Desperate to fill hours and hours of air time on 24-hour news channels, media corporations have made sure the discussion of the correct posture of National Football League players has been front and center.
Apparently, before grown men can chase a little toy around a grassy field for a few hours, it’s absolutely essential that they take part in a variety of pro-government rituals. This was not always the case, though, and prior to the twentieth century, it was hardly expected that a ballgame be preceded by a recitation of the national anthem or any other song of national allegiance.
Indeed, the current pantomime in which NFL players are expected to stand at attention for the national anthem is of extremely recent origin. As Tom Curran pointed out on Comcast Sportsnet, prior to 2009, football players “weren’t on the field for the national anthem and instead generally remained in the locker room.”
And why did players start making a display of their “patriotism” in 2009? It turns out the government gave them taxpayer money to do so:
In 2009, Barack Obama’s Department of Defense began paying hundreds of thousands towards teams in a marketing strategy designed to show support for the troops and increase recruitments. The NFL then required all players and personnel to be on the sidelines during the national anthem, in exchange for taxpayers dollars. Prior, the national anthem was played in the stadium but players had the option of staying in the locker room before heading out to the field.
Furthermore, teams that showed “Veteran’s Salutes” during games were paid upwards of $5.1 million dollars.
In total, 6.8 million in taxpayer money was doled out to sports teams — mostly NFL teams — for so-called “paid patriotism.”
When the Pittsburgh Steelers elected to stay in the locker room during the anthem this past Sunday, this was denounced by many as “boycotting” the national song, although this would have just been standard practice a decade ago.
Playing the Anthem: A “Tradition” Promoted by War
Not surprisingly, if we look into the history of playing the national anthem at sporting events, we find war was an important factor.
Before the First World War, playing the national anthem or sporting events was quite rare. No one expected it to be done, and hiring a band was expensive.
According to mlb.com, the most conspicuous early use of the national anthem was at game 1 of the 1918 World Series during World War I. Unexpectedly, during the seventh-inning stretch, a military band played the national anthem in an effort to liven up a reportedly surly and war-wearied group of spectators.
Use of the anthem spread from there. The anthem’s use expanded even more during the Second World War, as Matt Soniak notes:
During World War II, baseball games again became venues for large-scale displays of patriotism, and technological advances in public address systems allowed songs to be played without a band. “The Star-Spangled Banner” was played before games throughout the course of the war, and by the time the war was over, the pregame singing of the national anthem had become cemented as a baseball ritual, after which it spread to other sports.
But even after the war, the habit of playing the anthem at every game was not firmly in place until the Vietnam war.
In most cases, the use of the anthem was not directly subsidized as it was with the taxpayer-funded paid-patriotism scam. Usually, team owners quite voluntarily employed the anthem as a marketing gimmick. In times of war, team owners were happy to use the anthem as a type of advertising to make an emotional connection between the customers — i.e., the spectators — and the team’s product. Wrapping a commercial product in the flag and apple pie to increase sales is hardly unique to pro sports. But pro sports may have used this tactic more successfully than any other industry.
Unfortunately for the NFL, this tried-and-true marketing strategy may be backfiring as the teams’ employees — and surely many spectators as well — see no problem with using the anthem ritual as an opportunity to make a political statement. The result has been a marketing nightmare for the league.
Although this has been taken up by politicians such as Donald Trump as a matter of critical importance, it really should be viewed as just a private business matter. Tho Bishop has noted that, as private firms, each team should be free to discipline or fire any employee who might cause customer displeasure or a loss of revenue for the team. The question of course, is whether it might be even worse — in terms of earnings — for a team to eliminate its most talented athletes. That’s a business decision the owners will have to make.
Everything Is Political
To a certain extent, though, the pro sports industry has called down the current controversy on itself. Having wrapped their product in the political garb of Old Glory and the national anthem for decades, team owners are now having to pay the piper. Since many of their customers now expect pro sports to be political — but only political in a way that matches their particular ideology — team owners now face a headache that could have been totally avoidable.
It didn’t have to be this way. In recent years, many reasonable observers have complained that society is becoming increasingly politicized. Today, it’s easy to find ways in which once apolitical activities have been ruined by ideological posturing. Late night talk shows are now essentially hard-left propaganda. Selling tacos is denounced as “cultural appropriation,” and every Hollywood awards show is now a series of political speeches. In the case of professional sports, however, there’s nothing recent about this sort of politicization. For nearly a century, pro sports have been politicized through their habitual use of the American state’s symbols and songs. The Pentagon knows this, which is why it so enthusiastically shoveled millions of dollars of taxpayer money at the NFL as part of an advertising blitz. But even back in 1918, the US government knew the potential of politicizing sporting events. This is why, during the 1918 World Series, the Navy made sure it had a recruiting station at Wrigley Field.