Colin Kaepernick’s recent gesture has shaken up the sports world because he has refused to take part in one of professional, and amateur-level, sports’ most normalized rituals: the playing of the national anthem. The gesture has made an impact not solely because he is denouncing the current state of US race relations, but because his gesture exposes some of the real contradictions in professional sports as key sites for normalizing nationalism, militarism, hetero-normative-patriarchy, and social darwinist ideology. This nexus is perhaps best described as the militarization of professional sport.
Spending too much time watching professional sporting events might even lead one to believe that the world is a dog-eat-dog violent competition between men. Professional sports represent a type of competitive male subjectivity that carries a winner-take-all attitude, which is totally understandable for the fun of sport. After all, they are just games! At some point, however, the competitive spirit of the game is conflated with the competitive, better yet, aggressive spirit of the US. This is especially true in football, where coaches often mobilize a language of war when describing strategy and tactics, while taking on a general-like persona in the locker room. This is hardly a new trick in the book. Fascist regimes like that of Mussolini used sport not only for its function to provide the circus (as in, bread and circus), but also as means of normalizing a military training regimen to the whole of society – something very necessary for a government that openly celebrated a state of “eternal war.” In this imaginary, the competitive game stands as a metaphor for real world battles being waged by the empire, even though they are in no way related.
The permeation of professional sports by empire is no coincidence. Between 2012 and 2015, the Department of Defense spent $53 million on marketing and advertising contracts with professional sports teams in the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, and MLS—$6.8 million of which has been considered inappropriate, or “paid patriotism,” in a government report by Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake. The NFL happens to be the largest beneficiary of these advertising contracts, with just over 10% of the total budget going to 18 NFL teams.
Of the 122 professional sports contracts analyzed in the report, 72 were deemed “paid patriotism,” or payment of DOD funds in exchange for tributes, such as the NFL’s “Salute to Service.” Other tributes included on-field color guard ceremonies, performances of the national anthem, ceremonial first pitches, and more.
Personally, I can no longer stomach attending a professional baseball game in my home town of San Diego because the jingoism has gotten to be so bad. Last time I attended a game, the Petco Park atmosphere left me feeling alien and distant from a sport I played for 22 years. Hardly ten minutes could pass without some reminder of the nation-state and/or its military—all while the overwhelmingly white, middle-class attendants hip-hip-hoorayed for every mention of the servicemen and gawked at every majestic zoom-in to the center-field-located US flag on the jumbotron. At least the Padres are upfront about their complicit role:
As the “Team of the Military,” the Padres take their relationship with the Armed Forces very seriously and are proud to have frequent opportunities to recognize our nation’s true heroes.
But the militarization of professional sports is much more fragile than it may appear.
Acknowledging professional athletics as a form of wage labor (albeit high wages), Kaepernick’s gesture should be read for what it is – an act of sabotage. After all, Kaepernick is a skilled laborer taking autonomous action within his workplace, the stadium. Regardless of how much Kaepernick takes home in real wages, he is still a worker in the traditional sense because he does not have full autonomy over his mind and body when he is at his work place. He surely is not a boss—he cannot hire or fire anyone! In fact, he does not even call the plays! Sure, he can decide whether to scramble after making all of his reads, but this definitely does not mean he has autonomy. His refusal to stand for the national anthem, on the other hand, is an autonomous action.
The key role of professional sports in the military-industrial complex could be in jeopardy should more athletes start joining in to participate in a collective protest gesture. This is not far-fetched considering the rich historical tradition of African American athletes making dissident political gestures while on the field, court, or ring. Imagine a professional sports world free of the jingoism of anthems, fly-bys, salute the troops nights, recruiting commercials, and so on. This alternative would bring a whole different meaning to the professional sports world, one in which the athletes play a central role in making meaning of the game itself.
Here rests one of professional sports’ most daunting contradictions. Athletes, who are a majority people of color in two out of three of America’s most popular sports (football 68%, basketball 72%, and baseball 40%), provide the labor required to sustain the spectacle that is professional athletics. However, this spectacle is not just limited to the sporting event in and of itself, but also consists of the diffused (i.e. private advertising) and concentrated (i.e. state propaganda) spectacle that continues to make meaning of the event throughout its television broadcast. Thus, the sporting event, sustained through the athletes’ labor, provides the template upon which nationalist, especially military, propaganda rests.
Much of the propaganda provides the function of normalizing the militarized society in which we live, especially by emphasizing the importance of the military in providing US citizens with the freedom and protection necessary to enjoy conspicuous consumption, like that of professional sporting events. However, a large proportion of the propaganda functions to recruit viewers to military service. By no mistake, military recruitment heavily targets vulnerable populations, especially working-class communities of color, which also happen to make up a substantial proportion of the viewership of professional sports. All of this while police departments and military forces violently oppress people of color, both domestically and abroad.
It is no wonder why professional athletes, especially black professional athletes, are beginning to feel discomfort and are choosing to express this sentiment through dissident gestures, like refusing to stand for the national anthem. Should professional athletes begin to collectively participate in the gesture, it would surely de-normalize some of the entanglement of professional sports and nation state’s military.
Troy Andreas Araiza Kokinis is currently a doctoral candidate in Latin American History at the University of California San Diego. He is a 2017 Fulbright Scholar to Uruguay, where he will complete research for his PhD dissertation, titled “Anarchism, Organized Labor, and Armed Struggle in Dirty War-era Argentina and Uruguay, 1955-1985.” He played NCAA Division III baseball at Pomona-Pitzer, where he refused to take off his hat during the national anthem before each game. Other interests include Latin American fascism, Mid-century Spanish and Italian anarchism, Chicano art history, Southern California micro-punk scenes, and Morrissey.