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Yellow Ribbons, Jingoism and American Sports

I turned 40 the day the U.S. began its first bombing campaign against Saddam Hussein’s Baghdad, January 16, 1991.

As it happened, I was scheduled to leave the next day for Long Beach Peninsula in Washington State. I planned to live a solitary month in a trailer rental there and work on a couple of writing projects.

If you’re old enough, you’ll remember that the first Gulf War was a television bonanza for CNN, with its cast of Pentagon experts and sexy reporters giving viewers their first taste of life in wartime as a 24/7 news event.

Vietnam is often referred to as America’s first televised war, but its coverage was light-hearted compared to the news/hyperbole CNN floated in Gulf War I. The black and white imagery of annihilation, video shot from thousands of feet above the intended target, sanitized death—it was all there for the transfixed and undiscerning viewer.

Then there appeared the helicopter shots of the “Highway of Death,” a sort of media dessert—graphic images of the destruction of Hussein’s retreating forces, along with many civilians caught up in the carnage.

I caught glimpses of the coverage in a Seaview, Wash. bar near my trailer each evening before trudging back to work, usually in a dismal mood. Back in my trailer those nights, I didn’t work on my planned projects, but wrote an anti-war play instead, which I titled simply, The War.

I was listening to the OPB affiliate out of Astoria, Oregon one night when the airwaves went silent. The broadcaster working that night was righteously lambasting the war; he suddenly quit his job and walked away from his microphone, muttering that he couldn’t take any more.

I feared for his career in radio, but I admired his bold move.

Weeks earlier, I had dutifully protested the coming war, marching along with thousands of others through Portland’s streets. As with every anti-war march since the Vietnam era, I knew what effect protest would have on U.S. militarism—none.

I was reconciled to living with that knowledge forever while using protest as a symbol.

However, once the Gulf War began I was surprised by the depth of the jingoism and mindless sloganeering of the pro-war crowd as the U.S. commenced its slaughter.   Given events of the ensuing years, I of course now realize I shouldn’t have been surprised, but at the time I thought our citizenry had transcended such nonsense.

Then I realized that for half the nation the scars of the Vietnam era had faded away or never existed. The citizenry was ripe for another dose of poison as propaganda.

The divisiveness of U.S. war policy had returned with a vengeance.

Out came the flags and yellow ribbons and bumper stickers in 1991, along with the “support-our-troops” messaging sent directly to the anti-war crowd:

“We do not protest against America. We love America more than you do.”

Here it is 25 years later and Colin Kaepernick can’t say what is on his mind without many in the jingoistic, flag-waving American sports crowd climbing all over him.

I think my instincts are correct about this. Americans have “shrank out of sight,” to quote Mark Twain’s War Prayer, too often in the face of their government’s wars.

Kaepernick seems to be in agreement. I admire his willingness to say something about the obvious. Jocks don’t do that often enough. With one small protest CK transcended the ordinary.

                                                       *** 

I used to be a big sports nut. I still am to an extent, but not the way I was as a youngster and into my twenties. I think my interest may have dropped off after I quit playing the games.

I was disappointed I wasn’t good enough to make it all the way to the big leagues in athletics, a typical dream of American youth. So sports lost some sheen for me eventually. At various times it might pick up again—off and on as I floundered with fandom. I still occasionally get absorbed in a World Series, for instance.

I never really cared too much for the Super Bowl after Joe Namath retired.

Drunken Joe, a pro-football half-time celebrity guest, once tried to kiss Suzy Kobler on national TV. That was pretty funny. Joe says he hasn’t had a drink since then. Says he took stock of his life and all. Good for him.

Still, it was pretty funny, if a little sad, Joe asking Suzy for a kiss in front of millions of home viewers.

I liked the San Diego Chargers in the ‘70s. They never made it to the Super Bowl, so I didn’t have to break my disinterest in that hyped up waste of time.

I played on the line at a small college before giving up football. I got the crap kicked out of me a few times. But I could dish it out, too, albeit to a lesser degree.

Here’s one thing I’ve noticed about football. Everybody is bigger now. They’re faster too, particularly the really big guys who now run like the little guys when I played.

Kaepernick is one of those, a big quarterback who is fast.

I have great memories of playing the college game for the fun of it.

I once recovered a teammate’s fumble in open space when, pulling to the left to block, I thought I might score. I didn’t. Everything was in slow motion, but that was because I was myself slow.

The great athletes talk about how time suspends when they’re in a “zone,” when everything in front of them slows down.

Michael Jordon used to talk about being in the zone. He talked about stuff like that rather than politics. Jordan would not break the code that surrounds sports and the resultant big money at stake.

That was left to Kaepernick to do years later. There have been others who broke the code in the history of professional sports, but they are few. CK is just the latest to test the repercussions. Asked about his protest’s potential negative effect on his career, he said, “I don’t care.”

Rah, rah, CK!

I eventually gave up on college ball, and not just because I regularly got beaten as an undersized offensive lineman who didn’t have the requisite speed to play outside.

I also had other cultural/political reasons for giving up football at that time. I played in the era of dissent.

I couldn’t identify with the jock mentality, never could really. I just loved playing the game. I could take or leave most of my football playing friends.

Well, not friends, but teammates.

There may have been a few others on that college football team who attended a morning football practice before heading off to the anti-war protest or lecture in the afternoon, but I can’t remember them.

It was definitely a different era, and I, admittedly, was kind of an oddball, an anti-jock playing the game.

***

Professional sports are filled with knuckleheads. I recall Luke Scott, when he was a Baltimore Oriole, allowing that he didn’t believe, back in the glorious hours of the birther movement, President Obama is a U.S. citizen.

As I’ve attempted to convey here, I was once an enthusiastic jock myself. As I’ve also related, I didn’t always fit in with the athletes in my cohort because my views have long been somewhat left of centerfield.

What had happened in Luke Scott’s case is that someone lobbed Scottie a few political questions regarding our president and the ball hit him on the forehead before he juggled and then dropped it.

I once sat in Portland’s Multnomah Stadium (now soccer-dedicated Providence Park) during a Portland Beavers baseball game, the summer of 1980, and quietly received the taunts of the entire bullpen of the Phoenix Giants as I remained seated during the playing of the national anthem.

Here is what I have in common with Kaepernick. Sitting out the anthem has been a long-time habit of mine, and my business, as I’ve long resisted the way sports and politics enmesh in our society, an embarrassing jingoistic tendency.

By the time the warbling, awful singer finished mangling the ugly song, the pitchers were threatening to come into the stands and kick my ass.

The Soviets had recently invaded Afghanistan and Jimmy Carter had called off U.S. participation in the Moscow Olympics in protest. U.S. nationalism and the most naive kind of American patriotism had a grip on the reactionaries among us.

I waved at the bullpen heroes and put on my best smile. Didn’t they know they should have been paying attention to the anthem and not clamoring so viciously for my head?

I thought they were being most disrespectful—to the flag, and the poor singer!

Can I relate to Colin Kaepernick’s protest? Of course I can.

More articles by:

Terry Simons is the founder of Round Bend Press Books in Portland, Oregon.  This story is excerpted from his memoir of growing up in Oregon, A Marvelous Paranoia.

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