ESPN Writer: Post-9/11 Patriotism in Sports 'Forced,' 'Uncomfortably Nationalistic'

ESPN Writer: Post-9/11 Patriotism in Sports 'Forced,' 'Uncomfortably Nationalistic'

ESPN Senior Writer Howard Bryant used a recent column to question and express concern over what he perceives as the now permanent and inextricable relationship between American sports and patriotism. In Bryant’s view, the “sports-military-patriotism alliance” post 9/11 has co-opted sports from a “neutral oasis” and perverted it into a nationalistic, pro-American political pep rally where fans on game day are “forced” either through intimidation or gullibility, to participate in patriotic rituals.  

According to Bryant, Game 3 of the 2001 World Series, which was seven weeks after 9/11, “marked the beginning of a dramatic change in American sports.” That night, President George W. Bush was at Yankee Stadium to throw out the ceremonial first pitch. How and why Bryant determined that President Bush’s appearance “marked the beginning” is not exactly clear. 

Given Bryant’s timeframe in the context of post 9/11, he fails to acknowledge the patriotic displays across Major League Baseball (MLB) stadiums that were in full force six weeks before Game 3. MLB, having suspended games after 9/11, resumed play on September 17 and fans flocked to the ballpark. The well remembered–and documented–expressions of support to honor the close to 3,000 Americans who died demonstrated our country’s character, heart, and resolve. Bryant’s start date, therefore, seems arbitrary.     

Fast forwarding to the present, Bryant now sees today’s patriotic displays at games as “forced,” “codified,” and little more than a well-refined corporate “sales pitch.” According to Bryant, the result has had consequences: 

“A dynamic that was supposed to be temporary has become permanent. The atmospheres of the games are no longer politically neutral but decidedly, often uncomfortably, nationalistic.”  

Moreover, Bryant questions the “permanence” of these various patriotic rituals given the current state of foreign affairs:  

“Ostensibly, the injection of patriotism into game day was out to show respect for a country fighting two wars, but the Iraq war is over. The U.S., which once deployed nearly 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, is down to under 60,000. Osama bin Laden is dead…” 

To make his case, Bryant lists a history of “injuries” inflicted repeatedly onto fans both live and on television:  

“The military flyovers, the pre-game inclusion of the armed forces, and the addition of “God Bless America” to “The Star-Spangled Banner” are no longer spontaneous or reactions to a specific event, but fixtures.” 

Moreover, Bryant finds the distribution of “injuries” to be unequal and disproportionately affecting a certain segment of society:      

“If the permanent inclusion of the military into sporting events is at best perilous, the addition of the police as heroes is even worse. The role of police, especially in minority communities, is hardly universally agreed upon. Yet at the ballpark teams force paying customers to approve.”   

While Bryant questions the permanence of these game day routines, he is, however, certain how and why the arrangement evolved: profit and fear. In short, “Patriotism sells.”  

According to Bryant:  

“The selling comes with the same subtle, customary intimidation that permeated the aftermath of 9/11: anyone who disagrees with this trend is immediately branded as unpatriotic. Fans are the target demographic and patriotism is part of the sales pitch.”  

So what’s an average apolitical fan to do? In this new sports and patriotism paradigm, Bryant’s finds the truth to be “complicated” because “Patriotism is an extension of politics and its expressions are not as easily agreed upon.” Bryant, however, determines the “greatest freedom” to be “dissent” yet laments how “Individual expression of cause is still often loudly shouted down as grandstanding.” 

As Bryant explains: 

“When a player injects his politics or cause into the game, the old rules of not mixing politics and sports suddenly reappear. When Chris Kluwe or Brendon Ayanbadejo speaks about supporting gay marriage, or Henry Aaron or Harry Edwards laments the lack of coaching and ownership opportunities for minorities, or players stand up for their labor rights, the reflex is a familiar one: shut up and play.” 

Is Bryant’s point valid? Is the so-called “sports-military-patriotism alliance” playing by a different set of rules and if so, is it fair? The “marketplace of ideas,” ultimately, will deliver a verdict.

On the other hand, many fans still find the opportunity to stand up and sing “The Star Spangled Banner” or “God Bless America” to be not an inconvenience but a privilege. Whether at a MLB game or a Pop Warner game, this voluntary act of participation is not an ideological or political conundrum nor routine nor patriotic groupthink “forced” by intimidation and pushed by “Big Marketers.” It may perhaps be for reasons which Bryant and certain “post patriotism” intellectuals struggle with and fail to understand: free-willed individuals genuinely love America and are proud of what this great nation represents.