May 27, 2019

After Observing "Armed Forces Weekend" And "Honoring" Memorial Day, How Can Anyone Claim That Sports And Politics Are Not Already Mixed?

Here is something I have always found fascinating. It's an attitude that most people have, a belief that most people act on regularly, yet they remain completely unaware of it.

If you say you like when the Red Sox have a fly-over of military jets for Opening Day, when the Red Sox invite a military officer to throw out the ceremonial first pitch, when the the Red Sox "honor our military heroes [at] each home game" as part of Hats Off to Heroes ... that is thought of as normal behaviour and is not considered political. (It does not matter which party occupies the White House.)

If I say I do not like when the Red Sox have a fly-over of military jets for Opening Day, when the Red Sox invite a military officer to throw out the ceremonial first pitch, when the the Red Sox "honor our military heroes [at] each home game" as part of Hats Off to Heroes ... that is not thought of as normal behaviour and is considered extremely political and (according to some people) has no place on a blog devoted to sports. (It does not matter which party occupies the White House.)

"Sports should be a place to get away from politics, to simply relax and enjoy a game."

I would agree ... except the Red Sox (and every other team in every major sport) have willingly injected politics into the supposed non-political sphere of athletics by paying for military fly-overs, of inviting military personnel to participate in various pre-game ceremonies (have you ever wondered why you've never seen a peace activist throwing out a first pitch?), of noting the presence of soldiers in the stands at games.

Two weeks ago, all MLB teams participated in "Armed Forces Weekend", when "citizens unite[d] and honor[ed] military heroes for the patriotic services in support of the United States". Players wore camouflage-designed caps (with the option of wearing camo-themed socks).

MLB spent last weekend "Honoring Memorial Day". An article at ConnectingVets says MLB "changed their Memorial Day approach to strike a more somber tone to better fit the meaning of the holiday". This year, Memorial Day uniforms featured a poppy and the phrase "Lest We Forget."

MLB's vice president of social responsibility Melanie LeGrande: "We wanted to make sure we were sticking to the true meaning (of Memorial Day). It's really about observing all those who were lost."

Sorry, Melanie. No. The real meaning of "Lest We Forget" is to always remember the horrors of war so we do everything in our power to avoid any and all wars in the future, to make sure no other human beings ever have to experience what the veterans of World War I suffered.

And by that yardstick, it is quite clear that all we do is forget. Hour after day after week after month after year after decade after generation ... zero lessons are learned and nothing is remembered. Memorial Day and Veterans Day are now often used to judge the level of other people's patriotism - and, invariably, to find it lacking. And as last weekend came and went, the US inched ever closer to war with Iran, potentially the eighth country with which the US is currently at war. (Where are the "Always Forget!" ribbons?)

For a time, the Red Sox ran continuous recruitment ads for the US military on TV monitors throughout Fenway Park - not only in the walkways under the stands, but also above the sections of the grandstand, so fans saw the ads without leaving their seats. The ads ran throughout the entire game and filled the screen during every half-inning. (Perhaps the Red Sox still do this.)

After a trip to Boston in April 2014, my partner Laura wrote:
I love Fenway Park, and I'm always happy to be there. On this trip, we saw three great games, two of them wins, so I was thrilled. The games were marred by only one thing: nearly constant propaganda for the US military. This is not an exaggeration.

Throughout Fenway Park, as in many sports venues, monitors show a TV feed of the action on the field. Right now, between innings, the Fenway Park monitors show a continuous feed of advertising for the United States Army. During the game, the ads continue on a sidebar beside the action.

Let that sink in a moment. The constant advertising crammed into every moment of the ballgame, and the constant linking of sports and the military, are now joined in this doubly offensive development.

There is something particularly Orwellian about watching a baseball game while a constant stream of silent images of war and military run in your peripheral vision.
The Red Sox have chosen to align themselves with the US military (and all of its nefarious activities), which many of the team's fans (and, judging from various public comments, members of the team's ownership group) bitterly oppose. ... I guess even billionaires in their late 60s are susceptible to peer pressure.

There is a common belief that this arrangement is (alleged) not political, but any mention of this arrangement is political - and such talk is to be avoided.

This strange reaction reminds me of the US government's response when photographs and videos of military personnel torturing prisoners at the Abu Gharib prison were publicly released in April 2004. After an initial response of silence, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld wrote a memo, banning the use of cell phones with cameras, digital cameras, and camcorders by American troops and military personnel.

The Defense Department believed the worst aspect of that situation was not that the physical and sexual abuse, torture, rape, sodomy, and murder was happening, but that evidence of these war crimes had been recorded. Similarly, in the minds of many fans, the only thing wrong with the Red Sox's partnership with the US military is that some people criticize it.

It is impossible to separate sports and politics. It always has been and always will be, because sports are played by human beings who live in the world and are aware of their surroundings.

Sports and politics were intertwined during the late 1800s and the entire first-half of the 20th Century, when all baseball team owners colluded to never sign black players. They were intertwined during the First World War, when many major league baseball players were criticized as "slackers" for accepting cushy jobs in shipyards rather than enlist and be sent overseas. They were intertwined in the 1960s when baseball players formed a union and they have remained intertwined in the subsequent sixty years, during each lockout and strike.

They were intertwined in 1966 when boxer Muhammad Ali refused to be drafted into the US military. "My conscience won't let me go shoot my brother [in Vietnam] ... for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn't put no dogs on me ... How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail." (Ali had also been under fire two years earlier when, as Cassius Clay, he converted to Islam.)

Ali was stripped of his heavyweight title and lost his boxing license for three years. During that time, Ali spoke to a group of college students: "My enemy is the white people, not Viet Cong or Chinese or Japanese. ... You won't even stand up for me in America for my religious beliefs ... you want me to go somewhere and fight?"

When Ali died in June 2016, enough time had passed that he was universally remembered and applauded as a great and principled man by the same groups of people who would have wanted to string him up 50 years earlier.

They were intertwined at the 1968 Olympics, when US track medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists above their heads on the medal-winners platform in a protest against discrimination. They were intertwined in the 1980s when, after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, the US led a boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympic Games in Moscow - and when, four years later, the USSR boycotted the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

In 1995, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf of the Denver Nuggets said he would not salute the American flag during the playing of the national anthem. Following the death of Eric Garner at the hands of New York police officers in 2014, members of the Cleveland Cavaliers (including LeBron James) and Brooklyn Nets wore shirts with the phrase "I Can't Breathe" - Garner's reported last words.

Two years later, then-49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick said he would no longer "stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color." In September 2017, Athletics catcher Bruce Maxwell followed Kaepernick's example, taking a knee during the anthem. Almost a decade before Kaepernick, Carlos Delgado of the Toronto Blue Jays stayed in the dugout during the playing of "God Bless America" in protest of the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Sports and politics remain intertwined to this day as baseball players report hearing racial slurs shouted from the stands, players are asked for their opinions about the possibility of playing alongside a gay teammate, and the traditional visits to the White House by championship-winning teams continues.

Matt Kipp, writing for The Odyssey in October 2016, repeats the common cliche that sports "are supposed to be an escape from the everyday world" and the "serious issues" of politics. He has a message for "all athletes voicing their political opinions: Yes, you have freedom of speech. But please don't bring politics into sports."

"You have freedom of speech. Of course, you do! But don't exercise it in places where I don't think it belongs or on topics I think you should keep silent about." ... Which sounds like the opposite of freedom of speech to me. (Also, people other than politicians are allowed to express opinions about politics. Just like people other than baseball players are allowed to express opinions about baseball.)

Finally, if reading this on what is a baseball blog bothers you, please remember that my comments do not come out of nowhere. MLB and the Red Sox made the first move. They are the ones that continually mix politics with sports. (Having a military presence at the ball park is not a neutral act, any more than having peace activists would be. It's a declaration of your social outlook, it's evidence of how you wish to be perceived.) I am merely voicing my displeasure at something which already exists. So if the mixture of sports and politics bothers you, please take it up with the people stirring the pot.

1 comment:

johngoldfine said...

Good heavens, Allan, what a fine, fine piece for Memorial Day USA. Thank you for it.