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Sports and Patriotism

September 14, 2009

Last week I went to see the anticlimactic “Rumble in the River,” a preseason-esque 42-0 University of Kentucky drubbing over Miami (OH) in Cincinnati’s Paul Brown Stadium.

It could be that the game’s most interesting moment for me took place before the game commenced.  As per usual, I chose to remain seated during the performance of the national anthem.  Rather than supporting an uncritical linkage between sport and state by standing and singing our nation’s paean to victory achieved by violence, I use the time when the anthem is playing for private spiritual reflection.  What is our nation’s relationship to violence today?  What attitude toward the state should I espouse as a Christian and member of God’s Empire?  And, most importantly, why are organized sports so often exploited as a vehicle of forced patriotism?  (As a refresher, I’ve previously referenced Noam Chomsky’s thoughts on sports, which he says exude a fervor that is easily co-opted for the sake of national allegiance, and the Mennonite Goshen College’s ambivalent relationship to patriotism at its home athletics events).

While I was sitting in my seat last week, one fan from several rows above yelled down at me—I’m presuming at me because I was the only person sitting in my section—and said, “Hey hippie, why don’t you stand up? Do you love our country, or are you anti-American?”  I share this story not to cast myself as a victim.  It’s only a way to say that pro-American rituals, forced patriotism, and nationalistic zeal have crept into our nation’s sporting venues in ways that are damaging to all parties involved.

In fact, what happened to me pales in comparison to an incident in the old Yankee Stadium a year ago, where a man was harassed and eventually ejected from the stadium for attempting to use the restroom during the seventh inning stretch singing of “God Bless America.”  For the man, this treatment constituted religious and political discrimination.  Yankee Stadium had been the extreme for MLB venues in that its ushers often chained off aisles to prevent people from leaving their seats during the song.  However, since that lawsuit, which was settled when the city of New York agreed to pay $10,000 to the aggrieved party, the Yankees have refrained from chaining aisles.  Still, forced patriotism has not gone away.  (And, by the way, it’s still unclear why New York taxpayers had to foot the bill for something harmful done by the New York Yankees franchise).

Just this past weekend, another incident has emerged.  The sports blog Field of Schemes reports that a minor league franchise owner forcibly removed three teens from the stadium earlier this summer because they refused to stand during the rendition of “God Bless America.”  According to the write-up by the local New Jersey paper, Thomas Cetnar, a disgraced police officer and part owner of the franchise, noticed the men sitting during the seventh inning ritual, approached them furiously, and instructed security guards to escort them out of the park.  In Cetnar’s own words,  “Nobody sits during the singing of ‘God Bless America’ in my stadium.  Now the get the (expletive) out of here.”

Field of Schemes astutely points out that Cetnar has nerve calling the Newark Bears’ park “my stadium” when it in fact was paid for with tax dollars.  And, to add an additional layer of irony, Cetnar’s appeal to American loyalty is especially problematic, given his prior improprieties as a defender of United States citizens (he embezzled drug money).

To some, standing during the national anthem and “God Bless America” is a “matter of etiquette,” as the Star-Ledger‘s Sharon Aldaro puts it.  But what if one doesn’t believe that God exists?  Or, how do we respect the experience of those who enjoy sports and athletics, but believe that God and nation should not be confused?  People, like myself, who balk at singing patriotic anthems at sporting events, do so because of deep religious convictions about the way God operates in earth and the way that God’s followers should posture themselves as the live within earthy structures of power.  And we also like baseball, basketball, and football.  Sadly, it’s becoming increasingly apparent to me that the imperial nature of sports and nation cannot be separated easily, despite my wishes.

Of course, I don’t expect everyone to hold my Anabaptist precepts about war, God, nation, and peaceful protest, but I do hope that these recent stadium incidents and the subsequent lawsuits will open a new national conversation about that it means to be a citizen and a sports fan.  Some people are already working in this territory.  But we need more.

* Update:  An extended version of this essay will appear in North of Center.  Stay tuned.

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From → Sports, War

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