Column: Sports and Patriotism Do MixJuly 7, 2013

Column: Sports and Patriotism Do MixAmericans celebrated Independence Day last week with a myriad of festivities including parades, barbeques, fireworks and sporting events intertwined with patriotism and salutes to heroes. But ESPN columnist Howard Bryant lamented the merger of sports and patriotism, railing against “military flyovers, the pre-game inclusion of the armed forces, and the addition of ‘God Bless America’ to ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’" at our sporting events.

Bryant claims that the confluence of sports and patriotism – which in his view equates with politics - is a recent phenomenon, one that began after 9/11. History suggests otherwise. Military flyovers date back to at least 1955 when beach races were held in Daytona. Every president since William Howard Taft in 1910 has thrown at least one ceremonial first pitch for Opening Day, an All Star Game or a World Series Game. As a sign of patriotism, MLB Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis volunteered to suspend MLB games during World War II, but President Franklin Roosevelt declined the offer, insisting that “…it would be best for the country to keep baseball going.”

When Irving Berlin wrote the first rendition of God Bless America, it was a salute to American soldiers heading into battle in World War I. Berlin later introduced an updated, more peace-minded version of the song that was first performed by Kate Smith on Armistice Day in 1938. Smith began singing the song at Philadelphia Flyers’ games in 1969. On 9/11, it was spontaneously sung at the nation’s capital and has since become a staple at many sporting events.

You want patriotism? What Bryant may not be aware of is that Berlin, who emigrated from Russia to this country when he was five years old, never profited from his creation. He signed over all royalties to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America who continue to reap the benefits to this day. If Bryant has a problem with that, surely he must be among the minority in this country who do.

Bryant laments the elevation of servicemen and women, along with police and fire fighters, to hero status at our nation’s sporting events, preferring instead to limit hero worshiping to the participating athletes. He’s wrong on both counts. Nothing an athlete does on the playing field can be considered heroic when compared to what military personnel, police and fire fighters do on a daily basis. Which isn’t to say athletes can’t also be heroes; Ted Williams and Pat Tillman come quickly to mind.

Nineteen Prescott, Arizona fire fighters recently lost their lives while protecting the lives and property of their fellow citizens. They were honored prior to the start of the Prescott Rodeo and at an Arizona Diamondbacks game. And yet Bryant objects to such recognition because he doesn’t consider them heroes???

Bryant accuses his hometown Boston sports teams, particularly the Bruins and Red Sox, of merging sports and politics by emphasizing patriotism immediately after the Boston Marathon bombings. Yet he criticizes the teams for failing to “acknowledge what was occurring just outside the stadium walls…during the city's busing crises” in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

Furthermore, Bryant says, “If the permanent inclusion of the military into sporting events is at best perilous, the addition of the police as heroes is even worse. The role of police, especially in minority communities, is hardly universally agreed upon.” Bryant seems to be saying that he welcomes the mixture of sports and politics, as long as he agrees with the politics.

Patriotism isn’t about politics. Even if we don’t agree with the president, we should all respect the office and what it stands for, unless of course you prefer a dictatorship. And you don’t have to believe the military’s expenditure of a trillion dollars and the loss of thousands of lives in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are justified in order to respect and appreciate the sacrifices of the men and women in uniform.

Bryant ends his rant against patriotism by saying, “[I]t should be remembered that the greatest freedom -- fought and died for by so many of the young men and women trotted out to throw out the first pitch -- is dissent.” On that point, Bryant and I are in complete agreement. That’s why I’ll take my ballgame with a dose of patriotism anytime.