Howard Cosell said that "rule number-one of the sports jockocracy" was that sports and politics don’t mix. And yet last night, at the ballpark in Philadelphia, we received another reminder that some political expression is deemed not just acceptable but glorious.
When the killing of Osama bin Laden reached the Philadelphia Phillies fans, amidst their fourteen-inning loss to the New York Mets, boisterous chants of “U-S-A“ filled the park. This was praised across the sports landscape as a remarkable, yet altogether appropriate moment of national joy. “It was beautiful,” said one radio commentator. “It reminded all of us what is so wonderful about sports in our society.”
The eruption of patriotic emotion at the park should surprise no one. Since 9/11, the sports arena has been an organizer of patriotism, a recruiter for the US armed forces, and at times a funhouse mirror, reflecting the principles of freedom in a manner so misshapen and distorted as to rise to the level of farce.
As the Phillies faithful cheered, I thought about the NFL postponing games following 9/11, but only after a players revolt led by Vinny Testaverde made clear to Paul Tagliabue that no one was in a condition to play a game. I thought about the spread of "Military Appreciation Nights" at the stadium and the increased prevalence of jet flyovers and troops processions in the field. I thought about the military recruitment stations organized outside preseason NFL games.
I thought about Major League Baseball adding the second national anthem, “God Bless America” to the seventh-inning stretch. I thought about the late Yankee owner George Steinbrenner having chains put up along the side of the bleachers and hiring off-duty police to make sure no one did anything but pay fealty to the flag. I thought about a young man named Bradley Campeau-Laurion who was led from the park in handcuffs because he left his seat to use the bathroom during this celebration of freedom. I thought about ESPN’s week of SportsCenter from Iraq in September of 2004, which allowed the network to do what George W. Bush couldn’t: connect Iraq to 9/11.
I also thought about the athletic dissenters. I thought about then Toronto Blue Jay Carlos Delgado who refused to come out for the second seventh-inning stretch anthem, saying, “I don’t [stand] because I don’t believe it’s right, I don’t believe in the war. It’s a very terrible thing that happened on September 11. It’s [also] a terrible thing that happened in Afghanistan and Iraq. I just feel so sad for the families that lost relatives and loved ones in the war. But I think it’s the stupidest war ever.”