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American Sports Are Becoming Political

American Sports Are Becoming Political


San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest has exposed a deep divide over something all too many Americans take as as a typical part of modern life.

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick told NFL Media’s Steve Wyche. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

On Thursday, he again declined to participate in the national anthem before a preseason game against the San Diego Chargers, kneeling with his teammate Eric Reid.

This, predictably, led to a lot of people accusing Kaepernick (who is biracial) of being unpatriotic, anti-American, and ungrateful to a country that allowed him to succeed. My reaction to most of that is a gigantic eyeroll — that this is always the response when a fortunate black person has the temerity to call out America for its original sin.

But how did we get to the point of playing the national anthem before NFL games — or any professional or high-level amateur sporting event — at all?

It’s actually not normal, internationally speaking, to play national anthems before domestic sporting events. You don’t hear “God Save the Queen” before English Premier League matches. Non-Americans find all the patriotic spectacle in American sports baffling.

The reason isn’t that Americans are more patriotic than foreigners. It’s that, during the world wars, American sports leagues hitched themselves to the American military. Today, the original justification for playing the National Anthem doesn’t make a lot of sense anymore — and the kind of patriotic imagery it embodies is little more than a marketing tool that occasionally invites political controversy.

I don’t really care very much whether Colin Kaepernick does or doesn’t stand. That’s his choice. But the idea that he should have to stand, or even listen to the National Anthem at all, is much stranger than most Americans think it is.

Why we hear the national anthem before sports events

Colorado Rockies v Houston Astros
World War II veteran Pat Duncan tossing out a first pitch at a 2013 Rockies-Astros game.
(Scott Halleran/Getty Images)

“The Star-Spangled Banner” a poem written in 1814, during a battle at Fort Henry in Baltimore, later set to an English drinking song. It only became America’s unofficial national anthem in 1916, when President Woodrow Wilson ordered its use at military and other national ceremonies (it took until 1931 for it to become official).

A year later, the United States entered World War I. This, as Mental Floss’ Matt Soniak explains, brought the song into use during sports events. The patriotic fervor stirred up by the war made the song popular — and thus, good business, as Major League Baseball discovered:

During the seventh-inning stretch of game one of the 1918 World Series, the band erupted into “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The Cubs and Red Sox players faced the centerfield flag pole and stood at attention. The crowd, already on their feet, began to sing along and applauded at the end of the song.

Given the positive reaction, the band played the song during the next two games, and when the Series moved to Boston, the Red Sox owner brought in a band and had the song played before the start of each remaining contest. After the war (and after the song was made the national anthem by a congressional resolution in 1931), the song continued to be played at baseball games, but only on special occasions like opening day, national holidays and World Series games.

It took World War II, Soniak writes, for the National Anthem to become a staple of every game.

“During World War II, baseball games again became venues for large-scale displays of patriotism, and technological advances in public address systems allowed songs to be played without a band,” he explains. “‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ was played before games throughout the course of the war, and by the time the war was over, the pregame singing of the national anthem had become cemented as a baseball ritual, after which it spread to other sports.”

The key point to take from Soniak’s account is that this whole ritual, which we all take for granted, is the product of exceptional circumstances. World War I and World War II were massive military undertakings, which required enormous mobilization of civilians to support the war effort.

It makes sense that sports would be used as part of this: Playing the national anthem before games, and festooning them in patriotic imagery, helped remind sports audiences that their government needed them desperately. After the world wars, there was no major social need need to weave militarism into the fabric of everyday life.

Yet the national anthem ritual survived the social conditions that gave rise to it. Every other major American sports league followed baseball’s lead, sometimes (as in the case of the NBA and NHL) after the war was over.

When Major League Soccer was founded in 1996, the New York Times’ Sam Borden reports, it felt like it had little choice but to play the national anthem — even though its international peers, like the Premier League, did not do the equivalent.

“At this point, it has become part of the tradition of playing a sporting event in America,” MLS spokesman Dan Courtemanche told Borden.

So today, we play the national anthem before sporting events … because we play the national anthem before sporting events.

The NFL has a particular kind of patriotism in mind when it plays the national anthem

Super Bowl XLIX - New England Patriots v Seattle Seahawks

Jets at the Super Bowl. (Elsa/Getty Images)

Today, the patriotic imagery at sports events has very little do with actual patriotism — and everything to do with the league’s bottom line.

To understand why, I’d recommend reading Michael Oriard’s book, Brand NFL. Oriard is both a professor of English at Oregon State and a former NFL offensive lineman, which gives him a unique and interesting perspective on the way the league markets itself.

Near the beginning of the book, Oriard examines the history of patriotic imagery during the Super Bowl. From very early on, Oriard finds, the Super Bowl used patriotism as a kind of branding device.

“The Super Bowl was chiefly an advertisement for NFL football, investing the game with ‘traditional American values,” Oriard writes.

Interestingly, the tenor of this patriotism wavered over time. In 1968, at the height of the controversy over the Vietnam War and hippie counterculture, the NFL positioned itself on the same side as Nixon’s “silent majority.” The highest “patriotism quotient,” according to Oriard, was at the 2002 Super Bowl, the first after 9/11.

But in 2006 and 2007, as public outrage at the Iraq war built, the league toned it down substantially. This, Oriard explains is, quite telling.

“The muting of patriotic display in 2006 and 2007,” he writes, “illustrate’s the NFL’s desire to connect with the popular mood, not promote any political agenda.”

Why would the NFL care about the national mood? Money, of course: The NFL is big business.

“The NFL had by this time become hyperconscious of not alienating any part of its audience,” Oriard writes. “NFL vice president Roger Goodell disavowed ‘making any political statements’ this time, because it’s not our place.’”

Patriotism in professional sports isn’t actually about patriotism. It’s a pantomime, a performance designed to tap into Americans’ national pride without enhancing it. Playing the national anthem isn’t an honor for the nation in any meaningful sense; it’s turning the “Star-Spangled Banner” into an advertising jingle.

Kaepernick’s critics are essentially saying it’s fine to use the national anthem to make money, but not to make a point about injustice. That seems like an utterly bizarre way of understanding patriotism.

Playing the national anthem invites politics into sports

Supporters Of QB Colin Kaepernick Hold News Conference In San Francisco

(Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

While the the NFL may not intend to make the event by playing the national anthem, it ends up doing it anyway.

I go to a lot of sports games with my girlfriend, who is a die-hard baseball fan and also Canadian. She finds the over-the-top displays of American patriotism — the national anthem, the military imagery, the foregrounding of servicemembers — off putting.

Many Americans aren’t as sensitive to this, because we’re generally more comfortable with American national imagery. But patriotic symbols like the national anthem always conjure up some image of what it means to be a patriot in the listener. Such symbols allow multiple interpretations, meaning different things to different people at different times.

For instance, some veterans — the group you’d think would be most offended by Kaepernick’s gesture — actually found his protest refreshing. Former Army Ranger Rory Fanning, who recently sat during the National Anthem at Wrigely Field in solidarity with Kaepernick, explained why in a recent interview with Jacobin.

“Many soldiers thought they were going overseas to sacrifice for freedom and democracy. But they are not seeing those ideals being practiced in this country,” Fanning said. “Kaepernick’s protest is resonating with soldiers who feel like they’ve been lied to.”

To these veterans, the “Star Spangled Banner” reminds them of the contrast between the ideals they thought they were sacrificing for and the muddy reality of American life. To other veterans, it means something different, and they’re offended by regular Americans protesting the national anthem. But this divide isn’t unusual. The same could be said about any other group of American (or non-American who enjoys watching American sports).

Inserting the national anthem into sports events can never be “apolitical,” because patriotism isn’t apolitical. Remember, bringing politics into the event was explicitly the point back in World War I and II — they were trying to drum up support for a war effort.

We don’t listen to the national anthem at other mass cultural events. The latest Marvel film doesn’t open with the Star-Spangled Banner, nor does a play at the local theater. There is no necessary reasons that sports should be different.

But they are. And that means that they’ll end up being political, whether people like or not.


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