American nationalism is arguably a breed all its own. It’s a kind of patriotic obsession that manages to force a thread of shame into its adherents so that, should they ever veer too far from its path, the crushing guilt will overwhelm them enough to bring them back.
Colin Kaepernick, quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, faced the flames for his conscious decision to remain seated during the national anthem. Due to concerns about police violence against black people and other people of color, Kaepernick said he will not stand for “The Star Spangled Banner” because “there are bodies in the street.”
In an exclusive interview with NFL Media, Colin Kaepernick made the case for his act of civil disobedience as being one that is “bigger than football.”
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color,” he said.
The public’s reaction to Kaepernick’s protest has been overwhelmingly unfavorable. Between insults laced with racial epithets aimed to degrade him are petulant fits of rage dedicated to smearing Kaepernick as ‘anti-American.’
Alex Boone, a former teammate of Kaepernick’s who now plays for the Minnesota Vikings, told ESPN that, had Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem while he was still on the 49ers, they “probably would have had a problem on the sideline.” Boone went on to say that Kaepernick’s decision drove him “nuts.”
“You should have some fucking respect for people who served, especially people that lost their life to protect our freedom,” he said.
While Kaepernick chose to sit out during the national anthem, Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas, who recently picked up gold in Rio, was torn apart in a similar fashion, all for failing to place her hand over her heart during the anthem, which is customary during both the anthem and the country’s Pledge of Allegiance.
The outrage was so visceral Douglas later released a statement, apologizing profusely. “I never meant any disrespect and apologize if I offended anyone,” she said.
Militant nationalism, spurred at least in part by right wing populism, has become part and parcel of American consciousness.
From sporting events to school functions, there is no public procession that exists today that does not function, in some capacity, as a facilitator of heavy-handed patriotism. The NFL is no stranger to overdone displays of nationalist fervor, and the Department of Defense makes sure of it. According to a lengthy 2015 report by US Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake, the US Department of Defense paid at least 18 NFL teams “for patriotic tributes at professional football games.”
The report [PDF] details how these sponsored tributes “included on-field color guard, enlistment and reenlistment ceremonies, performances of the national anthem, and full-field flag details.” The National Guard also paid teams for the “opportunity” to host military appreciation nights and “to recognize its birthday.”
For example, the Buffalo Bills were paid to sponsor their “Salute to the Service” game. The Department of Defense went so far as to pay teams for the “opportunity” to perform surprise welcome home promotions for troops returning from deployments.
These lucrative pay-for-patriotism sponsorships work not only as vehicles designed to reaffirm nationalist sentiment but also as in-your-face recruitment efforts, where excited Americans, a majority of them men, are already drunk with patriotism.
According to Business Insider, the average number of NFL fans attending games exceeds all other sports leagues in the world, according to average attendance. The number of fans in attendance per game in 2014 stood at a staggering 68,776, “more than 25,000 fans-per-game more than the next-highest league (the German Bundesliga, 43,500).”
The NFL has a close association with the military. One of their most notable partners is the United Service Organizations Inc. (USO).
In 1965, NFL players were sent to Vietnam on “goodwill tours to visit and inspire the troops,” making them “the first sports organization to send a group of players to Vietnam.” Since then, according to the USO, active and retired NFL players and coaches “have traveled to firebases, aircraft carriers, and other installations” in Vietnam, Guam, Thailand, Japan, Somalia, Bosnia, Italy, South Korea, Japan, Germany, Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan.
The league’s relationship with the military effectively intensifies the pressure on players to show allegiance to the United States during each and every game.
Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the national anthem in response to state-sanctioned police brutality echoes acts of civil disobedience in sports—including Muhammad Ali refusing army induction in 1967 and Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their black-gloved fists at the 1968 Summer Olympics.
These public acts of defiance, all of which are meant to bring attention to issues that touch the human spirit, should be celebrated.