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Maybe sports should “stick to sports”

In the age of paid patriotism, protest, Kaepernick, and Trump, sports leagues — especially the NFL — need to realize that the American identity is neither neutral nor uniform. If sports fans insist that athletes “stick to sports,” they should ask the same of the teams they cheer.

Detroit Lions v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

In ten months of marriage, the only real fight my wife and I have had came this July at Wrigley Field. Baseball was not involved. In the middle of the game, the Cubs introduced three American military veterans to the crowd. I don’t recall if the P.A. directed us to stand, but the crowd did. I didn’t.

I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned and saw my wife looking at me. I looked back at her. We had the following silent conversation entirely through eye contact:

“Stand up.”



“I’m not standing up. We will discuss this after the game.”

And we did. And for the first time since our wedding in December, we got into what I would call a fight as opposed to a spirited domestic disagreement. Our stances were simple.

Hers: No matter how you feel about the military, veterans who fought for our country deserve our applause.

Mine: Sporting events have a history of exploiting veterans and fandom to build support for war, thus putting soldiers in the path of further harm.

After our argument, I understood her position and she mine. It was an important debate to have between two people who plan to start a family and will one day have to explain to children why Daddy does not sing the national anthem at sporting events even though Mommy does.

That fight was the first thing that came to mind when I heard about Colin Kaepernick’s protest against the anthem.

San Francisco 49ers v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

The second thing that came to mind was a different sort of protest: “Stick to Sports.”

We hear it any time an athlete wants to talk about anything outside the field of play.

We hear it any time a sports reporter wants to do the same.

We’ve heard it a lot in the past month, ever since an reporter realized Kap was seated during the anthem.

As more and more people of color become hashtags without seeing justice, we will hear it more and more. Support for Kap’s protest is growing. Athletes of many sports, leagues, and ages have joined Kap in taking a knee during the anthem. And all the while, I hear sports fans online and in person complain that athletes and sports journalists need to stick to sports.

If you feel that way, I’m here to tell you: sports need to stick to sports.

When Americans tell other Americans to “respect the flag” under all circumstances, when they tell their fellow Americans “I agree with your cause, but come on man, not during the anthem,” they make the assumption that the flag and the anthem convey the same messages to all Americans. They don’t.

They also ignore the distaste many Americans have for the longstanding quid pro quo relationship between professional sports and the Pentagon.

This wonderful ESPN article from 2011 details the history of the Star-Spangled Banner at sporting events, showing how it was a marketing tool from the very beginning. And when I say “beginning,” I’m talking 98 years ago during Game 1 of the 1918 World Series between the Cubs and Red Sox, 13 years before the song was our official national anthem.

Miami Marlins v Chicago Cubs Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images

With baseball fans subdued and mournful due to the first World War, Game 1 of the World Series was sparsely attended. The Chicago Tribune called the game “perhaps the quietest on record,” with one exception — the seventh-inning stretch, when the stadium’s band performed the Star-Spangled Banner. From the New York Times:

"First the song was taken up by a few, then others joined, and when the final notes came, a great volume of melody rolled across the field. It was at the very end that the onlookers exploded into thunderous applause and rent the air with a cheer that marked the highest point of the day's enthusiasm."

The Cubs played the song for Games 2 and 3, by which time the attendance was up to 27,000. At Fenway for the next three games, the song was performed prior to the game instead of during the stretch, with the ballpark trotting out wounded soldiers home from Europe. From the Tribune:

“[T]heir entrance on crutches supported by their comrades evoked louder cheers than anything the athletes did on the diamond.”

Support between sports and the military now runs the other way too.

Last year, U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake jump-started the national conversation about what he and fellow U.S. Senator from Arizona John McCain eventually termed “paid patriotism,” in which from 2011 to 2014 the Department of Defense paid the NFL $6.1 million to conduct in-game, on-field military tributes. (Shoutout to the NJ Star Ledger for amplifying that discussion.)

Front cover of the “paid patriotism” report from U.S. Sens. Flake and McCain.

In response to those reports, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell wrote a letter in May to Flake and McCain, telling them that the league was returning more than $724,000 because through an internal audit league officials realized they had spent Pentagon money on “appreciation activities” (i.e. promoting the military) instead of “recruitment efforts” (i.e. recruiting for the military).

In other words, the NFL’s error is not taking the Pentagon as a sponsor, but in how said sponsorship was applied. By Goodell’s own words, the NFL’s “relationship with the military includes the advancement of recruitment efforts.”

Meanwhile, this fabulous story in the Cauldron shows how the link between the NFL and the U.S. military has evolved since 9/11. The two institutions are not bound strictly by the dollar but by branding too.

When you read that story showing the ways in which the NFL and the military have perfected cross-promotion since 9/11, and then realize that the NFL’s attendance and revenue have both risen since 9/11, and then read this story that since 9/11 we have been fighting “every single day for 15 straight years, the longest unbroken period in American history,” it’s not hard to connect the dots and see that the Pentagon has spent a decade and a half directly channeling our fervor and loyalty for football into military efforts.

And damn, I don’t blame the Pentagon! That’s just smart marketing. Football has always bundled itself with military terminology and suggested warfare in its action. But not everyone thinks this is a righteous duo, and many of us would prefer that when it comes to the military, the NFL and other leagues would stick to sports.

Despite Kaepernick stressing from the beginning that he is protesting racist policing, NOT the military, there is another connection there: the increasing militarization of police. A study published in May showed $2.2 billion worth of equipment was transferred from the military to various police departments nationwide from 2006 to 2015. That would be a start date of five years after our defense budget began rising in the wake of 9/11, moving from $287 billion in 2001 to a proposed $582.7 billion for fiscal year 2017.

Oakland Raiders v St. Louis Rams Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Again, connect the dots: defense spending goes up... military surplus goes up... military equipment goes from military to police departments as part of Clinton-era 1033 program… so when police departments respond to protests of the very police killings Kaepernick is protesting, they do so often looking like they are American troops in foreign combat, not domestic police officers.

Therefore I think it’s reasonable to explore the possibility that the NFL’s pro-military displays and forced patriotism since 9/11 have played a role in the American voter’s tacit approval of U.S. military missions the past 15 years. Another game of connect-the-dots.

To be fair, I have not seen or read Kaepernick draw that connection between the anthem, the military, policing, and the justice system. But it doesn’t really matter. The NFL has turned the national anthem into such a force-fed spectacle that it is the most obvious spot for Kaepernick to protest police brutality and a justice system that too often supports it.

Look again at Kap’s original explanation:

"I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. ... There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder."

Kaepernick is connecting his own dots: the U.S. is a country that oppresses people of color by allowing police officers to kill citizens and “(get) paid leave and (get) away with murder”... the NFL is spending a portion of its promotional time on the U.S. … so Kaepernick is saying he will not take part in that promotion.

Additionally, I’m not sure if Kaepernick has personally addressed the history behind the Star-Spangled Banner, but others have, and it’s a history unkind to people of color, to say the least.

This has all gotten a bit heavy for a sports column. I recognize that. But that’s the point of “stick to sports” — it flows both ways. Roger Goodell views the relationship between the NFL and the military as one of the “deepest and most important to the league” and therefore has no problem using his league to promote the military and affect recruitment. Goodell looks at the American flag and sees that promotion as his duty.

Colin Kaepernick looks at the American flag and sees protest as his duty. That’s why the “If you don’t love America you can get out” argument is so dumb and, yes, ANTI-American: because the entire point of America is that we are supposed to be a nation that is constantly evolving and attempting to collectively better itself based on the will and want of the people.

Personally, I think knowing more about players than just how fast they can run or how high they can jump makes our games more interesting. Don’t you want to see Kaepernick take the field this season? Whether you love him or detest him, won’t your feelings toward him enhance your experience watching him play? I think so.

I also think the anthem is out of place at sporting events. We don’t sing it when we start a work day or a school day. We don’t sing it in our places of worship. We don’t sing it when we go to court — which seems the most relevant and appropriate setting. And when you consider the history of exploitation and blatant marketing used to bind our feelings of fandom to our feelings of patriotism, I think these ceremonies could just as easily be viewed as belittling and shallow, what the late Mike Royko once coined “commercial patriotism.”

Or, fine, leave in the national anthem, but recognize that not everyone feels the same about its meaning. Allow space for those feelings and the actions that grow from them. After all, what good is our American right to dissent if you can’t dissent?

Listen, I feel your pain, Mr. Stick to Sports. Sometimes I too want to use sports to remove myself from the troubles of society. I don’t want to then be weighed down by those same troubles. I get it. What the NFL has to understand is that there are many Americans who cannot be neutral about the flag, the anthem, or soldiers on the field — Americans who also want spend three hours setting aside political and social differences to embrace the seemingly apolitical act of rooting for a football team.

It’s never that easy, is it? Last week I got into a multi-pronged spat on Twitter when I attached a link to a story about Mike Ditka’s Kaepernick response to a pair of Ditka protest tweets:

Among the responses was one person whose initial reaction was to slam “liberals.”

We volleyed back and forth about our views on Kaepernick, Ditka, the NFL, and protests. I argued that part of my beef with Ditka’s statement was that he gets pegged as a mouthpiece for Chicago and a lot of Bears fans disagree with both his opinion and, perhaps more importantly, the manner in which he expresses it.

He disagreed with that point, noting that he is a Bears fan and is “perfectly fine” with the way Ditka expressed himself. He added that he doubted that “the manner in which Ditka talks is going to trigger football fans or anyone not liberal.”

This confused me, and I paused him there to make sure I knew what he meant by “trigger.” He provided this definition, (“A word used often by idiots ... to justify their bitchy attitudes”) which is what I thought he meant, and was also the source of my confusion. Because at the heart of our debate was a simple need each of us had to remind the other guy that, hey, I’m a football fan too.