The protests during the playing of the national anthem before professional sports events has caused some controversy with Donald Trump, as usual, inflaming the situation. In an earlier post, I asked why this practice even existed since it seemed to me to be so silly. Many people have criticized the protesting players for injecting politics into sports but as Justin Levin, the author of a “history thesis on sports as instruments of domestic mobilization during the Vietnam War”, writes, it was the introduction of the national anthem into these events that was an overtly political act to serve an overtly political purpose, to stifle dissent that was erupting during the Vietnam war.
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, 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 was already linked philosophically with the Vietnam War, but Rozelle went further by explicitly endorsing the conflict.
Rozelle’s agenda also included policing player behavior during the national anthem… 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.”
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 fly-overs 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 last 50 years checking their politics at the stadium gate.
So players now using the occasion as an act of protest is perfectly appropriate. The anthem was introduced to serve a political purpose and they are merely continuing the practice.