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?
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