Major League baseball has some intriguing pennant races heating up, the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League both have their championship series underway, and of course the big sports story on Tuesday was about the National Football League and President Donald Trump.
Even in the off-season, the rivalry between the NFL and Trump is almost as riveting as the Boston Red Sox’ and New York Yankee’s classic brawl in the American League East. On Tuesday Trump put it back at the top of the sports and politics pages by rescinding at the last moment an invitation for a traditional visit by the winners of the last Super Bowl. It’s not really all that big a deal, but it does illustrate something about Trump and his times that is more worrisome.
If you somehow haven’t been following this bizarre subplot of the bigger Trump reality show, it all started when a few NFL players knelt on one knee during the national anthem to draw attention to their beliefs about several recent cases of police killing black suspects. Many fans understandably regarded the protests as disrespectful to the flag and national anthem and the nation itself, and Trump eagerly championed their views, getting huge cheers at his ongoing campaign rallies by calling on owners to “fire that son-of-a-bitch” who took a knee. The die-hard fans loved it so much that Trump sent Vice President Mike Pence back to Indiana just to walk out of an Indianapolis Colts game where some player took a knee, all the right-wing talk radio hosts agreed that Trump obviously loved America and that his critics did not, and eventually the NFL owners passed a policy that mandated respectful standing and hands over hearts by all its employees during the national anthem.
Trump could have spiked the ball and done his end zone dance at that point and moved on to the next bizarre subplot, but he milked it just a little bit more by calling off the traditional visit by the NFL champs. This year’s champions are the plucky underdog Philadelphia Eagles, none of whom ever took a knee during the national anthem, except for a guy who got cut in the pre-season, which should have made a hell of a photo-op for Trump, but less than a dozen of the players wanted to pose for a picture with the president, so Trump called it off. He blamed the team for various dubious reasons, none of which included the vast majority of the players’ reluctance to be photographed with him, but no one’s buying that, and Fox News tried to help out by showing some photos of a few Eagles kneeling in the end zone but later had to admit it showed a pre-game and pre-anthem prayer ritual for good health, and the die-hard fans don’t care.
Trump filled the scheduled time by having what was once John Phillip Sousa’s U.S. Marine Band play the national anthem and “God Bless America” on the White House lawn, with Trump standing at attention with a reverent gaze at the flag and his hand on his heart and his lips mouthing some approximation of the the lyrics, and he clearly implied that this is what true patriotism looks like. The die-hard fans probably loved it, even the Eagles fans among them, but we’ve read enough Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken and Sinclair Lewis that it looked like political kitsch to to us, the sort of tear-jerking but all-too-easy sort of patriotism that draft-dodging demagogues always appeal to.
At every Wichita State University Wheatshockers’ basketball game and Wichita Wingnuts game we always stand and doff our hat and hold it over heart during the national anthem, and we join in the “Pledge of Allegiance” whenever it comes up at commencement ceremonies or public meetings, and we do our best at the harder chores true patriotism entails.
We’d prefer that those football players find some way to protest police shootings other than kneeling during the national anthem, and acknowledge that in many if not all cases those police shootings were justifiable acts of self-defense, and more thoughtfully confront the complicated matter of the crucial role police play in the far bigger problem of black-on-black civilian shootings, but we acknowledge their right to disagree. Most of the Philadelphia Eagles also stood at respectful attention during the national anthem but didn’t want to be photographed with a president who wanted to impose that decision on them, and we don’t disagree at all.
Trump also had to cancel a traditional visit from last season’s NBA championships due to their reluctance, and this year the Cleveland Cavaliers’ all-time superstar LeBron James has said that neither team in the finals, even if his plucky underdog squad could pull off a miracle comeback against the Golden State Warriors, would accept a White House invitation. NBA championship players are all multi-millionaires but usually black, and remain friends with black guys who have legitimate concerns about getting shot by the police, and however complicated the arguments are we can see why don’t care to pose with Trump. Whoever prevails in that red-hot race in the American League East is our pick for World Series champion, and all the contenders are diverse enough that we’re sure a a decisive few will decline Trump’s invitation for a White House visit and photo-op. The NHL finalists are both United States franchises, not the few remaining founding franchises from those damned Canadians we’re lately waging trade war with, and they’re almost entirely white, but they’re mostly manned by damned foreigners taking jobs from hard-working Americans.
Although Trump likes to tout himself as a winner, for now he’ll have to forgo a lot of photo-ops with the winners of America’s professional sport championships. Even the players who stand respectfully with hand over heart during the national anthem don’t seem to like Trump’s attempts to bully them into doing so, and in the highly unlikely event we ever found ourselves on a championship team we’d surely feel the same.
If standing for the national anthem ever comes to mean standing for Trump, we’ll ruefully take a knee ourselves. That would be a big deal.
— Bud Norman