I am no more a prude about sports than I am about profanity. I have engaged in both abundantly in my long life. But when I saw a photo of that defunct 49er’s quarterback sporting an arcane, “culturally misappropriated” Afro and sitting on the bench during the National Anthem, I decided right then to boycott all things NFL— stats, game scores, player profiles, team news, all of which I did follow (not because of the Afro but because of the sitting.)
Now, as far as the NFL is concerned, that isn’t going to have much of an impact since I have been “boycotting” for other reasons for some time. I don’t watch NFL games on Sunday or on Monday Night anyway, a self—imposed contract I made many years ago. I don’t have a cable sports package. I don’t buy the various kinds of paraphernalia for any particular team. I follow no team as if they are a religious icon. When the conversation comes around to the seasonal sports talk, I try not to engage much since I don’t keep up on the nuances of the game through 24/7 sports radio and cable. Even when I am invited to a Super Bowl Party, I decline because it is on the Sabbath.
The point is not that I have anything against sports – I don’t—I just have other “fish to fry” and sports is not one of them. That is what I do and I ask no one else to do it with me nor judge others for not following my example. Some, only some, not all, merely look at me as if I have a mental disease— and I suppose I do in a way since my choices do not integrate with the national psychosis about sports in general— while trying to get their heads around the idea of not living one’s life through sports.
You see, I, like so many Baby Boomers, grew up at a time when we watched the NFL, MLB, and the NBA on black and white TV, listened to the games on radio, and were happy to do so. Sports was not yet the collection of pagan gods that it has now become. It was a time when most players had to work jobs during the off—season merely because the pay scale would not support them for the whole year. Owners had not yet grasped the most sophisticated elements of marketing, but did their best with what money they had. Team owners did not own teams because the team made loads of money— they usually owned them as a part of their overall asset portfolio—but, in fact, more often than not lost money every year. Owning a sports team was more a prestigious ascent over the common than a real business. It was a time when the relationship between the game and the viewing public— the fan base— was one of a kind of mutually—reinforcing respect. The pay was realistic in light of the fact that grown men were playing a terminally boy’s game into adulthood and the ticket prices were realistic because the owners knew this and wanted to make access to the games entirely possible without selling your first—born or taking out a second mortgage.
Though it was a singularly special event as a boy to be taken to a Giants’ game at the old Seals Stadium in San Francisco, it didn’t set my father back two weeks of pay to do so. He was glad to do it and I was glad he did. And the experience was genuine and at times personal, almost as if we were on the field taking each pitch, fielding each hit, running each base. And all of this over time is what has informed and transformed me— good, bad, or indifferent. But this is not about me— I want to set a baseline from one person’s perspective— this is about a nation that has just encountered a teaching moment about what is important and what is superfluous, about how celebrities and entertainment as mere distractions in the not distant past have become our new idols to whom we have given some unmerited, unearned authority.
Now I have read a lot of commentary about what the current NFL teams and players are doing when it comes time for the National Anthem to be played. None of it comes from sports writers or sports cable and radio talking heads but from certain exceedingly reasoned cultural observers of whom you may never have heard. Almost all that I have read is cogent and penetrating, taking me into realms that have more to do with the soul than with the scores.
And then I heard last night the one thing that framed the whole issue for me rigidly in place; of all the words I have read, pro and con, this one quickly spoken anecdote superseded all else.
A friend of mine said that the son of one of his friends is serving in the U.S. Army in Afghanistan. When you hear about what life is like for any of the military in that posting, one thing rings out consistent— each day is like every other day, monotonous, hot, boring, ritualistic— work long hours, sleep, eat, exercise, repeat. You can imagine, then, what a pronounced distracting change to a week’s tedium Sunday’s NFL football games can make to the huge assemblies showing up in the various common day rooms throughout the operating theatre. (I recall in the 60s seeing a similar phenomenon on Saturday morning taking place in our day room over professional hockey.) What does it mean to someone far from home, in a numbingly constant hostile environment, not of their choice but of one geopolitical sphere far above their pay grade, who has a chance to return to the historical comfort of their own country in a clear graphically significant way?
This friend’s son reported to his father last Sunday night that the reaction of the soldiers to the image of over 200 NFL players from different teams with erratic owner and coach participation was instant and inflamed, accusatory and profane, a vast, rolling expression against a betrayal of the highest order. In a situation where “watching one’s six” and “leaving no man behind” has clear and mortal implications, what they were watching were thorough, credible images in real time of “Americans”— symbolic squad mates— who were not “watching their six” and had every intention of ‘leaving all injured and dead behind’.
Now, take a minute of your time and try to place yourself in the uniform, chairs, and shoes of a soldier in that situation. Ask yourself how you would react to seeing what these soldiers were seeing on TV. OK? Is that minute over?
I rest my case.