In terms of enlightenment among among global sports operations, the NBA is generally considered to be the leader of the pack. That doesn’t mean they are any less ruthless when it comes to, say, ripping up one of its franchises and replanting it elsewhere, mostly out of spite.
But it usually doesn’t miss a chance to be a social-issues trail blazer (not looking at you, Portland), at least when it doesn’t cost them money.
So it was a bit surprising to read last week that the NBA ordered all teams to keep to the custom of playing the Star-Spangled Banner before every game. It did so because the maverick owner of the Dallas Mavericks, Mark Cuban, went without.
For 13 pre-season and regular-season games at American Airlines Center. And nobody noticed. Even Deepinthehearta.
Which tells anyone all that needs to be known about the subsequent controversy.
The custom that endures for decades uniquely in one industry has become, because of its repetitiveness, mundane to the point of devolving into an empty gesture.
I mean, if Texans didn’t notice the absence, case closed.
If a witness were needed to confirm the minimal respect that often attends the ritual, former Seahawks WR Doug Baldwin described in a 2017 interview what goes on behind the players’ bench in the stands. He was defending teammate Michael Bennett’s decision to sit, quietly and unanimated, for the anthem.
“He’s taking a reasonable and peaceful approach,” he said. “But we’re not talking about people who are in the stands drunk during the anthem, with their hats still on, yelling at players, cussing . . . we’re not talking about that.”
Instead, we have in the latest squabble an outraged Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R-Mordor), who told Cuban in a tweet to “sell the franchise & some Texas Patriots will buy it.” Many other Texans joined him in going all Yosemite Sam.
Many others, especially people of color who long have ridden in the back of the American bus, disagreed, citing the distance between “land of the free” and their own realities.
Even the notoriously white Stan Van Gundy, head coach of the New Orleans Pelicans, said he could not understand the custom to validate one’s patriotism at a sports event.
This should happen everywhere. If you think the anthem needs to be played before sporting events, then play it before every movie, concert, church service and the start of every work day at every business. What good reason is there to play the anthem before a game? https://t.co/HvnBtXhgGS
— Stan Van Gundy (@realStanVG) February 10, 2021
I’m a little contradictory here regarding the spectacle part of this issue, almost exclusively because I was fortunate to have worked the 1991 Super Bowl in Tampa, when the one and only Whitney Houston delivered her immortal rendition. The link is here. Please click on it if you want to make your day better. I just played it three times, and my geese were bumped three times.
Of course, the point here is not entertainment value. The point is whether forcing engagement at ordinary events devalues the meaning, and whether our continuing failures to live up to the soaring lyrics renders it hurtful to some.
We often cheapen our symbols with overwrought displays, as if size and number of flags and yelling of songs somehow makes for better patriotism, as opposed to the harder things like sacrifice, courage, honesty and telling truth to power.
The misappropriation and abuse of our symbols reached its nadir during the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Americans went through two hot wars in Europe and one in Southeast Asia, a cold war with the Soviet Union, an attack from Saudi terrorists on New York City and the Pentagon, as well as an apolitical pandemic, only to find out Jan. 6 that Pogo, the character in the long-ago L’il Abner cartoon strip by Walt Kelly, was right: “We have met they enemy, and they are us.”
Apparently some of same white Americans who were denigrating football players for sitting and kneeling during anthems were OK with becoming domestic terrorists and using Old Glory on a stick to beat police officers who were defending the building where the presidential election was being certified.
In a segment of his routine making the rounds on Twitter, comedian Dave Chappelle wielded the truth about the terrorism with his usual blunt force:
Watched that crowd that told Colin Kaepernick he can’t kneel during a football game try to beat a police officer to death with an American flag. Was that what (Edward) Snowden was talking about — who’s the terrorist now? They didn’t call the National Guard on my Black ass.
Mike Wise, a recovering sports columnist, wrote an opinion piece in the Washington Post lamenting that in these polarized times, even though the anthem’s exit from ordinary sports events needs to happen, this is probably not a time to inflame with further controversy.
He’s probably right. But that doesn’t mean fans, athletes, owners and sponsors shouldn’t think about how they can hasten that day when playing the anthem is reserved to help commemorate, celebrate or memorialize an august moment.
In response to Wise, one commenter wrote, “As a veteran, it embarrasses me that the imbeciles who claim kneelers are insulting me, are the actual ones insulting me. I didn’t go to war for a flag, or anyone’s right to use it as a bludgeon.”
The cause of legitimate patriotism is advanced when symbols, rituals and customs are freed from commercialization, commoditization and racism, and allowed to be special, not superfluous.