Once again Sundays have become a space of political debate. The act of kneeling has become valiant or offensive depending on whom you speak to. However, this particularly Christian pose of piety has regularly been a part of Sundays, so what is the issue?
It’s the kneeling of athletes — these commodified bodies — on a field during a time when they are supposed to be entertaining us. It’s the act of kneeling as flagging divergent expressions of national identity and experience.
Last year I wrote about the sacred materiality of civil religion revealed in Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand during the national anthem. His protests have carried over into the current football season even though he is no longer a player for the NFL. Keeping the spirit of Kaepernick’s practice alive – NFL players, cheerleaders, and even German soccer players have taken a knee against racial injustices and inequality in the U.S.
Yet, the spotlight on the act of protest focuses not on the message of inequality, but patriotism. The shift in attention is not new and was present last season. What’s changed this year is the addition of Trump. On September 23, Trump tweeted that the NFL protests had nothing to do with race, but everything to do with disrespecting the flag and veterans. He emphasized that football players kneeling during the national anthem were unpatriotic.
Supporters of Trump’s statements also took to social media demanding that politics be removed from football. They claimed that the protestors brought political issues into Sunday night football, defiling the sacred realm of the field. Daily Wire commentator Joseph Curl even wrote a nostalgic column about a time when Sundays and football were just football.
What is it then about sports and politics that seem contradictory? Why is the stadium a sacred space? What anxiety do these protests reveal about national identity?
United we stand, under the flag and the jersey
Sports are often conceived as unifying, especially team sports. Players supposedly learn the value of the group over the individual – there is no I in team, right? Fans congeal around common associations, forming cults of fandom.
The formation of communities, whether as a team or as fans, reinforce notions about national identity. We may all support different teams, but at least we can gather around the television each Sunday in support of football. Similarly, we may all hold different political and religious beliefs, but we all feel the same swell of pride at the first note of the “Start Spangled Banner.”
In many ways football culture recalls Robert Bellah’s notion of American civil religion – a unifying ideology to cultivate one national identity among a pluralistic nation. John D. Carlson writes that American civil religion “provides a shared basis for citizenship.” Football can be understood as one public venue in which individual differences fade away and we become one. Following this perception of national identity and sports, it’s not difficult to understand why some advocate for NFL Sundays to be a politics free zone.
Politics are divisive. Sports are unifying. Socially we construct the stadium, like the home, as apart from the civic public. These are sacred spaces for the cultivation of community/family, the fostering of camaraderie through “healthy” competition, and an escape from the debates and realities of policy, discrimination, and economic turmoil
We can tell ourselves that all we want, but the truth is sports have long been political just like the home has been. Sports are just one location where the public (the political) and the private (the falsely constructed apolitical sphere) converge. We’ve seen this in the production of sports as a masculine sphere, in the politics of advertising, and the rituals of domesticity surrounding home viewing. We’ve also seen the convergence of politics and sports in other protests. Muhammed Ali. Tommie Smith and John Carlos. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. Just to name a few of the athletes who have used their status and sports as a place of protest in the past.
Divided we fall, when politics invades
To claim that the current and historical protests are the only injection of politics into sports is to misunderstand what national symbols convey. “Symbols of State often convey political ideas, just as religious symbols come to convey theological ones,” wrote Justice Robert Jackson in the majority opinion in 1943 on whether students should be compelled to say the pledge of allegiance.
The introduction of the national anthem at sporting events during World War I was political. In the heart of war, ritualized patriotism was not an apolitical act, but a way to capitalize on the communal feelings of fandom to reinforce a specific governmental agenda – the U.S. was on the side of righteousness in war. Any attempts to oppose the war efforts and taint patriotic public opinion were punishable under the Espionage and Sedition Acts during WWI.
The presence of the national anthem continued to be contested after WWI. In the 1950s, for instance, Baltimore Orioles owner Arthur Ehlers limited the playing of the national anthem because he believed the crowds were disrespectful. Ehlers felt that fans who continued to talk and move around during the song to be “distasteful,” Politico reports.
Until recently, however, controversy surrounding the national anthem or athlete protests has been absent. This recent quiet has rewritten cultural memory about the relationship between sports and politics. A portion of the public has been lulled into thinking that sports are an apolitical space. In many ways sports have become the epitome of what Michael Billig calls our forgotten nationalism.
In his aptly named book, Banal Nationalism, Billig explains that irrational national sentiment becomes engrained in society through daily “flagging.” This daily, banal sentiment becomes “patriotism” as we define our national devotion against their nationalism. Instead of being the expectation, nationalism invades everyday life, including sports.
What the on-going protests and the #takeaknee movement highlight is the hegemony of one interpretation of American nationalism. Trump and others may accuse the protesting players of being unpatriotic, but what they’re really saying is that our national sentiment is appropriate and correct. Your national sentiment, those of the protesters and their supporters, is wrong and other.
Kneeling during the national anthem on Sundays does more than protest racial inequality – it reveals an anxiety of identity in the country. The patriotism we have been fed and taught beginning with the pledge of allegiance in school has been false advertising. We are not a single nation of many as claimed by E Pluribus Unum. National identity is not universal among all citizens.
Instead we are a nation of nations. Whether one’s loyalty lies with their home state, football team, cultural heritage, or racial background – the experiences and expressions of nationalism in the United States are varied. There is not one American patriotism, but many.
By mandating that citizens must stand with hand over heart during the national anthem reproduces the hegemonic notion that there is such a think as the universal American identity or the way to demonstrate national attachment. Throughout history people have expressed nationalism differently in the U.S.
Some have made the ultimate sacrifice in war, while others have sat at lunch counters in the South making a different bodily sacrifice. Some citizens have chosen to proudly display the stars and stripes at home, on their vehicles, and even on their bodies. Others opt to emphasize the language of national scriptures over the flag.
To call one expression patriotic and another irreverent masks the plurality of the United States and reinforces a false dichotomy between political, such as elections, and apolitical spaces like sports. Nationalism and national identity construction are political projects taking place in the most banal areas of American life.