Tricia Jenkins is an assistant professor of film, television and digital media at Texas Christian University and the author of “The CIA in Hollywood: How the Agency Shapes Film and Television.”
The customary flyover by fighter jets may be absent from this weekend’s Super Bowl; after all, the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans is covered. But a military color guard will be on the field during the pregame ceremonies. CBS will cut to shots of troops watching the game overseas. Veterans will be recognized on the stadium’s video boards. And flag imagery will abound, as will stirring renditions of the national anthem and, most likely, “America the Beautiful.”
Sports games — some of the only events that lead Americans to set their differences aside and sit down and watch together — have become stages for large-scale patriotic theater. This is no accident; many of the militaristic rituals we see in stadiums and arenas across the country were deliberately designed to promote unity during times of crisis. But they’ve stuck around far longer than needed, making sports feel less like pastimes than pep rallies for our military or a particular war.
During World War II, team owners introduced the national anthem and ceremonies honoring the armed forces as a way to win President Franklin Roosevelt’s support for continuing play amid the conflict. The weekend after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle inserted moments of silence and flag ceremonies into his league’s games.
The small flag decals on many athletes’ uniforms arose from basketball and football organizers’ desire to show unified support for the Persian Gulf War. And “God Bless America” has replaced or supplemented “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during baseball’s seventh inning stretch; the New York Yankees introduced this tradition after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
But gestures that once offered comfort have become habit. And the patriotic displays have only gotten more inventive. College football’s national championship game last month between Notre Dame and Alabama featured Air Force paratroopers who jumped out of a plane and glided onto the field to deliver the game ball to officials.
Sure, it’s a thrill for fans in the stadium. But such vaudeville quiets political dissent.
When NBA player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf refused to stand for the national anthem during the 1995-1996 season, he was suspended by the league. An American Muslim, Abdul-Rauf said that he saw the flag as a symbol of oppression and that standing for the anthem conflicted with his religious beliefs. The league barred him from playing until it came up with a compromise: He had to stand, but he was allowed to look down rather than at the flag.
Likewise, Toni Smith of Manhattanville College turned her back on the flag during the national anthem in the 2002-2003 basketball season. A player of white, African American, Jewish and Native American heritage, she was protesting the coming U.S. war in Iraq and the government’s mistreatment of minorities. “Iraq was the icing on the cake,” she said. “But it wasn’t just the war. It was everything before that. It was everything that the flag is built on, everything that is continuing to happen and things that haven’t even happened yet.” In response, fellow students started a petition demanding that she return her financial aid, and spectators shouted obscenities at her during away games.
In 2004, Toronto Blue Jays first baseman Carlos Delgado called the Iraq conflict “the stupidest war ever” and refused to stand with his teammates when “God Bless America” was played, often disappearing into the dugout instead. Yankees fans booed Delgado when he came to play New York and shouted “U.S.A., U.S.A.” when he lined out.
By refusing to participate in patriotic gimmickry because of their objections to U.S. policy, these athletes were exercising their constitutional right to dissent. Still, their teams, leagues and crowds tried to silence them. That’s their right, too, of course. But somehow, a country founded on rebellion finds not standing for an anthem or saluting a flag un-American.
The militarism of our sporting events is particularly jarring given American ambivalence about the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In a 2010 poll, 59 percent of Americans said the war in Iraq was a mistake, and 72 percent said it was not worth the costs. In May 2012, a poll showed that support for the war in Afghanistan had dropped to a new low: Only 27 percent of Americans said they backed the conflict, and 66 percent said they opposed it.
Sports fans who don’t support these wars may still applaud our returning veterans at games, of course. Some may be able to separate their support for our troops from their opposition to specific conflicts. Others may be intimidated by those around them, pressured into playing along.
Still others may end up cheering the military whether they want to or not because sporting rituals now conflate it with athletics. After all, it was hard to tell whether Fighting Irish and Crimson Tide fans were celebrating the arrival of the game ball or the paratroopers who delivered it. Likewise, when the San Diego Padres take the field on Sundays dressed in camouflage jerseys, are fans rooting for their home team or the military that inspired its outfits?
This militarized pageantry seems here to stay — sports franchises benefit too much from the cheap thrills and public relations opportunities it affords. The military covers the costs of flyovers and paratroopers by logging those events as training exercises, and it hopes the theatrics will result in recruitment boosts.
What comes next? Navy SEALs sneaking through the bleachers to deliver free pizzas? Beer sold in combat-boot-shaped cups? Or maybe miniature drones dropping T-shirts onto the crowds below?