Because nothing says "patriotism" quite like ordering people under penalty of a fine to stand up during the National Anthem, the taxpayer-soaking cajillionaires who run the National Football League have announced a new policy of fining any team caught having an employee sitting, kneeling, or acting disrespectfully on the field while "The Star-Spangled Banner" plays before a game.
"We want people to be respectful of the national anthem," explained NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. "We want people to stand…and make sure they treat this moment in a respectful fashion. That's something we think we owe. [But] we were also very sensitive to give players choices."
Thus continues a controversy that began with then–San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sitting during the anthem in an August 2016 preseason game to protest police brutality; that continued that fall with various players kneeling, locking arms, and putting fists in the air; then nearly petering out to maybe a dozen anthem refuseniks until President Donald Trump told an Alabama rally last September, "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!'"
Excited by how such nakedly pointless culture-war baiting was getting his base "stirred up," the president piled more worms on the hook. He sent Vice President Mike Pence to attend (and showily walk out of) an Indianapolis Colts game that featured an offensive non-stander. He even dragged the controversy into his State of the Union Address. (In fairness, the state of our union is that we bicker endlessly over this kind of phony bullshit while our elected officials misuse billions and billions of our dollars, including on professional sports franchises.) The NFL, whose owners lean Republican and whose ceremonial accoutrements have long been suffused with militaristic displays of patriotism, has been agonizing over anthem etiquette ever since.
Under the new policy, players will have the option (which they enjoyed before 2009) of sitting the anthem out inside the locker room. Also, in addition to the league fining the employers of the star-spangled scofflaws, teams themselves will have the discretion of fining non-compliant players. Goodell surely hopes that such fraught solicitousness to White House feelings will be greeted as a stately compromise, and maybe players will indeed roll their eyes and get on with their lives.
But there's something pathetic and insecure about the whole exercise. The United States is a patriotic and religious country that (rightly!) loves its damn sports, especially the homegrown troika of football, baseball, and basketball. Enforcing that love through coerced rituals and Pentagon product placements is not a projection of strength; it's an expression of weakness. Saying "How high?" when a president says "Jump!" is behavior suitable for a royal subject, not an American citizen. Rewarding politicians for playing fan bases off of one another—unless it's Red Sox–Yankees, in which case the old Iran-Iraq rules apply—isn't cheeky-clever, it's creepy-vulgar.
Have some damned confidence, America, and stop listening to confidence men.
Now, for some postgame analysis, here's Ken White:
Political correctness is ruining free speech in America. To fight it, we insist that professional athletes participate in nationalist rituals in the proscribed fashion without expressing any views, to avoid offense. To do otherwise would endorse snowflakes and their safe spaces.
— HerebyDemandHat (@Popehat) May 23, 2018