9 Lessons from the Trump/NFL Anthem Wars
Let's start by allowing unwitting taxpayers to quit financing a lucrative entertainment industry.
As the nation's attention and (not coincidentally!) the president's Twitter feed begin shifting away from the latest Culture War bauble and toward the plight of 3.4 million distressed American citizens on the island of Puerto Rico, there are some takeaways from this embarrassment worth pondering. Some of these points are counterintuitive; some are obvious mostly to libertarians; some are obvious to everyone yet worth reiterating if we're going to continue talking about this nonsense at all. So here goes:
1) The most offensive aspect about mixing politics and sports is the conscripted tax money and police power. President Donald Trump has serially suggested over the past several days that fans boycott the National Football League if some players continue not to stand during the playing of the national anthem. Leaving aside for a moment the propriety of a president acting as Boycotter in Chief, Trump surely is correct in observing that consumers of this entertainment product should feel free to agitate for a league policy change by opting out.
If only taxpayers had that chance.
Earlier this month, Reason's Eric Boehm wrote a salient piece headlined "Stop Subsidizing Football." Among Boehm's bill of particulars:
Gregg Easterbook, author of The King of Sports: Football's Impact on America and a longtime critic of taxpayer subsidies for the sport, says taxpayers have covered more than 70 percent of the total cost of NFL stadiums built in the past two decades….
Stadium construction costs are the most expensive, most egregious way that taxpayers are forced to subsidize football, but others have also come under scrutiny in recent years. One of the biggest backdoor subsidies for football—the special loophole in the federal tax code that allowed the National Football League, but not any of its smaller competitors, to avoid federal taxes—was eliminated in 2015. A U.S. Senate investigation in 2015 revealed that the Pentagon had paid $5.4 million to NFL teams for so-called "displays of patriotism" during games between 2011 and 2014.
Even on the rare occasion when they finance their own stadium construction, billionaire owners are allowed to issue tax-free municipal bonds, a perk not offered to most other industries. And having so much local-politico skin in the game greases the wheels all that much more for egregious, private-to-private eminent domain abuse.
It is immoral for government to dislodge private property owners and confiscate money from taxpayers so that rich men can get richer organizing a sport that scores of millions don't care one whit about. The more government puts its hands where it oughtn't, the more likely the resulting actions will offend your core values. Wanna really stick it to the NFL? Get the government out of its business.
2) Donald Trump made the conscious choice to revive a near-moribund social controversy for political advantage. Do you know how many players made any kind of protest gesture during the national anthem the weekend before Trump called them SOBs? Less than 10.
The conclusion here is inescapable. The president of the United States, while claiming to be appalled by scattered incidents of alleged anti-patriotism, voiced his displeasure (at a political rally) in such a way that guaranteed those incidents would multiply. He doesn't want this controversy to die down; he wants it to intensify, in a way that pits American vs. American.
Just look at the follow-up reporting. "He knows it'll get people stirred up and talking about it," a senior administration official reportedly told Politico. Another Trump adviser reportedly told CNN's Jim Acosta that the president is "winning the cultural war…just made millionaire sport athletes his new HRC." At a dinner with conservatives last night, according to multiple outlets, Trump (in a paraphrase by Politico's Josh Dawsey) said "that his NFL feud was going well and he wants to keep it going."
There is something fundamentally unseemly about a governmental chief executive deliberately whipping up us-vs.-them antipathy toward an entire bloc of his own constituents. Republicans (and others) were rightly outraged when New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo asserted three years ago that "extreme conservatives who are right-to-life, pro-assault-weapon, anti-gay" have "no place in the state of New York." Hillary Clinton was rightly excoriated for calling a whole chunk of Trump supporters an irredeemable "basket of deplorables." Even Barack Obama's bitter-clinger comments from 2008, which were made in a semi-private setting and with the patina of trying to understand a certain population, reeked of a kind of collectivist condescension that critics had cause to reject.
Trump's politics of Othering is, has been, and will always be central to his political project, from his birther freelancing to his Mexico-is-sending-us-rapists campaign kickoff to his assertion that District Judge Gonzalo Curiel's Mexican heritage was "an inherent conflict of interest" to his travel ban to his pardon of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and so on. His campaign themes were patterned after the culture-war wedge-issuing of Richard Nixon. "The silent majority is back, and we're going to take our country back," the candidate declared in July 2015. His dark acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention was a virtual Nixonpalooza: "I have a message to every last person threatening the peace on our streets and the safety of our police," he thundered. "When I take the oath of office next year, I will restore law and order to our country. Believe me. Believe me….I am the law and order candidate."
The president's populist advisors welcome racially tinged culture war as advantageous political strategy. "I want them to talk about racism every day," Steve Bannon told The American Prospect just before leaving the White House. "If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats."
The language Trump used in Alabama was telling. In a speech where he mused "Isn't it a little weird when a guy who lives on 5th Avenue in the most beautiful apartment you've ever seen comes to Alabama and Alabama loves that guy?" and said that if he'd lost the election he might have moved "to Alabama or Kentucky," the president railed against the anthem protesters' "total disrespect of our heritage, a total disrespect of everything that we stand for" and diagnosed the NFL's problems in this way: "But do you know what's hurting the game more than that? When people like yourselves turn on television and you see those people taking the knee when they're playing our great national anthem."
3) Almost every sentence containing the phrase "we must" in reference to strangers is a bad sentence, particularly coming from a president. For instance, this one:
Courageous Patriots have fought and died for our great American Flag—we MUST honor and respect it! MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 24, 2017
No president, whether a vulgar former reality TV star or a preeningly ambitious former community organizer, gets to define patriotism, let alone issue imperatives on how love of country is to be ritualized. One of the strengths of American patriotism, not unlike one of the strengths of our military, is that it's voluntary, a choice tailor-made by the individuals who pursued that particular slice of happiness.
As long as private industry is not flouting the law and/or inflicting injury, a president has no real business wagging his finger at owners, employees, or even customers. Yet our populist pitchman can't stop barking unenforceable orders. "The issue of kneeling has nothing to do with race," Trump tweeted yesterday. "It is about respect for our Country, Flag and National Anthem. NFL must respect this!" Or not, turns out.
4) Freedom of political expression for athletes is directly proportional to their freedom of contract. Until the 1970s, professional athletes were contractually bound to the teams they played for. If the team and player could not agree on terms, the player had three choices: have his contract be automatically renewed on the team's terms, not play, or risk lifetime banishment by skipping to a competing league, if any exist. Two unsurprising results: The players earned a fraction of what they do now, and they mostly avoided political controversy like Babe Ruth avoided salads.
With economic power came a flowering of athletic expression, whether political or (perhaps even more radically) personal. As I put it in a Reason feature 12 years ago,
Muhammad Ali opposed Vietnam and the military draft years before it was cool, while encouraging a generation of kids to give themselves new names and manipulate the formerly all-powerful media. Three decades before metrosexual was a word, New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath shocked male football fans by parading around in mink coats, posing as an "Olivetti Girl" in a sexually charged typewriter ad, and filming commercials for pantyhose. Knuckleball pitcher Jim Bouton ripped the lid off of professional baseball's Ward Cleaver packaging with his pussy-and-pills 1970 memoir Ball Four; two years later Yankee pitchers Fritz Peterson and Mike Kekich became the most famous wife swappers in the country. Bill Walton convinced the notoriously square UCLA coach John Wooden that smoking dope and attending Grateful Dead shows could be every bit as crucial to the legendary motivator's "Pyramid of Success" as hard work and respecting your teammates (provided you could still shoot 21 for 22 in the NCAA finals). And just about every star of the time had to grapple on a daily basis, in full view of the newly national television audience, with America's combustible conflict between black and white.
In a single generation—between John Kennedy's assassination and the fall of Saigon—the archetype for the pro athlete was transformed from lantern-jawed Midwesterners like Mickey Mantle to pot-gobbling longhairs like Bill "Spaceman" Lee. Earthbound sidemen like Bob Cousy found their game passed over by skywalking soloists like Dr. J. The era of Johnny Unitas buzz-cuts and Jackie Robinson no-comments was replaced by athletes who looked, played, and spoke however they damn well pleased, injecting creativity and innovation on the field while puncturing mythologies and ditching racist baggage outside the stadium walls.
(Jackie Robinson, I would learn later, deserved more credit than I gave him then for courting unpopularity through speaking out in real time.)
Those on the margins of a professional sports league, such as gay former NBA backup center Jason Collins, openly gay star collegiate football player Michael Sam, and protest-generator Colin Kaepernick, risk unemployment by becoming sources of controversy. (Though in the cases of Collins and Sam, it seems clear that gayness will soon and thankfully be no longer anything like a controversial issue.) This is one of many reasons why Major League Baseball player Bruce Maxwell's anthem-kneel this weekend was especially noteworthy.
5) Trump is on the opposite side of the criminal justice reform cause that sparked all this stuff in the first place. This is the logical extension of #2 on this list, but it's worth reiterating that regardless of what one thinks about Kaepernick's questionable choice of attire, or even whether you think Black Lives Matter is an unfortunate organization and framing device, the original point of taking a knee was to protest improper and often lethal use of force by police officers who too often escape punishment. That problem is real, ongoing, and multifaceted, and President Trump is on the wrong side of it.
6) Fantasizing about ordering ungrateful "privileged" athletes around is one of the lower tendencies in American sports fandom. Part of Trump's theatrical genius is that he has consistently gotten into the shoes of his audience, acting out fantasies they wish they had the nerve/power to conduct in real life. On the campaign trail, he would often play-act the (completely invented) story of U.S. soldiers lining up and shooting Muslims with bullets dipped in pig's blood. And in Alabama last week, he again performed his most controversial passage:
Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, "Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he's fired. He's fired!" You know, some owner is gonna do that. He's gonna say, "That guy that disrespects our flag, he's fired." And that owner, they don't know it. They don't know it. They're friends of mine, many of them. They don't know it. They'll be the most popular person, for a week. They'll be the most popular person in this country.
What makes this paragraph doubly telling is Trump blurting out his motivation—this stuff's popular. It's also gross.
Barstool fans from coast to coast have long fetishized the sports world's most successful authoritarians—college basketball tyrant Bobby Knight, Chicago Bears barker Mike Ditka, Buffalo Bills loudmouth Rex Ryan (Trump supporters all)—in part because these coaches push around athletes who are frequently perceived as ungrateful, disrespectful, and lazy. All kinds of skeevy class and race issues, as well as good old-fashioned envy, get mixed up in this tendency.
Trump's wording on this was a classic of the barstool form. "If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL,or other leagues," he tweeted, "he or she should not be allowed to disrespect…. …our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem. If not, YOU'RE FIRED. Find something else to do!"
Professional sports leagues are meritocracies; you cannot inherit from daddy your space on an NFL roster. Also, football careers in particular tend to be nasty, brutish, and short, with long-lasting aftereffects that hobble the league's vets. But the idea that a small number of athletes have been gifted with and overcompensated for a game that millions would gladly play for free is ingrained in the DNA of American sports culture. And the older a fan gets, the more he or she is likely to bemoan the new generation's flouting of once-revered traditions.
It's a reactionary combination, which Trump is tapping into with reactionary politics.
7) Public patriotic rituals are already political, and should not be a one-way ratchet. This is the kind of tautology only jerkbag libertarians like to emphasize, but there's no such thing as a compulsory patriotic ritual devoid of political content. To the contrary.
As Eric Boehm mentioned, ritualized and militaristic patriotism has long been part of the explicit marketing efforts both of pro sports leagues and the Pentagon. The NFL, whose traditional jingoism has been matched perhaps only by NASCAR, only started requiring all players in all games to stand on the sidelines during the National Anthem in 2009. Baseball, for understandable reasons initially, started playing "God Bless America" during the seventh-inning stretch of the post-9/11 2001 World Series in New York, but then kept on playing it at every home Yankee game, as well as every Sunday game in the rest of the league. (Before that, the song was a sporadic and usually welcome replacement for "The Star-Spangled Banner" before the game.) If I told you how many times military jets have flown over my head just because I enjoy baseball, you probably wouldn't believe it.
Like all rituals, these public displays of patriotism can be at turns moving, comforting, numbing, and annoying. But if they only increase in frequency and duration over time, and if the U.S. president keeps on throwing words around like "must," they risk producing their own backlash, and not just from certain cheeky non-conformists.
8) Telling the president to get bent is a healthy democratic response. You may have seen a much-shared sermon from former NFL star Shannon Sharpe, who was eloquently and specifically critical of the "hypocrisy" of team owners and players suddenly unifying against Donald Trump only now, instead of protesting him and/or police brutality, back before it was cool. It's totally worth watching, and Sharpe has it totally backward.
Of course owners and players finally got motivated to kneel or link arms or otherwise cause a fuss only after the president of the United States personally insulted them. That's because the president of the United States personally insulted them! If any resident of 1600 Pennsylvania were to tell me what to do, I would start with a one-fingered salute and work my way from there. Such defensive disrespect in the face of presidential overreach is a sign of democratic pulse in our increasingly authoritarian age.
And finally, 9) Culture-war dissidents deserve a shout-out, too. I put out this poll after Trump's initial remarks…
If you were a professional athlete competing tomorrow, would you….
— Matt Welch (@MattWelch) September 24, 2017
…and was heartened to see not just a healthy numerical variance, but also a bunch of responses complaining that their own specific preference was not expressed in those choices. Which is only right and just. Americans are far more complicated than our biggest Culture Warriors demand.
Consider the case of Steelers' offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva, an Army Ranger and Bronze Star recipient who served three tours of duty in Afghanistan and became an overnight folk hero for breaking ranks with his locker-room-bound team and standing outside for the anthem Sunday. Just as one side of the Culture War was about to name him honorary captain, Villanueva gave a remarkable press conference complicating just about every narrative you might have of the man. Good on him. (And good on Marie Tillman, widow of slain former NFL player turned Afghanistan friendly-fire victim Pat Tillman, for calmly rebuffing the president's attempt to invoke her marvelously individualistic husband in this silly controversy.)
The recipe for getting politics out of sports is not by bashing athletes' politics or demanding that they behave in some particularly political (or apolitical) way. It's by getting government out of wherever it doesn't belong, be it the stadium construction business or the definitionally divisive act of drawing precise boundaries over acceptably patriotic behavior. No politician, or government, deserves that authority, let alone respect.