There are times – particularly in the internet era, when a story’s shelf life sometimes lasts only a few hours – when news in the recent past resurfaces because it coincides perfectly with real-time events. We see it often on social media, when a years-old tweet from Donald Trump suddenly goes viral, thanks to its speaking volumes about what the candidate is proclaiming, today. Similarly, the tragic terrorist attack at a university in Kenya went viral months after it happened in response to a similar event taking place in Paris, France. And now, as America is embroiled in a tenuous showdown between athletes making political statements and their critics, a 2015 story from the Washington Post is bringing to light another facet of discussion with some damning claims about how patriotism at sporting events has been bought and sold like a commodity.
In a special report published on November 4, the Post ran the headline “At least 50 teams were paid by Department of Defense for patriotic displays,” and for those following today’s news, it’s easy to see why the report is making the rounds with such fervor now, nearly a year later. After San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick made the decision to sit out the national anthem to protest police brutality and the overall disgraceful treatment of people of color around him, he set off a firestorm. Critics say that Kaepernick and the slew of other athletes who have since taken similar actions are unpatriotic and disrespecting the military by not standing at attention, covering their hearts, and reciting the words to the “Star Spangled Banner.”
If, as the Post article suggests, the United States Department of Defense paid professional sports teams for patriotic displays (such as flag saluting and the inclusion of members of the armed forces in opening ceremonies), the entire concept of patriotism in the context of an authentic inclusion at sporting events becomes rife with skepticism. As reporter Cindy Boren writes, a government oversight report “offers new details about how the Department of Defense paid professional sports teams and leagues for patriotic displays honoring American soldiers,” adding the “145-page report cites contributions to 18 NFL teams, 10 MLB teams, eight NBA teams, six NHL teams, eight soccer teams, as well as NASCAR, Iron Dog and Indiana University Purdue University.”
The implications herein are huge. Kaepernick and other athletes of color are being chastised for standing up against what they see as injustice, and are being accused of disrespecting the very ideal that the Department of Defense is rendering inauthentic.
It seems, however, that steps have been taken in the wake of the cited report’s release, at least at the NFL. “Commissioner Roger Goodell followed with a letter to the committee dated Nov. 2, writing that the league will conduct an audit of all of its contracts with military branches and national guard units,” explains Boren. In May of this year, NBC reported that the NFL agreed to return $720,000 to American taxpayers, moneys which, Goodell stated, “may have been mistakenly applied to appreciation activities rather than recruitment efforts.’”
The paid patriotism news cycle may have launched late last year but it has not run its course. It has brought into question for many whether the years of Pentagon-funded displays have helped fuel the idea that being patriotic before playing football (or any sport) is somehow necessary. If, at least since 2012 (as the oversight report in question included) some displays of patriotism were only included because there was a paycheck at the end of it for the sports league involved, then perhaps separating even further the relationship between athletes and the “duty” to perform patriotic rituals is more necessary than ever. Furthermore, if the government department ostensibly in existence to house, organize, promote, and protect American armed forces was paying for their appearance at games, does that not cheapen the entire point of patriotism?
Just this week, veteran sports journalist Stephen A. Smith took to ESPN to state his claim that the military pays the NFL to stand for the national anthem. As reported by Hip Hop Wired, “Stephen A. Smith has revealed that the NFL gets paid to make players salute the flag,” a statement he made on a segment of “First Take.” That statement began when Smith responded to Dallas Cowboys’s owner Jerry Jones, who expressed “disappointment” in players who are protesting. Smith called out Jones, saying “he is a White individual who is a billionaire,” which allows him to benefit from the status quo, a status quo that Kaepernick’s actions and those of others are challenging. Smith says Jones’s words come from “White privilege,” saying “he’s obviously detached from the trials and tribulations that a lot of people, particularly those of African-American descent, have experienced in this country.”
The subject of patriotism in the light of financial messiness comes into play at the 8:30 mark, and some bombshells are revealed. “Up until 2009, no NFL player stood for the national anthem because players actually stayed in the locker room as the anthem played,” Smith says. “The players were moved to the field during the national anthem because it was seen as a marketing strategy to make the athletes look more patriotic. The United States Department of Defense paid the National Football League $5.4 million between 2011 and 2014 and the National Guard [paid the NFL] $6.7 million between 2013 and 2015 to stage on-field patriotic ceremonies as part of military recruitment and budget-line items.”
Sadly, the segment ends after Smith makes that statement, presumably because paid patriotism was discussed at great length when the story first broke in 2015. Nevertheless, in light of recent events, is there room for reinvigorated attention? Kaepernick and others have vowed to continue their protests throughout the forthcoming season and maybe even until some drastic change occurs. Will the United States government play ball?