Baseball’s fear of appearing unpatriotic

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ESPN’s Howard Bryant recently wrote a book called The Heritage: Black Athletes, a Divided America, and the Politics of Patriotism. As the title suggests, it tackles the topic of American patriotism in sports and the particular manner in which that intersection affects black athletes. I’ve not read it yet, but it’s gotten great reviews and it’s certainly a topic both timely and interesting.

Over the weekend, on WBUR’s “Only a Game,” Bryant tackled a component of the larger phenomenon he deals with in his book: patriotic and military displays at ballgames. In so doing he spoke with two veterans: Bill Astore, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, and Nick Francona, the son of Indians manager Terry Francona, a former Marine sniper platoon commander in Afghanistan who went on to work in Major League Baseball after his service. Astore and Francona had a lot of interesting stuff to say about Major League Baseball’s approach to patriotism and the military and it does not paint the league in a particularly flattering light.

Francona says that, while working for the Mets, he was frustrated how Memorial Day commemorations in baseball skewed celebratory and commercial, so he came up with a Memorial Day idea that was more in keeping with the purpose of the holiday: memorializing those who were killed in action. Specifically, he created a video in which players were matched up with the family of a fallen solider and wore bracelets with the name of the dead man or woman on it. The Mets were incensed. They referred to the families as “license-holders” and yelled at Francona about how hard it was going to be to get them to sign releases. In other words, they were treating the Memorial Day ceremonies as a promotion, not a commemoration of the dead. Francona pushed back and the Mets fired him.

Both Francona and Astore go on to illustrate just how much of the patriotic displays you see at the ballpark are bought-and-paid-for military advertisements, not genuine displays of patriotism. That much has long since been obvious, as it was widely reported that teams and leagues secretly accepted payments from the military for this sort of thing for years. But despite everyone knowing what that’s all about, it’s not going to go away. Why? Bryant:

I asked one baseball executive, who told me his sport promotes the military not out of patriotism but out of fear — the fear of being called unpatriotic.

I have heard similar sentiment from people inside the game who worked with marketing and promotions. Whether the original intent was genuine patriotic fervor following 9/11 or something more cynical like the Pentagon’s paid-for patriotism, baseball does not know how to ratchet back and, frankly, seems afraid to do so. You had the giant, outfield-covering flag and the fighter jet flyover during the World Series last year, how do you not do it again this year? What if a right wing news outlet or, worse, a congressman, decides to make hay out of baseball’s seeming lack of fervor this year compared to last? Baseball is scared to death of the blowback, it seems, so it continues to do what it’s been doing, and in so doing it is serving as part of the military’s p.r. operation in what is now 17 straight years of war.

No one takes any issue with patriotism in and of itself. But what we see at the ballpark these days is not just patriotism. It’s militarization and nationalism which calls itself patriotism in order to inoculate it from criticism. Bryant’s article is a must-read when it comes to this topic. I’d ask that you give it your attention.