How Patriotism and American Pro Sports Became Allied

By: Dave Roos
Jacksonville Jaguars players kneel in protest during the national anthem before the NFL International Series match at Wembley Stadium, London. Simon Cooper/PA Images via Getty Images

At a rally in Alabama, President Donald Trump poured gasoline on the Colin Kaepernick national anthem-kneeling controversy, encouraging NFL owners to fire protesting players and calling them SOBs. Dozens of pro footballers and a few full teams responded last Sunday with linked arms and even more kneeling during the "Star-Spangled Banner" in a show of player solidarity.

The loudest criticism of Kaepernick's silent protest against police brutality and racial bias, which began in 2016 at a San Francisco 49ers preseason game, is that failing to stand during the national anthem shows disrespect for the military, specifically veterans who risked or gave their lives for our freedoms.


But how did professional football, and American sports in general, get so wrapped up in public expressions of patriotism? It wasn't always this way. Sports historian and anthropologist Orin Starn at Duke University says that sports didn't get tied up with notions of national identity and national pride until the creation of the modern Olympic games in 1894, where athletes first competed for their country. Before that, it was "town against town, village against village."

Around the same time, the United Kingdom launched the British Home Championships, the first football (soccer) tournament in which individual UK countries -- England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales -- fielded their own team in nation vs. nation competition, says Martin Polley, director of the International Centre for Sports History and Culture at De Montfort University in Leicester, England.


Baseball, America and Apple Pie

By the turn of the 20th century, baseball had become America's unofficial national sport, although it was more of a fixture of US national identity -- "As American as baseball and apple pie," as the saying goes -- than a vehicle for public displays of patriotism.

That all changed on a September night in 1918, when the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Socks met for the first game of the World Series as the nation was deeply embroiled in World War I. National morale was low and the crowd's mood at most of Game One was solemn, nearly silent, according to a 2011 article in ESPN the Magazine.


Then a military band took the field for the seventh-inning stretch and began to play "The Star-Spangled Banner," a well-known patriotic tune in its time, but not yet the official national anthem (that wouldn't happen until 1931). Red Sox third-baseman Fred Thomas, on leave from the Navy, whipped off his hat and snapped to attention. The rest of the players removed their caps and placed their hands on their hearts. A New York Times reporter on the scene described what followed:

"First the song was taken up by a few, then others joined, and when the final notes came, a great volume of melody rolled across the field. It was at the very end that the onlookers exploded into thunderous applause and rent the air with a cheer that marked the highest point of the day's enthusiasm."

American Flag, Red Sox
The American flag is dropped over the Green Monster as Vietnam War veterans are honored during a ceremony before a baseball game between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees on July 15, 2017 at Fenway Park in Boston.
Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Due to its wild popularity, "The Star-Spangled Banner"was played again during the seventh-inning stretch of Game Two and was moved to the pregame festivities when the series traveled back to Boston. A sporting tradition was born, although the national anthem didn't become a staple of pregame baseball until 1941 with America's entry into World War II.


Along Comes Football

Although sports-fueled patriotism entered the American psyche through baseball, it was football's rising popularity in the 1960s and 1970s that cemented the connection between sports and a distinctly militant flavor of nationalism. After all, football is essentially a military battle disguised as a sport. With the coach as their "general," units of faceless, helmeted warriors gather in "formation" to do battle in the "trenches," "blitzing" the offense and throwing long "bombs" into the endzone.

"There's kind of a sacred bundle between football, war, and American identity," says Starn. "In football, you see patriotism on steroids."


Not only is the national anthem required before all NFL games, but the anthem is often accompanied by a military honor guards and veterans groups taking the field, and frequent flyovers by Air Force jets.

Alejandro Villanueva
Alejandro Villanueva of the Pittsburgh Steelers stands by himself in the team's tunnel during the national anthem prior to a game against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field on Sept. 24, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. Villanueva, a former Army Ranger who served terms in Afghanistan, was the lone Steeler to appear during the anthem, though he later said that was unintentional.
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

One reason for the amped up patriotism at football games has to do with the demographics of the NFL fan base. According to a 2014 survey, football fans are predominately white (83 percent), male (64 percent), older than 45 (51 percent) and politically conservative. Republicans were 21 percent more likely to watch football than Democrats. And that goes doubly for NFL team owners.

"The NFL is the most conservative of sports leagues in terms of the 'America first' ethos promoted by its owners," says Starn. "There's only one owner of color, no African-American or Latino owners, and they're overwhelmingly Republican."

But the blending of competitive sports and military pride, it turns out, is more than just the natural byproduct of patriotic fans and conservative team owners supporting their troops. In a somewhat shocking 2015 report, it was revealed that the U.S. Department of Defense paid NFL teams more than $5 million from 2011 to 2014 to produce public displays of support for the military, including honor guards, field-sized flags and "Hometown Heroes" segments on the Jumbotron calling attention to vets in the crowd.

The DOD defended spending millions for pro-military displays, calling it a valuable recruitment tool and not "paid patriotism." Either way, the practice stopped once the report went public.


America Versus Europe

How does America's patriotic sports culture compare with the rest of the world? Polley, from the International Centre for Sports History and Culture, says that you won't hear national anthems at regular club matches in any of Europe's major soccer leagues, but anthems are played during the World Cup when national teams are competing.

English soccer fans absolutely see the sport as part of their national identity, Polley says, and crowds will often chant military tunes that harken back to World War II. There are many ways in which sports-fueled patriotism is expressed in England, and not all of them healthy.


"For some people, supporting the national team is a patriotic act, and it doesn't need to be dressed up with flags and anthems," says Polley in an email. "For others, the rituals associated with flags and anthems are central, and they might also wear clothes that express this, or paint their faces with national flags. For others, beating up fans from other nations around the game is part of how they like to express their national pride."