I rarely listen to the radio in the car anymore. But, as luck would have it yesterday, I finished one of the books I listen to (Michael Connelly’s The Late Show, which is terrific) while on my way to CSN-Bethesda to do my weekly hits for Golf Channel and the regional CSN’s around the country.
So, en route home, I resorted to the radio and happened to hear one local host ranting about Michael Bennett and Marshawn Lynch not standing for the national anthem last weekend.
I’m paraphrasing here because I was driving, but this is essentially what he said: “Fans just want to watch football. They don’t want players using that platform to push their causes no matter what they are. I turn on football, I want to see the game – that’s it. If you want to campaign for a cause, fine, do it after the game, do it somewhere else, but not two minutes before kickoff.”
I know, because I hear from people all the time, that his sentiments are shared by many. What we now call the “Kaepernick issue” has become almost as polarizing in this country as the current president. Last Friday, I wrote an op-ed piece on Colin Kaepernick for The Washington Post. I write on the op-ed page of the Post perhaps three or four times a year. The pieces usually draw about 50 comments – occasionally a little more if they involve the local NFL team. As of this morning, the Kaepernick piece had been commented on almost 2,000 times.
The comments ran the gamut from, ‘If you don’t love this country, then leave it,” to “Kaepernick is wrong to do this, but has the right to do it,” to “Kaepernick is clearly being black-balled.”
The only thing that wasn’t in doubt was how divisive the subject is and, of course, it blew up again this past weekend in the wake of the Bennett and Lynch sitdowns and the horrific events in Charlottesville.
Make no mistake about this: Bennett/Lynch and Charlottesville ARE connected. Race is not only the elephant in the room on this issue but in the entire country. Almost all of those condemning Kaepernick – and now Bennett and Lynch – are white. So are most of those who are saying, “I just want to watch football,” or “Leave politics out of sports.”
You might as well ask for the president to stop tweeting. It’s not going to happen.
Politics have been part of sports forever, but particularly in the 20th and 21st centuries when they have become so much a part of society worldwide. Whether it was Adolph Hitler intimidating Avery Brundage into removing two Jewish runners from the Americans 4×100 relay at the 1936 Olympics, the 1972 Munich massacre, or George W. Bush dramatically throwing out a first pitch in Yankee Stadium in the wake of 9-11, politics are part of sports. Roger Goodell testifying before Congress that the NFL is doing everything it possibly can to deal with concussions (when it wasn’t) is politics mixing with sports.
So let’s not be naïve about this.
If people REALLY just want to see a football game and don’t want to deal with players making political statements, there’s nothing that says they have to watch those players while the anthem is being played. Or, tune in after the anthem.
Once upon a time, TV networks didn’t want to take up time by showing the anthem. It was played before many, if not most sporting events, about 15 minutes before the game began with the teams in the locker room and TV in commercial. But after 9-11, the leagues — pro and college — and the networks agreed the anthem should be part of the telecast and the teams should be there when it was played.
This was understandable and was part of the healing process and was a bonding mechanism for all of us as we tried to recover from the tragedy we’d all witnessed.
But then, as with all good things, it went too far. It became, in fact, politics mixing with sports. It wasn’t enough to simply ask everyone to stand for the playing of the anthem. Giant flags had to be unfurled; color guards had to make slow walks on and off the field or the court. No one wrapped itself in the flag more than the NFL, with constant “salutes to the military,” some of which were paid for by the military.
For the record, my father fought in World War II. I can see the medals he received in my living room from where I’m sitting. I wrote a book on the Army-Navy football rivalry 21 years ago and remain close to many of the men I wrote about then. Many have deployed; one died, overseas. Thank God it wasn’t more than that.
I’ve said and written in the past that the most chilling moment for me at any athletic event each year is the moment when 8,000 hands — midshipmen and cadets — snap to attention when the first notes of the anthem are played at the Army-Navy game.
At THAT game, flag-waving is absolutely appropriate because every cadet and midshipman in the stadium, on the field and in the stands, has volunteered to die for his or her country. That’s THEIR political statement.
But let’s not kid ourselves, especially about the NFL. The irony is that Goodell is the son of the first Republican U.S. Senator to publicly condemn the Vietnam war. On the wall of his office is a framed transcript of the speech Charles Goodell gave on the senate floor on the subject.
But his son seems to think that flag-waving can cover up the NFL’s myriad sins. Several years ago at the draft, he avoided being booed by showing up with a cadre of men and women in uniform. No one was going to boo with them standing behind Goodell as he offered another tribute to the military.
Here’s a fact: If you REALLY want politics out of your football games, if you REALLY just want to watch football, then campaign to have leagues and teams stop playing the anthem. If the anthem isn’t played, then no one can make a statement by not standing up for it.
There’s also a case to be made that playing the anthem at every single event there is across the board, makes it less special. If it was only played on special occasions: Army-Navy; the Memorial Day and the Fourth-of-July; championship games in each sport, then it would be much more special each time we heard it.
Don’t misunderstand me: I LIKE hearing the anthem and I will always stand for it. But if people are serious about taking politics out of sports; if they just want to “watch the game” without having to think about all the issues we’re currently dealing with, then take ALL politics out of the game-day experience. Or, if you want to compromise, go back to playing the anthem early — with the teams in the locker room.
And, if we’re really concerned about the divides in this country and the anger so many people seem to be feeling, perhaps all NFL games this coming weekend — and baseball games, come to think of it — should begin with a moment-of-silence for Heather Heyer, the young paralegal who was killed Friday when a crazy person drove his car into her while she was part of a group that was PEACEFULLY protesting the presence of the KKK in Charlottesville.
You can bet everyone would stand out of respect for her. I doubt anyone would say, ‘Hey, I just came to watch football,” during that moment.
At least I hope not.
John Feinstein’s new book, “Backfield Boys—A Mystery in Black and White,” will be published in two weeks. It focuses on a racial divide on a football team at a fictional prep school in Virginia. It was written before last week’s events in Charlottesville. His next non-fiction book, “The First Major—The Inside Story of the 2016 Ryder Cup,”—will be published in October. Both can be ordered online now.