• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

Is wearing a poppy respect for the fallen or corporate branding?

Sometimes it's only with hindsight that you recognise the oddness of an occasion.

But for a handful of us in the audience of a small ceremony that took place in a marquee on New York's Long Island in June 2002, it was obvious there and then that no period of lengthy reflection would be required to appreciate the utter ridiculousness of what we were watching.

It was the day before the start of that year's US Open at Bethpage. Nine months earlier, the twin towers of the World Trade Centre, only a few miles to the west, had been destroyed in the terrorist atrocities of 9/11. To honour the victims, the United States Golf Association had decided to present an ambulance to the Fire Department of New York.

So far, so fitting. And if it had ended at that then the gathering might have been remembered as a measured, appropriate and dignified mark of respect, as well as generosity, on the part of the USGA. Sadly, it went on, and then on a bit more, in a toe-curling descent into schmaltz, mawkishness and crude sentimentalism.

A transcript of the occasion would have read like a particularly bad scene from Little House on the Prairie. Speaker after speaker delivered monologues that made Oscars acceptance speeches seem the epitome of self-restraint. All this building to a crescendo in which, I kid you not, the FDNY chaplain blessed a golf ball, a scene of such Swiftean absurdity that it became a struggle to remember that it had its roots in real tragedy.

Which is, of course, the danger when sport becomes entangled in graver human affairs. Sport may be trivial, ephemeral, essentially meaningless, but it is mostly a life-affirming experience which it sits uncomfortably beside the crises and catastrophes that punctuate existence. It could be argued that there is a greater obligation upon sport to recognise its place in the scheme of things, but it is devilishly difficult to prescribe a form or appropriate context in which that acknowledgment can take place.

You might recall, for example, the televised appeals made by David Beckham when Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman first disappeared in the Cambidgeshire village of Soham just more than a decade ago. Beckham was idolised by the two 10-year-olds, and was both moved by the situation and aware of his public duty in the circumstances.

It was right, too, that after their bodies were found there should be a minute's silence at football, rugby and cricket grounds around the country. Beckham took part in one such show of respect, before Manchester United's match against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, a game in which he scored a goal but as he left the pitch at the end,  he was seized by a television reporter who asked if he wanted to dedicate his goal to the memory of the two girls. His muttered affirmation betrayed his shock at what was, by any measure, a startlingly crass question. To link the two things was a demonstration of execrable insensitivity on the part of the reporter concerned.

However, it was also a reflection of the grief fascism that has engulfed this country over the past 20 years. Beckham had to reply as he did; he would have been lambasted for any other response. It is not enough just to feel sorrow any more, not enough to reflect on it. It has to be paraded.

Which is why, frankly, I feel a rising sense of dread when the poppy season comes round. There was a time when wearing a poppy was, unmistakably, an expression of individual remembrance, but in many instances the practice has been hijacked by image-makers and been rendered essentially meaningless.

So I can contain my enthusiasm at the news that all 20 Barclays Premier League clubs will display a uniform poppy design on their shirts next weekend. I'm not going to speculate on which players might or might not harbour strong feelings on the matter of remembrance, but it is unquestionably true that many of them come from countries where there is no tradition of poppy-wearing whatsoever.

In short, their poppies are no more a statement of personal outlook than the sponsor's name or the kit manufacturer's logo. Which seems to me like a pretty effective way of cheapening the symbolism of the poppy rather than enhancing it. Players will wear the poppy simply because they have been told to by clubs who are terrified of the consequences of not doing so.

The compulsory poppy is an empty gesture. The newsreader Jon Snow has been criticised for his refusal to wear one, but his blanket ban on wearing symbols of any sort is, to my mind, a noble position for someone in his line of work. As the military historian Guy Walters has put it: "Snow's refusal makes us think again of what poppies are really about. His blank lapel does more to remind us of sacrifice and invoke remembrance than a poppy worn mindlessly or out of compulsion."

Yet over the next few days we media types will watch with wry bemusement as the press officers of football clubs and international rugby teams scuttle around with boxes of poppies, pinning them to players before they go in front of the cameras. Respect for the fallen or corporate branding? It becomes impossible to tell.

At least there was no doubting the message of those protestors from the far-right English Defence League who responded to FIFA's refusal to allow England to wear poppies by hanging a banner on the organisation's Zurich headquarters that said: "How dare Fifa disrespect our war dead?" Clearly, fascists don't do irony.

Contextual targeting label: 
Sport

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.

124149