The hundreds of professional football players who protested during the singing of the national anthem at football games this week were making three messages:
- The original meaning of Colin Kaepernick’s lonely protest in favor of social justice: that the flag also stands for the continued oppression of minorities.
- In protest against Donald’s Trump’s racist, anti-immigrant, sexist and autocratic statements and actions.
- A reminder to the NFL that no team has yet to give Kaeperick a tryout this year.
While all three messages are consistent with American ideals, the later also resonates with the free market ideology that the ruling elite believes and tells us goes hand in hand with democracy and personal freedom. The market is not supposed to discriminate. The market is supposed to reward the best. For all we know, Kaepernick is washed up from all the beatings his injury-prone body has taken. On the other hand, I understand that while on the field last year, the guy threw 16 touchdowns and 4 interceptions. Those are great numbers for a starter, and for a back-up, they are incredible. He definitely has the pedigree and recent performance to deserve a try-out.
That’s the level playing field that sports is supposed to be about. Athletes are taught that during the game they are not supposed to care about what happens off the field: your teammate is your teammate and the best guy plays the position. The only thing that matters is who can throw and catch the ball the best, run the best, tackle the best, coordinate with other players the best. Who is the fastest, strongest, quickest, most accurate. The level playing field—a myth in the real world—operates most effectively in the fantasy world that is professional sports. If businesses and executives so often use sports metaphors, it’s because they would like us to think that the virtues of sports—hard work, the level playing field, team spirit and practice—rule in the real world. Of course, the hard-working poor and middle class of the past forty years might disagree. So would the owner of the company that lost that first big contract to the inferior technology Microsoft offered because the loser’s mother wasn’t on the board of IBM.
What’s interesting about the message to Trump is that Trump has taken a traditional management position, but in such an overtly racist way that management can’t agree with him without risking alienating the players. Trump and the other White Housers who have commented essentially are saying that the athletes should shut up and do their job. Yes-suh and No-suh, yes’m and no’m. I don’t agree with that idea. We demand that professional athletes be role models, and part of being a role model is speaking your mind when you see injustice and lending your trusted and recognized voice to important causes. On the other hand, management asking an athlete to remain silent is not inherently racist, only un-American. Trump makes it racist by exclusively going after minority players. He makes it racist by going after a player whose so-called transgression was to protest racism. He makes it racist by his use of language and code words. In the case of the entirely inappropriate “son of a bitch” quote, Trump also demonstrates his total lack of understanding of the sports world. I have heard “son of a bitch” and SOB used by an athlete or coach innumerable times about whites, blacks, Hispanics and even a Chinese left fielder, but only in admiration of an opponent, as in “that sumabitch hit my best fast curve ball.” Management never wants to run its own sons of bitches off the playing field, just the other guy’s!
My own personal view is that the main purpose of singing the “Star Spangled Banner,” a war song from the early 19th century, at sporting events is to give people something to protest. At heart, it is a jingoistic and war-mongering custom meant to brainwash patriotism into us. Until Kaepernick, I had long advocated ending the singing of this musical monstrosity before games. Until 2001, I would sit with my hat on during the pseudo ceremony. Now I just stand there, hands at my side, and look at my feet silently, afraid to enrage another fan. But I’m fantasizing a scenario in which athletes engage in more and more elaborate protests during the singing of the national anthem, dividing the country and affecting attendance. People in the stands start to participate, too, maybe by not singing. Rather than keep the controversy alive, one team will experiment with no having the anthem, maybe replacing it by rotating the singing of uplifting sectarian songs such as “Imagine” and “If I Had a Hammer.” After an initial wave of protest against ending the anthem, maybe things will settle down and more teams will end the practice. The announcer will merely cry out “play ball” and the game will begin…
But the television blare of the national anthem before the Yankee game jerks me awake from my day dream of an anthemless sporting world. Uh, oh. The game is about to start. Where’re my grapes? I suddenly realize that the real function of singing the national anthem is to give the folks at home an extended break to go to the bathroom and get a snack and drink.