dan Quayle and George W. Bush to avoid Vietnam while not missing tee time. Then in the era of the volunteer army, the National Guard’s enduring image was probably their standing in armed defense of Fredericks of Hollywood during the 1992 LA Rebellion. In reality, a National Guardsman was typically far more likely to help clean up after a hurricane than inspect roadside bombs.

But now the Guard – the under-trained, under equipped, one-weekend-a-month-National Guard – is an astounding 40% of the boots on the ground in Iraq. The persistence of the Iraqi resistance and the “War on Terror’s” expansionist agenda means the Pentagon needs more boots. This is why, according to Time Magazine, the Guard has hired 1,400 new recruiters. This is why, even though 25,000 soldiers are currently on food stamps, there is 6 million dollars in the Pentagon Budget for stadium naming rights. This is also why RFK stadium of Southeast DC is a perfect locale for their new publicity push. Since September 11th, Armed Forces enlistment by African-American men has dropped by 47%. Southeast DC, with its decrepit high schools and spiraling unemployment makes for an ideal location. Presumably, even if they can’t afford tickets, they can come on by to sign up at the adjacent recruitment stands. It’s telling in fact that the only objections to this purchase, which could scuttle the deal, are from Sen John Warner (R-VA) who thinks the purchase doesn’t do ENOUGH to raise the guards profile and increase recruitment.

Ted Kennedy lifted his 82 pound head long enough to say that both he and Ethel Kennedy love the name change, not surprising from a political family whose perspective is that we have been “fighting the wrong war” and should be taking on North Korea and Al Qaeda. That will require more troops something, an unreconstructed hawk like RFK would have loved. But the people really gurgling with pleasure are members of the DC City Council. As Councilman Jack Evans said, “I started laughing when I first heard it because you usually think of Verizon or a bank for a sponsorship. But I wouldn’t object to [The National Guard Puchase] as long as we get the money.”

Evans may be laughing all the way to the bank, but among those who aren’t laughing is Darryl T. Dent of the Army National Guard, Gregory E. MacDonald and Kevin M. Shea, both of the Marine Corps Reserve, all of whom signed up for a weekend a month and ended up coming back to their DC home from Iraq in coffins.

Another person not laughing is Celeste Zappala. Just two weeks ago, Zappala was at George Washington University telling the story of her son Sherwood. Sherwood joined the National Guard after helping sandbag a flood in Wilkes Barre Pennsylvania. But instead of civic works projects, Sherwood was sent to Iraq. His job was to search for Weapons of Mass Destruction the Pentagon Brass knew were never there. Sherwood was killed.

Zappala described at GW what it was like to hear the news when a soldier, his chest a collage of medals visited her home. “He said, are you Sherwood’s mother? Are you Sherwood’s mother? And I just started to scream and scream and scream. I could hear myself screaming. And he just stood there and he — a neighbor heard me screaming and came to me and lifted me up…it was just — just a terrible — the really worst moment of my life.”

We need to see this attempted name purchase for what it is: an act of aggression by a military bent on growth that’s using sports as a platform to achieve its ends. If the name is changed, DC residents should approach the stadium the same way growing numbers of National Guardsmen are approaching being recalled for duty and say, “Hell No We Won’t Go.”

DAVE ZIRIN’s new book “What’s My Name Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States” will be in stores in June 2005. You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by e-mailing edgeofsports-subscribe@zirin.com. Contact him at editor@pgpost.com.









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DAVE ZIRIN is the author of A People’s History of Sports in the United States (The New Press) Contact him at edgeofsports@gmail.com.

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