Commentary

Sports and patriotism

Updated: July 4, 2013, 9:39 AM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

On Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2001, President George W. Bush stood on the pitcher's mound at Yankee Stadium to throw out the ceremonial first pitch before Game 3 of the World Series. An American flag waved in the background. The President wore a jacket with the New York Fire Department logo on it and a bulletproof vest underneath. In case of attack, snipers were nestled between the floodlights around the trellised top of the stadium, semiautomatic weapons in place.

Six weeks after the World Trade Center attack, New York was still a broken, shaken place. That night was remarkable for its tension and anxiety and emotion, for the humanity among fans usually pushing and elbowing for their space, a humanity created by the fear of another attack, the comfort of being around other Americans. The baseball played on the field was memorable. In many ways, that night was unique for its combination of sports and uncertainty, pride and release, and it also marked the beginning of a dramatic change in American sports.

[+] EnlargeCoors Field, seventh inning stretch
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesFans stand for the singing of "God Bless America" in Colorado.

The old conventions of sports leagues and fans coming to the ballpark to escape the problems of the world disappeared when the towers fell. Sports, which were once by demand of the paying customers and the league themselves a neutral oasis from a dangerous world, have since become the epicenter of community and national exhalation. The ballpark, in the time of two murky wars and a constant threat of international and domestic terrorism, has been for the last dozen years a place for patriotism. The industry that once avoided the complex world now embraces it, serving as the chief staging ground for expressions of patriotism, and has codified it into game-day identity.

A dynamic that was supposed to be temporary has become permanent. The atmospheres of the games are no longer politically neutral but decidedly, often uncomfortably, nationalistic. The military flyovers, the pre-game inclusion of the armed forces, and the addition of "God Bless America" to "The Star-Spangled Banner" are no longer spontaneous or reactions to a specific event, but fixtures.

Ostensibly, the injection of patriotism into game day was out to show respect for a country fighting two wars, but the Iraq war is over. The U.S., which once deployed nearly 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, is down to under 60,000. Osama bin Laden is dead, but the sports-military-patriotism alliance, is very much alive and embraced as normal.

When tanks rolled down Boylston Street after the Boston Marathon bombing, the public gathering in response wasn't held at the Boston Common, America's original public meeting place, but at Fenway Park, at a Red Sox-Royals game, where David Ortiz proclaimed the city's resolve and the "USA! USA!" chants rang loudest. The same was true at the TD Garden for the Bruins-Sabres game. The place once considered to be one refuge from the problems of the real world is now the entertainment event with the most political and militaristic overtones, and the phenomenon is not organic, but mandated and encouraged by the leagues. It is a rule in Major League Baseball on Sundays and holidays that players and coaches must be on the field for the singing of "God Bless America" during the seventh inning. The NFL and NBA, as well as the networks that broadcast games, all include some form of acknowledgement to the military.

On its face, the affinity isn't hard to understand. The gladiator dynamic is already built into the sports culture. Home fans arrive at the arena already wearing their uniform -- the colors of the home team -- and enter the stadium predisposed to rally, and to define the opposing team the enemy. The support of servicemen and women is a cause ostensibly uncontroversial, for only a ghoul wouldn't support citizens who risk their lives for their country.

The truth is, naturally, a bit more complicated. Patriotism is an extension of politics and its expressions are not as easily agreed upon. Certainly it is possible to support the fighters but not the fight. The Iraq war was not a popular one, nor were the politics behind it, politics that may or may not have reflected the view of the people actually doing the fighting or paying for a Giants-Dodgers game. Yet, for a dozen years, public support -- at least at a surface level -- has been forced upon anyone who chooses to buy a ticket to a sporting event or watch on television. The indirect message goes unmentioned: codifying these elements into the sports experience is forcing the fan to tacitly endorse them.

Throughout the most turbulent periods in this country, the games avoided the politics. Not anymore. At no point, during the city's busing crises did the Red Sox, Patriots, Bruins or Celtics acknowledge what was occurring just outside the stadium walls. Leagues also once understood their cathartic role, aware that fans came to the park to avoid Vietnam or Watergate or the civil rights movement. Today, fans who would like to attend the games to escape the burdens of a lousy job and Al-Qaeda, no longer have a choice.

Sports and patriotism have permanently merged, not only as part of the event but also financially. In a time of fear, nationalism and patriotism sells. Car companies sell patriotism, as do banks and insurance companies and beer distributors. Sports fans and sports' corporate overlay have a handshake deal to separate patriotism from politics, but it doesn't completely work. The selling comes with the same subtle, customary intimidation that permeated the aftermath of 9/11: anyone who disagrees with this trend is immediately branded as unpatriotic. Fans are the target demographic and patriotism is part of the sales pitch.

Sports, however, are doing nothing more than reflecting a larger phenomenon in the culture: the collective and corporate response to a frightening, dangerous world. Games are not just the staging ground for patriotism but for heroes -- and in scary times, heroes are needed more than ever. In post-9/11 America, few concepts if any have been promulgated as passionately. In uncomplicated peacetime, those heroes were traditionally athletes, and their golden feats made the country feel good about itself. In a time of international terrorism, school shootings and domestic terrorism, the hero list has been expanded to include the police (at the ballpark, preferably officers who can sing) and firemen, as well as the military. These people have been elevated into the hero game, because the world is too dangerous and uncertain and their job is to make us feel safe. They don't meet for ceremonial public adulation at the opera or on Broadway, or at concerts. They meet at the 50-yard line.

[+] EnlargeMajor League Baseball World Series
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesFrom giant flags to flyovers, patriotism has become a part of American sports.

If the permanent inclusion of the military into sporting events is at best perilous, the addition of the police as heroes is even worse. The role of police, especially in minority communities, is hardly universally agreed upon. Yet at the ballpark teams force paying customers to approve. The nationalistic overtones, as well as the forced alignment with law enforcement and authority figures in a time of deepening concern over increased government surveillance and control domestically is more than ironic and more than a little chilling. It underscores a certain truth: Americans seem to have separated armed authority figures -- military and police -- from government when the two are always connected. It also is reminder of just how scary the world is.

It is not a coincidence that in a frightening time, the Hero Era dominates the popular culture. Hollywood fills the theaters with sequels, vampires and heroes, but especially heroes. The motivation isn't to use 3-D or special effects nearly as much as it is the fear, the fear that we are not safe. Heroes provide balm to the very obvious wound that we're not all right, that our deaths are being planned where life is supposed to be most enjoyed: the ballpark, the movie theaters, and, yes, the marathons. These places are supposed to provide smiles, not pat-downs. There must be someone with cape and super powers to make the fear go away.

It is here where the merger makes the most sense. It is the strength in numbers that provides the comfort. Fear stood on the faces of thousands of people that night at Yankee Stadium 12 years ago. Looking at another person, a mother or a father just like you, charged with assuring the loved ones that everything would be all right has been the balm the afraid desperately needed.

Maybe the decision of the sports leagues to embrace this is yet another example of the dreaded bloodless branding of everything that occurs in the daily profit sprint. Or maybe commissioners Gary Bettmann, David Stern, Bud Selig and Roger Goodell lack the courage to be the first to hit the eject button on singing cops in the seventh inning and recognize that the militarizing of sports may not be universally acceptable after all, that some fans want to go to the game for the game, for the escape from the world, the job, Al-Qaeda, without feeling obligated to participate uncomfortably in a pep rally. It should be remembered that immediately following 9/11 the Yankees were criticized for not showing enough outward support to a beleaguered city compared to the Mets, who wore FDNY caps on the field. George Steinbrenner responded with the singing of "God Bless America" in the seventh inning of every game, and it continues to this day.

Or maybe, today's saturation is another ghost of Vietnam, a necessary expression of respect for those serving today that also doubles indirectly as an overdue apology to the veterans who were treated so poorly upon coming home two generations ago. Certainly in an age of cameras and prepackaged sentiment, the entire culture is more disposed toward celebration, legitimate or contrived. Yasiel Puig has been in the majors for 31 days -- 31! -- and the immediate reflex is to add him as an All-Star, a brand-new hero. It's what we've become.

The great contradiction and irony of it all on July 4, when we celebrate freedom, is that it is again the power -- in this case the sports leagues and big marketers -- and not the individual that dictates what is an acceptable expression. Individual expression of cause is still often loudly shouted down as grandstanding. When a player injects his politics or cause into the game, the old rules of not mixing politics and sports suddenly reappear. When Chris Kluwe or Brendon Ayanbadejo speaks about supporting gay marriage, or Henry Aaron or Harry Edwards laments the lack of coaching and ownership opportunities for minorities, or players stand up for their labor rights, the reflex is a familiar one: shut up and play. Perhaps instead of being told who and what to cheer for by billion-dollar sports leagues, it should be remembered that the greatest freedom -- fought and died for by so many of the young men and women trotted out to throw out the first pitch -- is dissent.