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Eighteen months ago, I launched a project called Left Hook, an online journal that would bring together progressive and thoughtful sports fans to write about the games we love from a critical perspective. The world of sport is dominated by some pretty unpleasant politics, from sexism and homophobia to nationalism and warmongering. The hope with Left Hook was that writing would lead to talking, to organizing and to challenging the domain of sport to include the people and voices it usually ignores.
Last weekend, that hope was rewarded, when activists from Sports Without War pulled off a very effective internet hoax exposing the hypocrisy of the Toronto Maple Leafs' "Forces Appreciation Night."
The group created a fake press release from the Leafs promising that the annual hard-rock-pumping tanks-and-guns spectacle would be reformed, this year featuring a moment of silence for thousands of Afghan civilians killed in the war and a program to give free tickets to Afghan-Canadian families who lost loved ones. The release went on to take an explicit anti-war position, pointing out that the young Canadians sent to war amidst fanfare at the Air Canada Centre typically return home to find that there are few resources to help them deal with physical and emotional trauma.
Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment (MLSE) didn't respond to the press release, except to deny that it was real, which was probably smart on their part. After all, openly denying that they care about all the Afghans and Canadians being hurt by the war might not have reflected well on their organization.
Indeed, the brilliance of the Sports Without War action was that it exposed the central lie of "Forces Appreciation Night." The Maple Leafs claim that it is a non-partisan event that supports the troops without getting into politics. The reality is that it supports the troops in the abstract only -- in the surreal spectacle of soldiers rappelling from the arena rafters and generals exchanging pleasantries with Lanny McDonald. It is not the least bit interested in the actual experience of the troops or the actual wars they are fighting.
As a result, it is the exact opposite of what it claims to be. It acts as a propaganda event for the idea of the military. It functions as a political project to lend credibility to whatever engagements the Canadian Forces are sent to fulfill, without asking any questions about who decides where the military goes, why they go there and who they kill along the way. That kind of "appreciation" doesn't help the troops, their families, or their victims.
In fact, the only beneficiaries here are the top political and military leaders, who use these spectacles to bolster their capacity to use the military however they want; which is primarily in the service of Canada's largest corporations.
This is no conspiracy theory -- it is official Canadian policy. If there was ever a time when Canadian policy was driven by humanitarian or social development goals, that time is long since passed. In recent years, Canadian foreign and military policy has been used to subvert democracy and help Canadian businesses exploit foreign workers and resources in Haiti, Honduras, Libya, Mali and, most notably, in Afghanistan. In fact, a quick scan of the board of governors of MLSE suggests that they are connected into that very small class of Canadians who are making profits from Canada's wars.
"Forces Appreciation Night" erases all that and tries to distract attention from the fact that Canadians are spending billions of dollars in tax money to fund these wars -- money that could be spent on health care, affordable housing or decent public transportation. It pretends that the troops only exist as heroes in camouflage on the ice, rather than as broken, abandoned, suicidal and sometimes horrifically violent veterans. It tells us to forget that there are tens of thousands of innocent people who have been killed as a result of the actions of the Canadian military; that it has created a human catastrophe in Afghanistan and elsewhere; that it is responsible for submitting people to torture; and that it has undermined in other countries the values it claims to uphold at home.
In a much needed intervention, Sports Without War exposed all of that, in one simple and effective action. The response to the action was overwhelmingly positive, despite a handful of racist internet trolls in comment sections, and it is a testament to how important it is for thoughtful and progressive sports fans to insist on talking about the politics embedded in sports. It was not the first action Sports Without War has taken -- last summer the group protested a military tribute at a Toronto Blue Jays game -- but it is so far the most ambitious and most effective.
The positive response to the action suggests that momentum is building, and it can't come soon enough.
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Tyler Shipley is the creator of Left Hook.