Things learned, observed in military sports during pre-July 4th weekend
Published: July 3, 2012
Musings, mutterings and the occasional schmahts as Ornauer shakes his head at what interservice sports has become in the Pacific and elsewhere:
It can most certainly be argued that the Pacific interservice basketball Triple Crown and softball Grand Slam circuits, as we knew them in the 1980s, ’90s and 2000s, aren’t even a shell of what they used to be. These are neither your uncle’s Firecracker Shootout on Okinawa, nor your pop’s Summer Slam on Guam.
Face it: They’re dead, if not on life support. With blood pressure steadily falling and heart rate shallow and rapid.
And it’s not just out here in the Pacific where military sports are hurting. It’s a worldwide epidemic, a steady decline of money, events and availability of athletes, teams and officials to populate the events.
One longtime observer even went so far as to suggest the drawdown will strike at the military’s sports showcase, the All-Armed Forces tournament circuit.
It wasn’t an easy conclusion to reach. Guess you could say where interservice sports and I were concerned, denial is not just a river in Egypt (with apologies to Al Franken/Stuart Smalley).
Exhibit A: The pre-July 4th weekend events on Okinawa and Guam.
Just 16 softball teams, 12 men and four women, the smallest field in this event since it was last held as a men’s-only tournament at Torii Station in 1995, then called the Firecracker 16.
Just five basketball teams. Only five. Which to as big a varsity basketball advocate as longtime Andersen Air Force Base fitness center director and Pacific Air Forces coach Gerrard Barnes has to come as a huge disappointment. Seven were on the docket; two dropped out.
And the common denominator between the two tournaments: No Korea teams. At. All.
First time in the Firecracker’s history. One would thoroughly expect Osan Air Base, whose coach Tony Jones has always supported Andersen tournaments and Barnes vice versa, but the Defenders were a no-show as well.
Blog post interruption: As an old Stripes colleague, a soldier based in Tokyo in the late 1980s, used to tell me repeatedly: “These guys are out here to prepare for war, not play sports.”
Half right, I would counter. Yes, soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are enlisted or commissioned to defend the country. But there’s a reason why the U.S. military continues to budget $1.75 billion annually for its athletics industry known as All-Armed Forces sports.
It serves as a retention tool. Something to be said for the idea of being able to wrestle, whack long drives or sink tough putts, box, run, swim, spike volleyballs, dunk basketballs, slam home runs and represent your country while you’re at it. A certain point of pride to wear blue and white, black and gold, Navy blue and white or brown and green. Or the red, white and blue, if one gets that far.
The places you go. Rio. Kiev. Rome. Zagreb. Seoul. And all the other places where International Military Sports Council (CISM) championships are and have been held.
“You mean, I can do that, too?” the guy working in the cubicle next to the unit’s volleyball star muses.
It becomes a point of pride for that unit, the unit’s commanding and executive officers, sergeant majors, first sergeants, section supervisors, the whole smash. Might even result in a bullet line on a handful of evals, including the athlete’s.
And it doesn’t stop there. It’s a recruiting tool as well.
Servicemembers assigned to the World Class Athlete Programs belonging to the Air Force and Army spend the lion’s share of their time training for international competition. In the hope that someday, one or 10 of them will be honored by being selected to the U.S. Olympic team.
In addition to their chosen sport, they also must maintain proficiency in their job specialties. And they also venture into town, to nearby high schools, to demonstrate the value of wearing the uniform of “the world’s greatest military,” as ex-Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tom LaSorda says, and wearing the sports uniform of their military service.
“You mean, I can enlist in the Army and wrestle for them? Cool!” a Columbine or Cherry Creek High wrestler who won a state gold medal might say.
Just how close are we to losing all that?
“A non-combat related area is a big target,” said Chris Simpson, an 11-time All-Air Force and four-time All-Armed Forces softball player who played for American Legion in the Firecracker.
Where Armed Forces sports goes, “anything not an Olympic-feeder or World Class Athlete Program sport” might well face the budget ax, he said.
The sport he’s played in the military for 19 of his 20 years, softball, is a very inviting target; slowpitch softball is hardly what one would call an Olympic sport. “That’s one of the biggest” targets for cutting, Simpson said. “Varsity (softball) is not getting any support” on a worldwide level.
Time was when GIs from the college or pro athlete ranks would be drafted or would enlist or gain commissions and spend the majority of their time playing sports, or would use interservice sports as a stepping stone to professional riches.
Once identified as an elite athlete, based on whether they played high school or college ball or at one of the service academies, they’d be placed on permissive temporary duty orders assigning them to the gym to play for their respective base teams.
Football teams would bundle aboard training flights bound for wherever, flown by pilots looking to keep up their flying hours. It was not uncommon for the Subic Admirals or Clark Diplomats to jet from Naval Air Station Cubi Point to Naval Air Facility Atsugi and play a game on Sunday at Yokosuka, Wednesday at Yokota and Saturday at Camp Zama. The Guam Football League featured the only submarine-based team, the USS Proteus Packers. Korea’s champion would play Japan’s champion before thousands of fans at Tokyo National Stadium and millions more on Armed Forces radio.
Tim VanGalter and Cid Edwards played football for the 25th Infantry Division in Korea and went on to the NFL’s St. Louis Cardinals. Billy Martin of the New York Yankees played baseball for the Army in Colorado. Napoleon McCallum got an almost-unheard-of extra year of eligibility at the Naval Academy to play a fifth season of football after injuring his knee during his senior season. Kevin Bradshaw played basketball for the Navy at Yokosuka Naval Base, then later set a Division III single-game scoring record while at U.S. International.
Tackle football disappeared from Korea in 1972, as did Army command tournaments designed to select soldiers for All-Army tryout camps. The Navy dropped its command tournaments in 1990 and the Air Force in 1992; the Marines became the last service to do so last year.
Since those command events started falling off the grid, a series of home-grown base- or local-sponsored events sprouted up to take their place.
From 1989 until, apparently, this year, softball featured Pacificwide events such as the Yokosuka Open (1989-97), Firecracker (on Foster from 1996 to the present), Typhoon Classic (on Torii Station from 1987 until 2004 on a regular basis), Kadena Klassic (1995-2007) and the granddaddy of them all, the Pacificwide Open at Yongsan Garrison, which began in 1991 and is still held today.
Basketball at any one time featured as many as five events, with three usually being held every calendar year: The Warrior Classic at Yokota, Osan’s Christmas tournament, the Martin Luther King Invitational at Camp Foster, the March Madness Invitational and Summer Slam on Guam.
In the command tournament’s place is a resume process. Servicemembers gain permission from their units to go to tryouts, have their “request for additional/supplemental training” signed off by their fitness center, their services commander, their major command MWR officer and finally their service branch’s head force support honcho.
It’s a good system in theory; in practicality, “anybody Joe Blow can fake a resume,” said former All-Air Force women’s outfielder P.J. Council of Kadena Air Base back in 1992, when Air Force went that route.
The money that used to go toward those tournaments and varsity sports in general now finds its way to what the military calls “core programs,” the biggest being fitness, about 75 percent of most base services budgets. The rest goes to programs such as intramural/company-level athletics, youth sports.
While those “fit to fight tonight” programs are crucial to the military’s readiness, it leaves nothing for the elite athlete looking to sharpen his or her game for All-Service camp, for as long as All-Armed Forces tournaments do survive, Simpson said.
“Fitness only develops fitness,” he said. “Varsity sports helps you develop character, unit integrity, leadership, how to overcome hardships in a competitive environment. All of that gets lost when you take away varsity sports. They’re missing out on that aspect.”
Times are tight. Budgets are tight. Everybody has to make do with doing more with less. My take: While the cuts may be urgently needed, it won’t be long before the fruits of those cuts demonstrate what the Simpsons of the world are warning about. How many solid GIs will get out of the service and how many prospective high school recruits will change their mind and not enter the military when they see better athletic opportunities elsewhere?