Just a game?

Puerto Rico is rapidly turning into another Katrina, and North Korea may have justifiably construed Donald Trump’s reckless threats to “totally destroy” its 25 million citizens as an act of war. But as Rome burns the president is doubling down on his favorite pastime: race-baiting.

While chaos swirls all around, the White Supremacist-in-Chief seems unusually miffed this week by insufficient displays of patriotic fervor at NFL games. Actually, I should have been more precise — insufficient patriotism by black players.

Trump called NFL players who “take a knee” to protest systemic racism in the United States “sons of bitches” and wants them to be fired for exercising their First Amendment rights. Teresa Kaepernick, the mother of former San Francisco 49er Colin Kaepernick, who started taking the “knee,” quipped, “I guess that makes me a proud bitch.” But when pressed on why black athletes were protesting Trump denied it had anything to do with race; it was all about patriotism and respect, he said.

Meanwhile, Trump World echoed their Dear Leader. Any criticisms of the country were fireable and deportable offenses. Former NASCAR champion Richard Petty told the Associated Press that anyone on his team protesting during the national anthem would be fired. “Anybody that don’t stand up for the anthem oughta be out of the country. Period. What got ’em where they’re at? The United States.”

But regardless of how Trump chooses to frame the controversy, protests in the NFL — and now also basketball and baseball leagues — most certainly are about race. Especially under the presidency of a president ESPN anchor Jemele Hill unapologetically labeled a “white supremacist.” While approximately 75% of both NFL and NBA players are black, NASCAR fans are 80% white — and apparently unfamiliar with the First Amendment.

Politics: not for those with grievances

Former NFL player John Elway, now head of operations for the Denver Broncos and a Trump supporter, attempted a more conciliatory tone: “Hopefully as we go forward we can start concentrating on football a little bit more. Take the politics out of football. But I think that last week was a good show of unity by the NFL and hopefully this week we can move forward.”

Elway’s lament was widely echoed by many in White America: sports are sports and players have no business taking political positions on or off the field. Football is just a game.

But players lead lives off the field. Just ask Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett, who “just happens to be black.” Three weeks ago, in Las Vegas for the McGregor-Mayweather fight, Bennett was walking back to his hotel when he fled from the sounds of gunfire — along with a stampede of other pedestrians. But the Las Vegas police singled out Bennett, threatened to “blow [his] f*cking head off” and used excessive force. Bennett was lucky. He wasn’t killed.

And the sordid tale of Donald Sterling reminds basketball players and their fans how inseparable sports can be from real life.

CBS commentator Rob Long expressed a typical sentiment when he wrote: “Recently political topics have invaded sports. Athletes have used their celebrity to voice their political agendas. They’ve used the sports forum to speak out against political and social issues as well as race. This is a growing trend that isn’t losing momentum. The networks are looking for content and as long as athletes provide them with it, they will use it. It’s the gift and the curse.”

But Long (and Elway) are way off the mark. Since the Olympics were first celebrated 2600 years ago, sports have always been political. Ancient Sparta and Nazi Germany certainly approached competitions seriously. National pride and dominance is always at stake. And anything that drowns out the nationalist narrative — for example, a player making his own statement — is unacceptable. Recall the 1968 Summer Olympics, when Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in black gloves, wearing black socks.

The two were ejected from the games for protesting institutional racism, and they were booed by American fans and fellow Olympians: “It is very discouraging to be in a team with white athletes. On the track you are Tommie Smith, the fastest man in the world, but once you are in the dressing rooms you are nothing more than a dirty Negro.”

Not much has changed since then.

The unforgivable sin that Smith and Carlos committed was eclipsing a nationalistic show of the Stars and Stripes and the playing of the American national anthem. And nationalism can’t tolerate even quiet criticism.

Sports, nationalism and militarism

We often talk about the police being militarized, but since 9/11, especially, professional sports teams and Hollywood have lined up as well to serve the U.S. military in unexpected ways.

Two years ago Arizona senators McCain and Flake published a report on how the Pentagon pays sports teams tens of millions of dollars for patriotic displays. Stadium-sized flags, military flyovers, parachuting into the stadium, color guards, anthems, and jumbotron reunions with servicemen have become the norm for the NFL.

You’d be hard-pressed to describe the difference between one of these hyper-patriotic events and a similar North Korean spectacle. But these are engineered by the Pentagon and not simple acts of patriotism by franchise owners. As Jeff Flake explained, “What we take issue with is the average fan thinking teams are doing this on behalf of the military.”

McCain’s and Flake’s 145-page report lists contributions to 18 NFL teams, 10 MLB teams, eight NBA teams, six NHL teams, eight soccer teams, as well as NASCAR, Iron Dog and several college football programs. The Atlanta Falcons pocketed $879,000, Trump Donor Robert Kraft’s New England Patriots received $700,000 and the Buffalo Bills $650,000. And all this represents only a fraction of the amount the DOD has spent on sports marketing. “In all, the military services reported $53 million in spending on marketing and advertising contracts with sports teams between 2012 and 2015.” The Army alone spends $10 million on the NFL.

Is it patriotism when you’ve been manipulated?

But NASCAR took in the biggest haul, $1,560,000 in 2015. This included personal appearances by Aric Almirola and [the aforementioned] Richard Petty, as well as 20 Richard Petty Driving Experience ride-alongs. In 2011 NASCAR presented the largest USO “Military Village” Expo ever in Dover, Delaware — incidentally (or perhaps appropriately) home to the largest military mortuary in the country.

Who says that the U.S. government can’t do anything right? When it comes to militarism and jingoistic propaganda, no one does it better. Andrew Bacevich describes how all the moving parts of an “authentic” patriotic experience come together — and it’s enough to make anyone take a knee:

Fenway Park, Boston, July 4, 2011. On this warm summer day, the Red Sox will play the Toronto Blue Jays. First come pre-game festivities, especially tailored for the occasion. The ensuing spectacle — a carefully scripted encounter between the armed forces and society — expresses the distilled essence of present-day American patriotism. A masterpiece of contrived spontaneity, the event leaves spectators feeling good about their baseball team, about their military, and not least of all about themselves — precisely as it was meant to do.

In this theatrical production, the Red Sox provide the stage, and the Pentagon the props. In military parlance, it is a joint operation. In front of a gigantic American flag draped over the left-field wall, an Air Force contingent, clad in blue, stands at attention. To carry a smaller version of the Stars and Stripes onto the playing field, the Navy provides a color guard in crisp summer whites. The United States Marine Corps kicks in with a choral ensemble that leads the singing of the national anthem. As the anthem’s final notes sound, four U. S. Air Force F-15C Eagles scream overhead. The sellout crowd roars its approval.

But there is more to come. “On this Independence Day,” the voice of the Red Sox booms over the public address system, “we pay a debt of gratitude to the families whose sons and daughters are serving our country.” On this particular occasion the designated recipients of that gratitude are members of the Lydon family, hailing from Squantum, Massachusetts. Young Bridget Lydon is a sailor — Aviation Ordnanceman Airman is her official title — serving aboard the carrier USS Ronald Reagan, currently deployed in support of the Afghanistan War, now in its 10th year.


Past, present, future

On August 30th Bill Keating came to the UMASS Law School for a meet and greet he didn’t want to call a Town Hall. In a previous post I suggested that Democrats like Keating are either the future of the Democratic Party or relics of its past. So on the 30th I was especially interested in how the audience responded to him.

The Democratic Representative from the Massachusetts 9th Congressional district answered a few questions, choosing instead to run out the clock on potentially tough ones and he ended by telling the crowd that he had to run: he had a dinner reservation with his mother-in law. Several people remarked that the entire performance was a waste of time and Keating was condescending and disrespectful — an opinion I shared.

But others were more generous to the congressman, a war hawk who has sided with extreme GOP positions on immigration, voted to neuter provisions in the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, and who supports almost none of the progressive legislation now before Congress — legislation aligned with the new Massachusetts Democratic Party platform but legislation Democrats nevertheless seem conflicted about actually passing.

After the meet and greet I contacted several people chosen to put questions to the congressman and asked them how well he had done. I received four replies:

  • “Although I wasn’t impressed with all Rep. Keating’s answers the other night, I was satisfied with what he said to mine. He even thanked me for it as I passed him by.”
  • “My question was whether the congressman supported legislation to counter religious profiling, religious litmus tests and religious profiling of immigrants. I appreciate Representative Keating’s empathy and his referral to his own family’s encounter with discrimination as immigrant Irish Catholics. He noted that an attack on the civil rights of any minority is an attack on the civil rights of all of us.”
  • “I asked Bill Keating whether he thought, given the partisan politics in Washington today, the Republicans would join Democrats in seeking articles of impeachment if the evidence was strong enough. I think he ran with the question and spoke at length about his thoughts. I was happy with his answer. I think he answered my question, and expanded on it quite a bit. What I came away with was that, at the moment, he doesn’t think that we are quite there for a bipartisan effort.”
  • “As a general comment, I felt he didn’t directly address the question. He talked for 6 or 7 minutes about how he supports bills pushing for transparency in political donations, i.e. from whom donations are received. This, I feel, is a tepid and timid position which does not address the real problem…unregulated and unlimited amounts of money being funneled into the election process. Transparency will help, but will not do the job. I was quite disappointed in his response and it explains why he isn’t a co-sponsor.”

It’s still a bit early to definitively answer the question of what kind of Democrat represents the future of the party, but we should know by the time the Democratic primaries come around. If Reagan Democrats like Keating remain unchallenged, and a slew of Baby Keatings appear on ballots, then we’ll know the party’s true character — regardless of whatever lofty language is written into the platform.

Ultimately, though, it is voters who must push candidates to better positions, expect more, demand more, probe more. Keating’s meet and greet left me feeling discouraged that, for many Democrats, the bar is all too low. And that the party’s recent past is likely to be its near future.


Tuesday was a dark day for everyone except the white supremacist regime that currently runs this country. Almost a million young Dreamers — Americans in every sense except for documentation — will be expelled with the stroke of a presidential pen unless Congress throws them a lifeline. While 2017 is certainly not 1933, it probably feels like it if you’re a Dreamer.

Maybe we should be looking at German history to see how quickly a country can run off the rails. The same history tells us how deeply expulsion hurt Jewish refugees, how painfully friendships, love, and social bonds between Jews and non-Jews were destroyed when an entire group was legislated out of existence. German history also reminds us of the enduring national trauma that white supremacist policies caused — now going on a century later.

We should remember.

In 1933 Hitler’s National Socialists passed a law for the restoration of German jobs. The whole purpose of the Gesetz zur Wiederherstellung des Berufsbeamtentums was to make Germany great again for white protestant civil servants.

The gesetz protected German jobs from “foreigners” — non-Aryans. How easily economically-insecure lower and middle class Germans turned on Jews who had lived among them — centuries before Germany was even a nation. German Jews were Germans in every sense — but how easily and arbitrarily they were re-defined as aliens, separated from friends and family and German society with the stroke of a pen.

The president of Germany, Paul von Hindenburg, a military man with the gravitas of John McCain, was offended that Jews who had served at the front during WWI were included in the bans, and he wrung a concession from the Nazis. But Hindenburg died the following year and with him so did the concession. Dismissals from the civil service were swift and severe, and expulsions began. People like Albert Einstein, for example, saw the writing on the wall and fled.

In total, 340,000 Jews of lesser fame and resources than Einstein were forced to flee as refugees, often with little time to uproot an entire lifetime in Germany. And after all they were Germans with few connections to any of the foreign lands to which they had to escape. These were among the first victims of Nazi policies and almost a third of them perished in the Holocaust.

Then in 1938 the night known as Kristallnacht occurred. It was a nightmare of shattered glass and shattered lives. It was the beginning of the end for German Jews. The gloves were off. Germany would be a nation for Germans. Germans didn’t know it at the time, but it was also the beginning of the end for Germany.

The nightmare had started only five years earlier with the expulsions.