In the mid- to late 2000s, I remember going to games at old Yankee Stadium and feeling a sort of amorphous peer pressure during the pregame singing of the national anthem and seventh-inning renditions of “God Bless America.” Among fans, there was an almost belligerent tendency to self-police, to ensure all those in attendance rose and removed their caps. It always made me feel uncomfortable in the stands, even as I stood and removed my cap.
This red-white-and-blue-tinted pressure in the South Bronx wasn’t organic; it was sanctioned from the top, from owner George Steinbrenner himself. He instructed security staff to rope fans into their rows so they couldn’t move around during the singing of nationalistic songs. (This policy made news in the summer of 2008, when a fan was allegedly roughed up — and subsequently ejected — by a couple of New York City police officers for trying to use the restroom at the wrong time.)
To some fans (myself included), this form of stadium-based patriotism — which, in the post-9/11 era, increasingly featured flyovers, field-length flags, surprise soldier homecomings and in-game breaks to salute the troops — came to feel almost perfunctory, as if teams in all the major sports leagues were telling us to eat our vegetables. (It was later revealed that the Department of Defense funded many such ceremonies).
When people say politics and sports shouldn’t mix, what they really mean is that sports and ‘certain types of politics’ don’t mix.
Now President Trump is trying to get us to eat our vegetables, cooked his way, in the form of trying to force NFL players to “stand proud” for their country during the national anthem and disinviting two-time NBA MVP Steph Curry to the White House (Curry had already said he wouldn’t show up). In the process, he’s underlining something Dave Zirin, the Nation’s sports editor, has pointed out: When people say politics and sports shouldn’t mix, what they really mean is that sports and “certain types of politics” don’t mix.
Athletic progressives have often faced official scorn, and some have dealt with real-life consequences for their actions. When Muhammad Ali refused to be inducted into the U.S. Army in 1967, the boxer was stripped of his heavyweight title and convicted of draft evasion. When Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf declined to stand for the national anthem in 1996, he was suspended from the NBA. Marco Lokar withdrew from Seton Hall University in the early 1990s and left the country following a wave of harassment that resulted from his decision to not wear an American flag on his basketball jersey during the First Gulf War. The New York Times called this “dark patriotism” and editorialized that the incident was “a troubling reminder of other efforts to extort conformity in a nation built on free speech and diversity.”
Allen Guttmann, in his history of sports as mass entertainment, “Sports Spectators,” wrote that as far back as the Roman Empire, stadiums were “the place for whatever interaction occurred between the emperor and the populace.” Guttmann unearthed an anti-war protest at a Roman horse race nearly 2000 years ago, which included synchronized clapping and “cries for peace.” Contemporary examples abound, from the 1968 Olympics, when Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave their iconic raised-fist salute, to former San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick taking a knee throughout last season to draw attention to issues of racial injustice and police brutality. Kaepernick set off the demonstrations that have so irritated Trump, which have been mushrooming this season not least because the NFL has apparently blackballed Kaepernick for his protests.
Trump’s weekend tweets only gave rise to a renewed round of anthem demonstrations, along with pushback from NBA and NFL officialdom. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell decried the president’s “lack or respect for all our players”; 49er’s owner Jed York said, “Our players have exercised their rights as United States citizens.” All of which is a welcome corrective to the paid patriotism and George Steinbrenner types defining the messages we receive at sporting events.
Novelist Ben Fountain wrote the bestselling “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” a satirical novel about an Iraq war soldier sent home to appear at a rah-rah Dallas Cowboys halftime show. “Patriotism is love of country,” Fountain told me, “and I think real love — true love — involves a lot of pain and sacrifice. … And so if you really want to show your patriotism, you sacrifice. You go through some form of hardship.” What we have, on the other hand, is “puppy-love patriotism,” he said. “You feel good when you’re putting the flag pin on your lapel, thanking the troops, but … it’s not a demonstration of real love.”
Which brings us back to the president, a man who never served in the military, who attacked a Gold Star family, and who is using his bully pulpit to try to intimidate private businesses and individual citizens for daring to express political opinions. As the NFL and other sports leagues consider how to deal with a president who wishes to make their games a tool of division, I think it is worth considering the last year in the lives of both Trump and Kaepernick. Both men have raised their political profiles, only one has done so by sacrificing for his beliefs — and in this way, showing true love for his country. The other one happens to be president.
Rafi Kohan is the author of “The Arena: Inside the Tailgating, Ticket-scalping, Mascot-racing, Dubiously Funded, and Possibly Haunted Monuments of American Sport.”