How About a Little Separation Between Sport and State?

By Paul Knepper

As I watched some girl from Glee sing America the Beautiful before Sunday’s big game, I found myself wondering when exactly the Super Bowl became mistaken for Patriots Day?  Sports are supposed to be a diversion from controversial issues like politics and religion and I’ve grown increasingly disgusted by the way sporting events are used as a platform to promote nationalism and militarism in this country. Sunday’s game put me over the edge.

Let me run down the litany of patriotic propaganda that was thrust upon the viewing audience. First there were the presidents. Like Commanders-in-Chief before him, President Obama couldn’t pass up the opportunity to espouse his love of America’s favorite pastime during the most televised event of the year. Then shortly before kickoff the fans at Cowboy Stadium were subjected to a video tribute celebrating the 100th birthday of Ronald Reagan. These people paid thousands of dollars a ticket to see a football game, not a prelude to the Republican National Convention.

After the presidential portion of the event the viewing audience was bombarded with a heavy dose of nationalist propaganda. First, Fox showed several past and current NFL stars reciting the Declaration of Independence with an American flag waving in the background. I’m sure Thomas Jefferson and the boys were thinking about the right to play football – especially for the predominantly African-American NFL – when they signed their names to that historic document. I know this has become a Fox tradition, but so is that robot dancing in the corner of the screen. That doesn’t make it a good idea.

Next, several military men unfurled an enormous American flag on the field as Lea Michelle belted out America the Beautiful. Apparently, The Star-Spangled Banner is no longer enough, we now need two songs extolling the virtues of this great nation before the game. I suppose given the Christina Aguilera debacle we can’t blame the NFL for hedging their bets on that one.

And how could we possibly have a sporting event of that magnitude without the military getting in on the action. It began subtly with the color guard presenting the flag and a few uniformed officers serving as honorary captains during the coin toss. Then there were the shots and interviews of troops watching the games in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I fully support facilitating communication between troops and their families and providing the public at large with a glimpse into life on the base. I just don’t think a sporting event is the proper venue for it. If that were the NFL, Fox or military’s primary concern they could air monthly or bi-annual specials showcasing the troops. That would give Americans the option to tune in or not. What takes place during the Super Bowl is nothing but cross promotion between the three parties.

After Christina Aguilera botched the national anthem the Navy treated the fans in Cowboy Stadium to a ceremonial fly-over by four F-18s. By the way, the roof was closed in the domed Cowboy Stadium. The fans saw the jets for two seconds on the jumbo screen and this ridiculous stunt cost the Navy, and in turn taxpayers $450,000.

The encroachment of the American imperialist agenda upon the sports world isn’t confined to the Super Bowl. The national anthem has been played regularly before sporting events since World World II and after the September 11th attacks several baseball stadiums added a rendition of  God Bless America during the seventh inning stretch. It’s also become common place for fighter jets and enormous American flags to make appearances at football games.

At the risk of sounding unpatriotic, I don’t think I should have to rise at attention and salute the flag every time I attend a sporting event. We don’t sing the national anthem before a Broadway show or at the movie theater. Why should a ballgame be any different? I’ve actually been yelled at for not removing my hat during the singing of the Star-Spangled Banner. I’m sorry, I thought the freedoms this country were founded upon gave me the right to express my love of country if, when and how I choose.

Sports leagues and team owners receive plenty of compensation in return for marketing the United States of America. The federal and local governments don’t poke their heads into the business of professional sports leagues – with the exception of addressing rampant drug use – unless it’s to offer up public funds for the construction of new luxury stadiums, so the billionaire team owners don’t have to dip into their own pockets.

As Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post pointed out yesterday in an excellent piece on the excesses of football, “The last great building binge in the NFL was from 1995 through 2003, when 21 stadiums were built or refurbished in order to create more luxury boxes, at cost of $6.4 billion.” Jenkins asked, “Know how much of that the public paid for? $4.4 billion.” Bankrupt states are cutting spending on social welfare programs and education, while footing the bill for new stadiums replete with sky boxes the average tax payer will never step foot in.

Enough is enough. I’d like to go to a ballgame without having the stars and stripes shoved down my throat. If there’s one aspect of our lives which should be free of government interference and propaganda it’s our play time. There’s a word for societies which intertwine the forces of nationalism, militarism, private enterprise and entertainment: It’s called fascism. This country needs separation between sport and state.