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Stop Wrapping the Flag Around Pro Sports

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09/26/2017

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.

 

Some assert that current rituals are of especially recent origin, with  Tom Curran claiming on Comcast Sportsnet that prior to 2009, football players "weren't on the field for the national anthem and instead generally remained in the locker room." 

There is little doubt that at least some players, prior to 2009, elected to be on the field during the anthem, but there is no known current regulation mandating such behavior. 

The fact that participation in these rituals have become mandatory —  in the minds of many Americans, at least — would likely strike nineteenth-century Americans as rather odd. 

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. 

As is often the case with jingoist displays, however, matters were accelerated and exaggerated by wartime. 

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. 

It was during the Vietnam war, however, that the spread of the national anthem's use finally met with some resistance. Historian Marc Ferris, in his book Star Spangled Banner notes that similar protests took place in the NFL during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Ferris recounts how "Responding to [protests during the playing of the anthem at the 1968 Olympics] the league's commisioner, Pete Rozelle, required players to hold their helmets in their left hands and salute the flag during the anthem." But, This was not without its detractors within the NFL, and, Ferris notes, "Anthem controversies [during the 1970s] helped institute and increased analysis of sports, which turned into the primary battleground over the beleaguered national anthem and its meaning." 

By the Obama era, however, not even this grassroots spread of the anthem was sufficient for the federal government. 

By 2009, the Pentagon was actively using taxpayer money to pay the National Football League to expand "patriotic" displays:

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." 

In most cases, the use of the anthem was not directly subsidized, however. 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. 

Prior to its use in sporting events, the national anthem had been cunningly used by Vaudeville acts "when the management would bring out the flag to win applause for a poor act." This fact, related by Baltimore Orioles general manager — and World War I veteran — Arthur Ehlers was presented as a reason why Ehlers opposed playing the national anthem at every game. Ehlers felt overuse of the anthem could be done cynically, and would "cheapen" the song. 

Ehlers, it turns out, remembered things correctly. In an article in Collier's magazine in 1914, the amused author notes the widespread use of the anthem to elicit a positive response from audiences at performances: 

[N]othing is more destructive to gravity than to watch a small oppressed poodle dog walking a tight wire in a vaudeville show with the United States flag hanging from his mouth, while the orchestra plays "The Star-Spangled Banner" and some stout, earnest woman, standing in solitary grandeur in the middle of the house, glares at the sodden mass of humanity which declines to do reverence to the anthem or the flag or the dog. ... If encouraged in this sort of business, some clog dancer may yet do the Doxology in ragtime while the audience stands with bowed and contrite heads.1

Apparently, by 1914, it had already become fashionable to use the anthem to browbeat spectators into assigning deep meaning to what was clearly — like NFL football — never anything more than trivial low-brow entertainment. The author, with his sarcastic reference to the anthem as a "Doxology" knew when he was being manipulated. Would that modern Americans displayed the same level of mental clarity. 

Decades after the Collier's writer observed the anthem's value as a commercial ploy, Ehlers, it seems, was attempting to actually preserve some dignity for the anthem.  Unfortunately for the NFL, it didn't listen to Ehlers, and the league's use of the tried-and-true marketing strategy of draping the flag over everything may be backfiring. 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. 

A Private-Sector Issue

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. 

  • 1. "We Shy at Vaudeville Patriotism," Colliers, March 14, 1914.

Ryan McMaken (@ryanmcmaken) is the editor of Mises Wire and The Austrian. Send him your article submissions, but read article guidelines first. Ryan has degrees in economics and political science from the University of Colorado, and was the economist for the Colorado Division of Housing from 2009 to 2014. He is the author of Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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