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American Anthem

Superficially, it appeared to be the typical Sports Illustrated puff piece. Two thousand words on “the story of the early baseball season,” the surprise Chicago White Sox. Titled, “The Wisdom of Ozzie,” the piece focused on the team’s ìoutspoken, unconventional and often politically incorrectî manager Ozzie Guillen. Scribe Michael Farber used the familiar, dime-store, David-Mamet-For-Dummies metaphors – writing that Guillen is so hyper, “he makes amphetamines jumpy.” (In another recent SI article, a different athlete made ìcoffee nervous.” Next week expect someone to “make crack cocaine antsy.”) But then Guillen dropped a bomb that Farber blithely treated like someone had simply broken wind.

The eye-catching passage begins, “For the best team in baseball, the handwriting was in the wall: ANTHEM — 5:54. Along with times for pregame stretching and batting practice, the start of the national anthem was duly noted in block letters on a grease board in the Chicago White Sox’ clubhouse Guillen…thinks his Sox should stand for something and one of them is the Star Spangled Banner. The most prized items in Guillen’s office are the twin American and Venezuelan flags that hang on the wall behind his desk — he hopes to obtain his citizenship by the end of this year — and he has one important rule: Don’t miss the anthem. The fine is $500. “That’s the thing that pisses me off the most,’ Guillen says. “Two reasons. If you’re not from this country, you should respect the anthem even more than Americans because you should feel pleased you’re here. And if you’re from this country, you should have respect for people who are dying for it.”

Guillen is clearly raising some fairly explosive issues, although Farber doesn’t bother to pursue any of them. First of all, there’s that intertwined American and Venezuelan flag. The US is in open diplomatic – and covert military – conflict with the Venezuelan government and its President Hugo Chavez. The Bush Administration has played a role in two attempted coups against Chavez, despite the leader’s majority support among Venezuelans. What does Guillen think about this? I will not make the assumption that Guillen, like many wealthy ex-pat Venezuelans, sees Chavez as somewhere between Idi Amin and Satan, but wouldn’t it have been interesting to find out? Especially if Guillen, the first Venezuelan manager in baseball history, feels pressure to prove his patriotic bonafides.

And then there are Guillen’s comments about how foreign-born players should ìrespect the national anthemî, and by extension, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This seems to be a direct swipe at high-profile Florida Marlins slugger, Carlos Delgado. Last year, Delgado, a native of Puerto Rico, refused to stand on the dugout steps with his team during the singing of ìAmerica, the Beautiful”. The All-Star first baseman was protesting both the war in Iraq and the US Navy’s actions in Vieques– the Puerto Rican island which, until 2003, served as the US Navy’s practice range for bombs, napalm, and depleted uranium munitions. .Delgado said, famously, ìSometimes, you’ve just got to break the mold. You’ve got to push it a little bit or else you can’t get anything done.î Guillen seems to be taking a nasty jab at Delgado and other players who share his beliefs. Once again, Farber leaves this unexplored.

Then there is this issue of team rules and mandatory fealty toward the national anthem. Farber’s article implies that Chicago’s sterling early season record stems from Guillen’s rule that players salute the flag or be fined. Farber never questions the outrageous nature of Guillen’s star spangled discipline. Granted, five hundred dollars is tip money for professional baseball players, but shouldn’t the principle of mandatory patriotism be challenged? Workers at General Motors, Microsoft, or even Wal-Mart don’t have to say the Pledge of Allegiance before starting a shift. When you go see Star Wars III this weekend, you may have to sit through eight Fandango ads and admonishments about the sinfulness of cell phone use, but no one will tell you to stand up and thank the USA for George Lucas and Jar-Jar Binks. When I taught in DC Public Schools, I made sure my class knew that they had a choice when it came to saying the Pledge of Allegiance. It seemed obscene to require my students to stand and salute the flag, when many of them came here as refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Colombia, precisely to escape the dirty wars brought to them by Great Flag Waving Americans like John Negroponte, Oliver North, and Ronald Reagan.

For me, the national anthem belongs at sporting event about as much as Trent Lott belongs at the Million Man March. The US is alone in the world in regularly asking its sports fans to stand as one and salute a flag. This is garbage. Sports should be a patriotism-free zone. We are watching players from the US, Latin America, and increasingly Asia, hit baseballs made in Costa Rica and field in gloves made in Taiwan. The only purpose served by the national anthem is to remind the many nationalities in the stands and on the field exactly whose foot stands internationally on their collective neck. Sports Illustrated and Ozzie Guillen may think that coercing players to stand is a great step forward for team unity, but if these Sox unravel, we should examine whether the bruised egos are colored red, white and blue.

DAVE ZIRIN’s new book “What’s My Name Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States” will be in stores in June 2005. Check out his revamped website edgeofsports.com. You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by e-mailing edgeofsports-subscribe@zirin.com. Contact him at whatsmynamefool2005@yahoo.com.