In the aftermath of President Trump’s attack on Colin Kaepernick and other professional athletes, and the historic protests that erupted around the NFL on Sunday and Monday in response, many are lamenting how the wall that once separated politics from professional sports has collapsed. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Fox Sports’ Jason Whitlock claimed, “the league will no longer be allowed to present football as an escape from America’s divisions.”
In reality, however, the NFL, and professional sports more generally, have never been apolitical as Whitlock describes. Rather, during the late 1960s, a period defined by fierce cultural divisions, professional sports leagues, which already leaned right, decisively weighed in on the conservative side, despite the disagreement of many players.
Pete Rozelle, the commissioner of the NFL, and Spike Eckert and Bowie Kuhn, the commissioners of baseball, worked to put their sports on record in support of the Vietnam War, while laboring to silence those in the game who disagreed. While many believe that before the protests of the last year, the national anthem and other patriotic elements of sporting events symbolized unity, they are actually remnants of this campaign to interject sports into a bitterly divisive political debate.
During the late 1960s, Pete Rozelle placed the NFL firmly in support of the Vietnam War. Football was often a target of the new left, which accused the game of normalizing violence, importing the vernacular of war — such as blitz, field general and bomb — and translating the brutal, violent experience of war into entertainment. As a cultural and political conservative, it was natural for Rozelle to embrace this critique as a badge of honor. Known as the “American war-game,” football and the Vietnam War were already linked philosophically, but Rozelle went further by explicitly endorsing the conflict.
To unambiguously demonstrate the league’s support for the war, he sent NFL players, including stars like Dick Butkus, Johnny Unitas and Bart Starr on goodwill tours to Vietnam and American bases between 1966 and 1973. Rozelle also introduced Air Force flyovers during the national anthem in 1968 and titled the 1969 Super Bowl halftime show “America Thanks.” The USO tours especially furthered the pro-war agenda as the vast majority of players returned from the trips expressing patriotic fervor. In the words of sportswriter Jim Barniak, “athletes fresh from those State Department junkets through rice paddies generally drench the home folks in patriotism.”
Rozelle’s agenda also included policing player behavior during the national anthem. As mass movements agitated against the war, for civil rights and against the dominant culture of the day, strict reverence for the anthem allowed the league to portray itself as dissent-free and insulated from the upheaval roiling the country. This strategy was largely successful as only a handful of players publicly protested the war, even as many more — including at least 37 on one team alone — privately voiced opposition and signed antiwar petitions. Rozelle mandated that players stand upright during the anthem, with their helmets tucked into their arms, and according to Sports Illustrated, specifically banned “talking, nervous footwork, gum chewing and shoulder-pad slamming.”
The directive was taken so seriously that before Super Bowl IV in January 1970, one report detailed that “not only will the Vikings be ready for the Chiefs but also for the national anthem.” Led by Pro Bowl guard and National Guardsman Milt Sunde, the Vikings had national anthem drills, with Sunde teaching his teammates “how to line up evenly on the field, to stand at attention and how not to wiggle or scratch.” Sportswriter Jim Murray mocked the commissioner, joking that Rozelle’s next step would be to adopt a policy of rewarding “the team that picked its nose least during the national anthem” with a victory in the event of a tie.
During this period, Cardinals linebacker Dave Meggyesy, the Kaepernick of his time, dissented against the war, which included protesting the anthem during games. Instead of kneeling, Meggyesy stepped out of the mandated line and held his helmet in front of him. So strong were the political currents in the NFL that Meggyesy’s weekly protests against the anthem eventually contributed to him being benched midway through the 1969 season, his last in professional football.
Thanks in part to the game’s resonance with cultural conservatives, during this period, football began to surpass baseball as America’s most popular sport. MLB owners were aware of their sport’s precarious position and confronting the challenge posed by professional football was at the forefront of their minds when, in 1965, they selected retired Air Force General William “Spike” Eckert as baseball’s new commissioner.
Though baseball could never match football’s inherent violence, it was possible to learn from that sport’s success, and emulate its programmatic support for the war in Vietnam. In October 1966, Eckert followed professional football’s lead and initiated baseball’s first collaboration with the Department of Defense. Furthermore, according to Jim Bouton, a pitcher for the Yankees, team rules instituted during this period allowed players who supported the war to speak their minds, but prohibited dissenters from doing so.
Baseball also ripped a page from football’s playbook and used the national anthem to display the sport’s conservatism. In 1967, Chicago Cubs team President John Holland proclaimed, “because of the situation in Vietnam … we feel that the time now has come to do [the national anthem] daily,” while previously it was a ritual reserved for Sundays and holidays. Ewing Kaufmann, owner of the Kansas City Royals, demanded that “when the song begins, every fan, every stadium worker, every vendor will stop and face the colors, and that silence will reign throughout the stadium.” At least in Kansas City, dissent would not be tolerated.
There were even rules about how The Star-Spangled Banner was to be played. After playing a nontraditional, acoustic version of the national anthem at the 1968 World Series, musician Jose Feliciano was demonized by fans. In response, to demonstrate that the growing counterculture movement was not welcome within the sport, Major League Baseball mandated that going forward, teams only play traditional versions of the anthem.
This history reveals that Kaepernick and his allies did not introduce politics to the gridiron. Rather, the singing of the national anthem itself, as well as the associated acts of military flyovers and giant flags, are political acts, historically part of a culturally conservative agenda pushed by the NFL and MLB.
Given this history, calls to “stick to sports” are not about providing a politics-free zone. Instead, they demand that players embrace a conservative political display stitched into the tapestry of professional sports. Sunday and Monday, player-activists did not divide the country further. Instead their protests gave voice to the half of the country that has spent the past 50 years checking their politics at the stadium gate.