For several days now, U.S. President Donald Trump has been involved in a war of words with the National Football League (NFL). This is not necessarily a bad thing; if Trump wants a war, better with the NFL than with North Korea.
He launched the first salvo of this war by saying that NFL owners should fire players who protest the national anthem, and called those players ‘sons of b——‘. The mother of Colin Kaepernick, the former quarterback who started the entire brouhaha in order to protest racism in the U.S., tweeted that she supposed that made her a ‘b—-‘. Based on the protests by football players from the last several days, it seems that many ‘b——‘ raise sons to play football.
It has been pointed out that Trump spent more time criticizing football players than he did commenting on the horrific destruction of Puerto Rico by a series of hurricanes; he was also much faster to respond to the NFL than to that destruction.
But the U.S. president’s misplaced priorities are a topic for another essay. The question that this entire kerfuffle brings to this writer’s mind is simpler: why on earth is the national anthem played before football games, or any sporting event, for that matter, anyway? What does ‘patriotism’, a concept this writer has never understood, have to with football? While he poses these questions, he does not wish to alarm the reader; he will provide the answers. Please read on.
We can look at the NFL in one of two ways:
+ It is a collection of athletes, competing for the honor and glory of their team, each hoping to take home the coveted Super Bowl trophy at the end of the season, thus basking in the knowledge that they, as part of a team, worked with other athletes to achieve the highest honor their sport bestows.
+ It is a multi-billion dollar business, exploiting grown men who will jeopardize their health for the huge amounts of money they are paid, salaries in the millions of dollars that are financed by ticket sales and the astronomical advertising fees charged to companies that want to associate their products with the macho image of football, and will pay whatever is required in order to do so.
Regardless of the view one takes, be it the child-like and naïve Number 1, or the realistic Number 2, there is one main reason for playing the national anthem before sporting events.
Assume for a moment that some people, innocents that they are, believe the fairy tale of Number 1, above. They see the athletes as dedicated to their sport, wanting only to excel in their chosen field. They overlook domestic violence, drug use, dog-fighting, etc., etc., and see only their heroes, throwing, catching and running with an oddly-shaped object that for some reason is called a ball. The injuries, including broken bones and concussions, are seen as part of the game, and the fact that the athletes are willing to continue competing despite this pain, is seen as admirable dedication.
In this circumstance, why would the national anthem not be played? What a wonderful way to start this innocent, wholesome competition, with hand over heart and tears in the eyes, as the rag known as ‘Old Glory’ waves overheard, and the barbaric words of the national anthem are sung by some celebrity! What better way to reinforce in the minds of the innocent little lemmings the association between wholesome competition and the mighty, righteous United States!
Then, there are people who take a more cynical, albeit realistic, view. They see the NFL as a giant cash cow, dispensing billions of dollars, and with a never-ending stream of athletes raised to see money, glory and the U.S.A. as their gods. The association between athletics and the U.S. has been drilled into them since childhood, when every sporting event, from high school on up, has always begun with the imbecilic pledge of allegiance, or the barbaric national anthem, or both. But those whose vision is not so clouded, and who see the potential for big bucks, also see the need for the national anthem to open any sporting event. This keeps in the forefront of the shallow mind the association of country and sport, which, of course, leads to huge profits. The average price of a ticket to an NFL game is $172.00. As of 2015, the NFL averaged 68,400 live spectators per game. Multiple that by the average price of a ticket, and the total is an astounding $11,764,899 per game. Not a bad take for a day’s work. Wave that flag!
In both situations, the government is given an opportunity to play the anthem for millions of people, the tens of thousands who sit in taxpayer-financed stadiums (there is always money for a new stadium, but not for such frivolities as clean water for Flint, Michigan, or infrastructure improvements in Detroit, for example), and the millions glued to their television screens, yelling to players as if they were present. The dual and dangerous concepts of patriotism and U.S. exceptionalism are therefore reinforced, enabling the white establishment to continue its rule, to the detriment of all except itself and its wealthy cohorts.
To summarize: the national anthem, played before sporting events, enables the ruling elite to foster the concept of nationalism, at the same time linking patriotism to corporatocracy through the sale of products, further linking the ideas of love of country (whatever on earth that means), to the almighty dollar.
And remembering that most NFL players are of African descent, Trump’s criticism of them is all the more telling. To the nonsense of patriotism and the greed of corporatocracy can be added the ugliness of racism. NFL players, mostly Black, should not, we are told, shine a light on racism in the U.S.; they are to shut up and entertain the rest of us by playing football. And as fans create videos of themselves burning jerseys of their formerly-favorite teams, or destroying season tickets (how much money do these people have, anyway?), we see that the racist example of the U.S. president has found a very willing audience.
Trump has already disparaged other celebrities who have dared to speak ill of him (he called Meryl Streep “one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood” after she criticized his policies at the most recent Golden Globe awards). He has condemned the Black Lives Matter movement, and wants to keep Muslims out of the country. What group will be next? What individual or organization will express a concern about human rights, something the president simply can’t countenance, and be publically condemned by him?
This, apparently, is how the president plans to ‘make America great again’.
Robert Fantina’s latest book is Essays on Palestine.