The Politicization of Sport and the Commercialization of Patriotism

Some professional football players have taken to using their prominence as a platform to call for social action.  These athletes protest during the national anthem before NFL games, an act by which they are bringing attention to the fact that the promise of America has not been fulfilled for everyone.  “Liberty and justice for all,” has, in fact, not been for all.  The athletes, most of whom are persons of color, are criticized for politicizing sport and for a lack of patriotism.  Both are unfounded.

Certainly the National Football League (NFL) was politicized well before players started their anthem protest. Team owners and the league have made aspects of the game political for years.  However, it was only political messages of team owners that we saw.  The conspicuous presence of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in the owner’s box of the Dallas Cowboys during a game was a political statement.  The only question was whether Christie, who at the time was contemplating running for President, was bragging about being with Cowboy’s owner Jerry Jones or vice versa.

More significantly, the NFL in recent years has exploited the U.S. armed services and veterans with increasingly garish pre-game demonstrations of military personnel, over-sized American flags, and flyovers of military aircraft.  These were overtly political statements in the guise of patriotism.

But these displays were more than politics, they were integral to the league’s business plan.  Until it was made public that they were doing so, teams were charging the Department of Defense millions of dollars for these displays.  Patriotism was just another revenue stream.  The practice of charging for these displays was only ended because of the embarrassment for the league of public disclosure.

Faux patriotism was much deeper for the NFL.  It is one strand of a larger strategy: use sex, violence, and flag waving to promote the sport.  These are three sure-fire themes for making money in America.  So it is not that players who demonstrate quietly during the playing of the National Anthem are acting unpatriotically.  They are using the hollow patriotism of the teams as an opportunity for showing their concern for how our country has failed to live up to its promise.  To me that is more patriotic than using the flag to add to the financial coffers of some of the richest people in America. It is no honor to those who have served valiantly to have their service used to make wealthy men even wealthier.

This question of what constitute patriotism reminds me of the statement that Senator George Mitchell made to Oliver North as part of the Iran Contra hearings:

“I want to repeat that: in America, disagreement with the policies of the Government is not evidence of lack of patriotism. Indeed, it’s the very fact that Americans can criticize their Government, openly and without fear of reprisal, that is the essence of our freedom and that will keep us free.”

Using the moment when others celebrate what our country stands for to show how we still fall short of our ideals is not a lack of patriotism.  It is part of the striving for better that will allow us to reach our greatness.  It certainly does not dishonor those who fought for the freedom to make such a protest.

Now the NFL and its owners have found that the controversy around pre-game protests may be hurting its revenue.  Some team owners, including Jerry Jones, have threatened that players who fail to stand and “honor the flag” will not be allowed to play for his team.  This feels to me like an ante-bellum cotton plantation owner reminding “uppity slaves” who is the owner.  His version of patriotism is the only one allowed.

Perhaps it is time to remove politics from sport and to stop using patriotism to sell our businesses.

Mark W. Anderson

About Mark W. Anderson

I am proud to be a Mainer, born in Caribou and schooled at Brewer High School, Bowdoin College, and the University of Maine. I am grateful for a 35 year career at UMaine, the last decade in the School of Economics.