Patriotism, division, and the “stick to sports” illusion

On Aug. 14, 2016, a backup football player went unnoticed before a meaningless exhibition.

More specifically, Colin Kaepernick sat, alone, during the national anthem before a preseason game.

The next week, he did it again. Again, no one noticed.

After the third week, enough people noticed to prompt reporters to ask him about it. And Kaepernick patiently, deftly, and unapologetically explained his civil non-conformity as a stand against a symbol of inclusion and equality that didn’t extend to everyone.

The ensuing reaction was well-publicized. Americans diverged on whether to support or oppose his decision, but anyone with an opinion shared the same sentiment: their side was the patriotic one.

Interestingly, little discussion concerned that the national anthem is even played before sporting events, surreptitiously inserting a political element into entertainment that highlights that the separation between sport and state is illusory.

From the time Kaepernick put a knee on the ground to the time Donald Trump put a hand on the Bible — a single football season — America has found itself facing an identity crisis. Of course, injustices did not begin with Kaepernick; he merely amplified their existence.

Sports, in many ways, has been a microphone for underheard voices, and has preceded the broader society on inclusion and opportunity. Jackie Robinson participated in professional sports well before public schools integrated. Title IX gave women equal access to funding for activities in educational settings (e.g., college sports), despite the Equal Rights Amendment of 1923 still not being ratified nationally.

Dating back to Ancient Greece, organized athletics have had spectator appeal, and thus, a platform. This platform promotes the values we believe to represent the best of our society — discipline, teamwork, self-sacrifice, fitness, inclusiveness, and merit-based success, to name a few.

Through sports, these values are impressed upon members of society, and their resonance transcends cultural identifiers. We see this every Olympics and World Cup — little-known athletes become heroes just because they’re wearing our colors. It’s as nationalist as it gets.

Football is the most powerful non-military display of American might, and the Super Bowl is its zenith. The words “Super Bowl” evoke American strength, in a decidedly American game, wrapped in patriotic coding — even the NFL logo is red, white, and blue, and festooned with stars.

According to Nielsen Media Research, the seven most-watched broadcasts in U.S. history are the seven most recent Super Bowls. When 100 million Americans tune in to the Super Bowl this weekend, the patriotic pageantry will be on full display — the anthem, the automatic ovation its singer will receive, the field-sized flag, the flyover, the camera shots of military personnel in attendance, and football framed as epic battle.

As you take all this in, ask yourself: what is it we celebrate about America?

America is an experiment based on ideals of freedom and fairness, despite a history that sometimes contradicts them. But those ideals, set forth by the country’s founders, at least give us values to strive for, and serve as the basis for how we identify — and project — ourselves.

Yet, to many, of late, America has felt unfamiliar.

Two weeks into a new administration, and it’s taken only one plutocrat without respect for democratic norms and values to highlight the fragility of these ideals.

Faith in cable news has eroded, political leaders seem merely self-interested, and, for the first time since its inception, America told seven countries, “no, you can’t come here.”

For those who may be unclear: in his first week on the job, the President of the United States issued — with all the haste, subterfuge, and showmanship his audience has come to expect — a 90-day freeze on all entries from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, all Muslim-majority nations. The order also imposes a suspension of general refugee admissions into the U.S. for 120 days, and an indefinite one on those from Syria.

What this looks like in practice: all visitors, business travelers, students, temporary workers, and relatives and fiancées of U.S. citizens from these countries are barred from entry. New immigrants, barred. All refugees, barred.

Green card holders — lawful, permanent U.S. residents — were initially barred, but that stance has been amended to case-by-case consideration.

This corresponds with the administration’s attempts to control information the public receives, by vilifying legitimate journalists tasked with holding political officers accountable, and promoting the “alternative facts” spun by sycophantic public relations.

That religious prejudices, dubiously chalked up to national security measures, have been repeated into the mainstream does not make them true. That the man repeating them now occupies the Oval Office and found a way to codify those prejudices adds precisely zero morality to the message itself.

One problem with the way we learn history is implicit: it positions and conditions us to look backwards at social strife. It’s easy to point to Rome’s fall, the declines of Great Britain, Mongolia, Russia, Spain, and other infamous descents. History is replete with these examples, and so often students of the past would like to believe that “if I was alive then, I would’ve…”

The response to leadership that shifts the values of a culture is never as obvious in the moment as it is in retrospect. That’s the rub, because the markers of change are incremental, and the naive belief that ______ “could never happen here” keeps people from seeing when it already is.

As discrimination based on race, religion, and gender persists and the preliminary actions of this new administration ripple internationally, America is gearing up for a public spectacle, a grand display of the cultural values that sports are supposed to represent. At the end of the football season and the election cycle, it seems fitting to make sure those two still align.

So, on Sunday, if you want to partake in the flag-waving and patriotic vainglory, do. That’s well within your rights. What’s wrong is to use that flag — moreover, what it is claimed to symbolize — to divide.

America’s not great because any one person or type of person lives in it. It’s great because we all do — and, above all else, because we allow others to.