If you look back through the archives of my blogs, you will find only one dealing with sports. It was about the LPGA, my favorite sporting organization. This post will be my second involving sports — albeit obliquely. I won’t make commentary on sports a habit since the only sports about which I could authoritatively pontificate are women’s golf, women’s football (a.k.a. soccer), and horse racing. Of course I also could go on and on about the New Orleans Saints, but only as any member of the aptly named “Whodat Nation” could.
As most of you know by now, owners of NFL teams recently met and agreed that teams whose players don’t stand up for the national anthem before games will be fined this season. If players choose not to stand when on the field they’ll have to remain in the locker room during the anthem. The New York Times editorial board, in its lead editorial on May 24, proclaimed, “The NFL Kneels to Trump.” The NFL Players Association quickly responded to the news and, according to the Times reporting, “accused league officials of hypocrisy.”
There are so many angles to this story that one doesn’t know where to begin. To wit:
- Can owners stifle players’ right to free speech?
- Can a club of old, white rich men dictate to a large, young group of predominantly black men how to show patriotism? How does that look?
- Why is it necessary for the players to show patriotism (narrowly and wrongly defined in my view) before every game?
- Which is more patriotic: To want our country to be less racist or to blindly honor a flag before a sporting event?
- Why do the owners get to define patriotism?
- Is the owners’ real motivation simply protecting the league’s profitability?
- Is bowing down to Trump’s demagoguery by passing this rule encouraging demagoguery?
- Why not eliminate the national anthem or other forms of nationalist fervor before sporting events?
I want to hone in on No. 4 above, but first I need to lay some groundwork. Here’s part of a sermon I preached in July 2015 and posted in early 2017:
In popular culture, the conventional meaning of patriotism seems to be that one supports the troops and the wars we send them to fight, reveres the flag, and subscribes to some vague notion called American exceptionalism – the “we are the greatest” phenomenon.
(See the archives for full text. Just click on menu icon in upper left corner of the website to see a drop-down list, which contains the archives.)
This is an insipid and misleading definition of patriotism. I call it “Cheap Patriotism” in honor of the late, revered theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who coined the term “Cheap Grace” to describe a type of Christianity he didn’t admire. With their new rule, the owners are forcing players to conform to a ritual of Cheap Patriotism.
Many players come from backgrounds that include poverty, discrimination, profiling, and police misconduct. Some have been victimized by driving or shopping “while black.” They know a different America than the rich white men who are now requiring them to appear patriotic in front of customers. If I had grown up poor and black, I don’t think I would eagerly jump to my feet to sing our rather difficult national anthem every time I wanted to play football, baseball, or basketball. Rather, I think I would want to show my patriotism by wanting our country to do better and be better. And I think that would make me, yes, patriotic.
If an NFL player is concerned about gun violence, police shooting unarmed black youth, mass incarceration of young men of color, and the growing national sin of favoring the rich over the poor, and wants to raise his voice in protest, why should he be forced to play the Cheap Patriot every Sunday afternoon? As for myself, when I stand for the anthem at a sporting event, I do so out of cowardice. I simply don’t want to call attention to myself or be the butt of jibes from the Cheap Patriots in the crowd. I guess that makes me a hypocrite as well as a coward.
The NFL owners have done nothing but silence a segment of players whose patriotism perhaps runs deeper than that of the average player or citizen. The true patriot is crying, “We can do better!” The Cheap Patriot is saying, “Shut up and honor our flag.”
It’s not clear how this controversy will sort itself out, but it could take some time. My son pointed out to me that in this country taking sides in such a controversy is a spectator sport in itself. Who will win — the handful of protesting players or the NFL owners? No one will want to miss the national anthem before the first NFL game in the fall.
A couple of possible outcomes would make me smile, but both are unlikely. First, I’d like the protesting players to stay in the locker room until the anthem ends, and for TV cameras to focus on their absence on the field so viewers notice. And I would like those players to clearly explain the reasons for their protest in a simple news release after the game. Second, I wish some wise, well-respected person would suggest that we do away with displays of Cheap Patriotism prior to sporting events. No anthem, no flyovers by fighter planes and bombers. Just play the game and let people do their flag-waving on the Fourth of July.
Is that so radical a notion?