This month marks four years since Colin Kaepernick decided to sit out the national anthem in protest of police brutality and the unequal treatment of people of color in the United States. The protests quickly turned Kaepernick into a symbol: a villain to some and a hero for others.
Since then, sports media has spent all too much time talking about players kneeling or not kneeling. They spent all too little time discussing social justice issues.
Remember the stories in 2016 about retired long-snapper and former Green Beret Nate Boyer, who advised Kaep to kneel instead of sit? Remember in 2017 when the Pittsburgh Steelers remained in the tunnel at Soldier Field, and Army Ranger Alejandro Villanueva stood alone for the anthem? What about what happened with Meyers Leonard last week?
Every time a new player takes a stance on the anthem, we get sucked into the discussion with a segment on the morning news about what is and isn’t a proper protest.
However here’s my biggest protest— the national anthem has no place in sports television anyway.
In 2015 Arizona Senators Jeff Flake and John McCain published a joint oversight report titled “Tackling Paid Patriotism.” Sidebar— John McCain was a great American, full stop. You’re drunk on orange Kool-Aid and might as well stop reading now if you disagree.
In “Tackling Paid Patriotism,” the Senators explored different ways that from 2012-2015 the Department of Defense (DOD) spent millions of taxpayer dollars on patriotic symbology at sporting events. The report reads, “these paid tributes included on-field color guard, enlistment and reenlistment ceremonies, performances of the national anthem, full-field flag details, ceremonial first pitches and puck drops.”
To sum it up, even though you may have welled with pride watching that veterans tribute on TV, your team didn’t make that happen. You paid for it.
The congressional report itself is… damning? I want to say damning. It shows that in fiscal year 2012, the DOD spent $2.8 million on displays of paid patriotism. In 2013 it was $3.9 million. In 2014, the DOD spent $2.6 million on marketing contracts with professional teams. The National Guard was simultaneously petitioning Congress for an extra $100 million to conduct training and pay troops. It’s dishonest business at best, and choosing a marketing ploy over paying our soldiers at worst.
Of the money that Senators McCain and Flake were able to trace, they found that the DOD squandered $10.6 million of taxpayer money over four years. I won’t turn this article into a budget discussion, although there are 150 pages of dirty, governmental digging you can do here if you’d like to look further.
However, before I move on I’d like to quote one last line item from the report, which says:
“DOD maintains all its spending on sports marketing and advertising with professional sports organizations is integral to its recruiting efforts, yet has not clearly demonstrated how the activities under contract are actually contributing to recruiting.”
The televised national anthem isn’t a long-standing tradition. For Super Bowls, sure. For regular season games, certain coaches and certain teams had their own traditions over time. But prior to 2009, most NFL stadiums played the national anthem for fans while players remained in the locker room.
In 2016, in response to the “Tackling Paid Patriotism” report, an amended National Defense Authorization Act was passed, and the Pentagon banned displays of paid patriotism. The NFL followed suit by notifying clubs that they would no longer be allowed to solicit payment for such salutes.
I don’t have the perfect answer for how the military should be recruiting. But if you’re an esports fan you may have noticed that they’ve changed tactics again recently.
Twitch has become a favorite platform for U.S. Army recruiters, who claim to just be there for the love of the games. However, in mid-July Twitch had to punish USArmyEsports for using promotional giveaway links that directed users to recruitment forms. A recent vote to ban the military from investing in the gaming platform failed in the House of Representatives. While no organization is perfect, there has to be a better way to promote military careers than this, right?
Prior to 2016, the military was allowed to waste millions of dollars chasing recruitment goals during games. But as new rules got put in place and the DOD was forced to change its tactics, Colin Kaepernick happened.
The national anthem was free patriotic publicity for military recruiters. It guaranteed captive audiences saluting in unison. It was an uninterrupted opportunity to flaunt the flag in front of fans watching 17 weeks of football, 82 games of hockey and basketball, 162 games of baseball and playoffs for each sport. When Colin Kaepernick started protesting, the DOD’s message-board was hijacked.
The damned shame of it all is that instead of this creating a conversation about social justice and police brutality, we’ve spent the better part of four years discussing who is and isn’t standing for the anthem. It really doesn’t fucking matter.
You know who’s not watching the national anthem on TV? Our veterans experiencing homelessness and our veterans who have sadly succumbed to suicide. The U.S. Military has a budget of over $700 billion, but can’t effectively care for its vets?
You know who else isn’t watching the national anthem on TV? Tamir Rice — he was 12 years old when police shot and killed him. Philando Castille isn’t watching. Police shot and killed him in front of his girlfriend and child during a routine traffic stop. Breonna Taylor isn’t watching either, but her killers might be; it has been almost five months since police officers shot and killed Taylor, a sleeping EMT, in her own home. The only charges filed in the case have been against Taylor’s boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, for discharging his legally owned firearm.
And here we are, still talking about the national anthem. Let’s put the conversation to bed. It’s time to stop televising it, it’s time to stop talking about it, and it’s time to let everyone do what they feel is right while we work towards real change.