Early this morning I read the news that Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, had decided to end the pregame playing of the national anthem. I was glad to see it, and am disappointed that he has since changed his mind under pressure from the NBA.
According to The Athletic, Cuban at one point tweeted,
“The National Anthem Police in this country are out of control. If you want to complain, complain to your boss and ask why they don’t play the National Anthem every day before you start work.”
Consider the truth in that tweet. Remember when Colin Kaepernick was made an object of hate and scorn by the Right (and blackballed by the NFL) for kneeling during the national anthem in protest of police violence against unarmed Black men and women? Here’s the public opinion of the sitting president at the time: “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a b**** off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’”
So if it was Kaepernick’s job to stand with hand over heart for the national anthem, does that mean that if CEOs demand that before every shift at work, every worker must also stand with their hands over their hearts for the national anthem because that’s what their boss wants them to do?
Our nation’s largest employer has a similar requirement: the United States military. During my twenty years in the Navy, I stood at attention and saluted the flag during the national anthem countless times. But you know what? When one joins the military, one gives up most of one’s freedom. If they tell you to march, you march. If they tell you to clean s**t all day, you clean s**t all day. If they tell you to kill, you kill. And if they tell you to do what you know will get you killed, it’s (usually) your duty to obey.
And if they tell you to salute the flag, you do so. It’s your duty.
But professional sports figures, like the overwhelming majority of the American population, are not members of the military, and are as free as American civilians ought to be. No one outside the military is required by any law to show the least bit of respect for the flag or for the national anthem, but every American civilian does have the First Amendment right to protest.
The Danger Of Mandated Patriotism
In the days of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the USSR that was so hated and feared by the West (and not without reason), every military unit had a political officer (once called a ‘commissar’), a supervisory officer responsible for the political education of the unit to which they were assigned. If the officer believed that someone — even the unit’s commanding officer — was lacking in patriotism or was prone to dangerous political beliefs, that officer could and often did report the individual. Anyone accused of such would have been fortunate to only lose their career, and would certainly have been on the KGB’s watch list for the rest of their lives.
This was mandated patriotism, and it is found in one form or another in the militaries of many autocratic governments, including the People’s Liberation Army of China. This is why many Americans were alarmed at Trump’s effort to establish a “Patriotic Education Commission”. The very idea smacks deeply of the mandated patriotism found in so many dictatorships and tyrannies.
After all, since when is it an exercise in freedom to force anyone to act patriotic? Patriotism is only real if it is voluntary. Involuntary patriotism is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms, and pressuring any American civilian to perform patriotic acts against their will is itself not just unpatriotic, but unconstitutional.
After all, don’t we all want the right to be able to stand up and flip off any politician we don’t like? I sure as heck treasure my right to publicly state how certain politicians aren’t worth the skidmarks on my skivvies (it’s a Navy thing, okay?). And if the nation of my birth does something badly wrong — say, America’s centuries-long love affair with white supremacy — I see it as my freaking duty to point it out.
In other words, while freedom is never free, in a democracy, patriotism is never a given. A free, small-d democratic nation must continually earn the patriotism and loyalty of its people…
…and this cannot be done by mandating the patriotism of every citizen.
I don’t like watching people burn a flag or otherwise disrespect the nation I served for two decades of my life, but dammit, it is and must be their right to do so, especially when they’ve got good reasons to protest as Colin Kaepernick did. Even more importantly, while it’s good to be patriotic, only voluntary patriotism is sincere. Mandated patriotism isn’t patriotic at all, but the antithesis thereof.
For that reason, I call upon all sports organizations — professional, college, or otherwise — to refrain from playing the national anthem before events. The national anthem was never about the freedom to play sports. In fact, if more Americans were aware of the blatant racism of the lyrics in its third stanza, we might be more inclined to find a different song to represent our nation before the world.