The most interesting question in the NFL’s national anthem controversy always has been, why is it so potent? How is it that the small gesture of a handful of players taking a knee in a pregame ceremony creates national reverberations and outrage? The answer lies in the fact that, somewhere along the line, NFL football became a kind of “liturgy of empire,” to borrow a phrase. It’s a brand of civil religion, and if you think not, then count how many Americans think it’s more important to get to the game than church on a Sunday morning.
Set aside for the moment whether you want your NFL teams to be mindlessly obedient cogs in the machinery of a paternal patriotic state. Set aside the question of who is the truer American, the man on the field who reads and thinks or the one at the big desk who demands that anyone who disagrees with him be exiled. To their credit, Commissioner Roger Goodell and the NFL players’ union have decided they won’t be dictated to by Donald Trump. “Thanks for your thoughts, but we’ll take it from here,” player representative Eric Winston tweeted in reply to the president’s demand that any player who doesn’t stand at attention with hand over his heart during the anthem be suspended. Instead NFL owners and players will try to agree on a new policy in confidential meetings.
But to find a resolution, the various NFL factions first need to understand why the controversy burned so hot in the first place. Billionaire owners and players alike have been dumbfounded and tin-eared, failing to comprehend how a protest involving just 12 percent of players seeking to comment mildly on racial injustices has swamped the league and alienated a large chunk of the audience. Hence the failed appeasement policies and inability to foresee that leaving it to individual teams whether to discipline a player for an on-field protest could turn into 32 separate wildfires.
The volatile marriage of patriotism and football is as old as the sport. The rise of the game closely followed the American frontier wars: Harvard, Princeton, Yale and Columbia formed the Intercollegiate Football Association in 1876, just four months after the annihilation of Custer at Little Big Horn. The game steadily grew in the 1890s after Frederick Jackson Turner declared the frontier officially vanished. Football was a reaction to the fear that American men, with nothing left to conquer once the primal wilderness was gone, might become neurasthenic and overcivilized. If you were wondering where North Carolina Coach Larry Fedora got his idea that if football goes, “the country goes down, too,” there you have it. He got it from the Victorians.
American football always has been a game of clout. It’s about taking possession by moving others out of the way. In that respect it has an unbreakable hold on the American imagination and American emotions that no other game has. At its heart is a quality shared by its greatest presidential advocate, Teddy Roosevelt: “a righteous ruthlessness.” It was Roosevelt who defended football against concerned university presidents who thought it was corrupting rather than strengthening America’s youth in the early 1900s. Harvard’s Charles William Eliot wanted to ban it as “more brutalizing than prizefighting, cockfighting or bullfighting.” University of Chicago divinity school professor Shailer Mathews called it a “boy-killing, man-mutilating, moneymaking, education-prostituting gladiatorial sport.”
To which Roosevelt countered, “I have no sympathy whatever with the overwrought sentimentality that would keep a young man in cotton wool. I have a hearty contempt for him if he counts a broken arm or collarbone as of serious consequences when balanced against the chance of showing that he possesses hardihood, physical prowess, and courage.”
From Roosevelt on, presidents have interested themselves in football as the receptacle of America’s values and basic hardihood. Woodrow Wilson was so invested in Princeton football that when his alma mater lost to Penn, his wife remarked, “Really I think Woodrow would have had some sort of collapse if we had lost in politics, too.”
Tim Suttle, a pastor and writer from Olathe, Kan., has surveyed this history and described it as “sport as the liturgy of empire.” Suttle hit on the phrase when he returned to his alma mater, Kansas State, for a football game and realized that the Pledge of Allegiance and singing of the national anthem had all the elements of a church service. Hats were removed, and crowds stood in reverence, recited from sacred texts and sang a hymn of praise.
“The liturgies of sport,” Suttle has written, “teach us that America is a singular beacon in a world of hackneyed impostors. . . . The ceremony and the game embody the belief that this nation stands above all other nations as more powerful, virtuous, righteous, and more justified in our actions, even our most violent ones.”
Look at the anthem controversy in this light, and you can see why taking a knee so upsets a large segment of the audience: because it’s a denial of American exceptionalism. That in turn is why there is no explaining to those offended that the protesters don’t mean to insult the flag but merely to comment on social injustice. Or that players didn’t even take the field for the anthem until 2009, when the Pentagon made a marketing deal with the NFL for patriotic displays.
A righteous ruthlessness: As football goes, so goes the country.
There is a high irony in all of this: The NFL’s brand of civil religion serves to highlight just how un-Christian this nation can be on a Sabbath. Games have become the chief rival for Sunday morning worship in this country. If folks aren’t tailgating in an NFL parking lot, they’re at children’s soccer practices. “For most American families, when a conflict arises between sports and church, it is no contest,” Suttle notices.
Suttle also observes, “The opposing liturgies of competition and Sabbath lead human beings to draw very different conclusions about life and what it means to be human.” Competition teaches us “that resources are scarce, conflict is our natural state, and we must work seven days a week to get ahead,” he writes. “Competition teaches us we are generating our lives and we can’t slow down.” The Sabbath, on the other hand, “tells us that we are receiving our lives . . . that we are precious and deeply loved — win lose or draw.”
You don’t need to be a Christian to read something true in Suttle’s message. Or to feel that the entire NFL debate is about a profoundly misplaced emphasis. Enforced patriotism, of course, is not patriotism at all. Regardless of love of country or religious persuasion, surely we all have something better to do than argue over a false, commoditized civil religion that has hijacked peaceful Sundays and days of rest.