Thomas Hummel reflects on the strategic use of nationalism in sports to support the interests of the ruling class and U.S. imperialism.
Nothing says spring has arrived like the beginning of another baseball season. Every year I look forward with equal anticipation to the excitement of a fresh season and the warmer weather setting in. I love sitting on the couch late into the night, rooting for the Mets as my girlfriend jokingly refers to me as a “dumb bro,” or watching the Yankees play the Red Sox and hoping that somehow they both lose.
And it’s not just baseball. The NBA playoffs have started, and I try to watch every game, keeping up with the development of the playoff bracket as the tournament unfolds. During the winter months, I am constantly scouring the internet for information about my beloved Buffalo Bills, looking for the angle by which they might finally bring a championship home to a city that desperately needs one.
Sports are such an important part of life for billions of people. The excellence of a Michael Jordan or Shohei Ohtani inspires the same kind of awe in me as great artists do, and there are few better ways to improve your mood than to take the ball to the court and enact a pathetic (but very fun) parody of that greatness.
But it’s only a matter of time before something sours the mood. A gigantic American flag is unfurled, and our national anthem, a song written by a slave owner about “bombs bursting in air,” begins to play. Beyond the militarism in the song, the original lyrics included a third verse celebrating the deaths of enslaved Black people who were fighting alongside the British after being promised freedom in exchange for their service during the War of 1812. Everyone is expected to rise, remove their hats, and participate in an obscene display of patriotic chauvinism. Oftentimes, at some point during the game, a veteran of one of America’s wars is brought onto the field, and the crowd is asked to cheer for these men and women, thanking them enthusiastically for “defending our way of life.” The frequency of this type of spectacle increased dramatically after 9/11, as the ruling class sought to channel the anger and sadness people felt after the attacks into acceptance of imperialist wars fought for private profit in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Whether they realize it or not, this is adding insult to injury to these veterans. Having been lied to, tricked into fighting wars for nothing but U.S. dominance of the globe and the private accumulation of wealth for the rich, they are now being told that it is all in service of a higher purpose – “defending our way of life,” or “spreading democracy.” They are led to believe that this is the reason they have endured the mental and physical trauma that comes from war, and the working-class people who fill the stands – or have been priced out of them and are watching at home – are asked to thank these veterans for defending a common way of life they supposedly share with the ruling class. Rooting for the same team, like rooting for the same nation, turns everyone in the stands, from the nosebleeds to the private boxes, into a sort of “Kampfgemeinshaft,” a word German historians used to describe the supposed dissolution of class antagonisms into a single “battle community,” during World War I.
It’s not insignificant that this Kampfgemeinshaft paved the way for the emergence of fascism following imperial Germany’s defeat and the outbreak of the German revolution in 1918.
All of these rituals serve to normalize an extreme form of nationalism, to make it appear politically neutral, something that all good citizens, despite our differences, should be able to agree on. By collectively honoring a national anthem that is not about collective prosperity and taking care of one’s neighbor, but the glorification of war, we are normalizing a vision of this country that is warlike, with the god-given right to wage wars to spread its values.
It’s important to note that this kind of nationalism is largely absent from sports in other countries. While there is a certain amount of nationalism in the competition of the World or European Cups in soccer, there is no playing of the Spanish national anthem in Madrid or Barcelona before a match in the La Liga (Spain’s national soccer or fútbol league). The nationalism that exists within U.S. sports serves to normalize nationalism off the field, such that, while it isn’t considered a statement of political allegiance to fly an American flag outside your home, this is only done by the extreme right-wing in most other countries. In America, the jingoism of the far-right in other countries is encouraged through sports to be the expectation for all of us.
When we consider who owns the teams, it’s not surprising that these values are inculcated at sporting events. To own a sports team, you have to be one of the wealthiest people in the world. You have to have a net worth in the hundreds of millions, and oftentimes team owners’ net worth extends deep into the billions of dollars. These are the people who enjoy the fruits of U.S. imperialism, which opens up new markets, creates “stability” for their investments, and allows them to profit from the manufacture of weapons for the government. The nationalism instilled at sporting events helps them to create a population that buys into this as a necessary project with shared interests. It gets working-class people to accept that their lives are expendable in the service of an elevated cause. It obscures the basic antagonism between the people in the nosebleeds who are actually there to cheer on the home team and the people sitting comfortably in the private boxes who are being waited on and making business connections. It is a potent ideological weapon that the ruling class wields against the working class.
The true reality of the relationship between the owners and the fans was recently revealed in the negotiations between New York State and the owners of the Buffalo Bills around a new $1.4 billion stadium. Kim and Terry Pegula, the owners of the Bills since 2014, made their $5.8 billion as oil and gas tycoons, profiting handsomely from the environmentally destructive fracking boom over the last decade. By threatening to move the team to Texas, they have been able to secure $600 million from the state government to pay for the stadium, with another $250 million being provided by Erie county. These billionaires are getting hundreds of millions in public money to finance their ventures, while New York State was forced to cut $800 million in the budget for Children and Family Services. Ordinary people sacrifice so the Pegulas can profit. There is no common interest between the two, no matter what the nationalistic rituals at Bills’ games may encourage us to think.
We have seen some pushback to this state of affairs from within sports. Most notably, Colin Kaepernick has inspired us with his 2016 refusal to stand for the national anthem in protest of the police murders of unarmed Black men such as Freddie Gray and Philando Castile. This was a protest against the idea of an American Kampfgemeinshaft, a clear acknowledgment that Black Americans do not benefit from this system, and do not identify with it.
Similarly, it is no coincidence that of the “big three” sports in this country, baseball, football, and basketball, it is basketball that displays the smallest amount of nationalism, and while the NFL was banning players from taking a knee during the national anthem, the NBA now allows players to decide for themselves if they wanted to express themselves in this way. Not only are 74.2 percent of NBA players Black, but basketball is the only sport in the country that does not have a majority white audience, with the plurality (45 percent) of the fans being Black. It is a noticeable change for the NBA, which in 1996 suspended then Denver Nuggets player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf for protesting oppression and racism by refusing to stand during the National Anthem twenty years before Kapernick’s protest began. Black and Brown Americans are the section of the working class that has historically had the easiest time seeing through the lies of the American Kampfgemeinshaft, and thus it was not at all surprising to see NBA players go on strike in response to the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin in the summer of 2020.
It goes without saying that we need more of this. We need to find ways to bring more and more working-class people away from this illusion, to allow them to see their identity in class terms, rather than in the dead-end nationalistic ones promoted by our sporting events. We can do this by elevating those athletes who have the courage to stand up to this nationalistic fantasy, from Muhammed Ali’s refusal to serve in the Vietnam War, to gold medalist Tommie Smith and bronze medalist John Carlos raising their fists during the playing of the National Anthem at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, and Jackie Robinson, who at the end of his life reflected, “As I write this twenty years [after breaking the color barrier in baseball], I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a Black man in a white world.” We can’t forget that while we enjoy our sports, even with their glaring flaws, our ultimate goal is to take these teams from their owners and let working people collectively decide what sports will look like in this country.
In the meantime, I’ll be staying seated during the national anthem and my cap will remain firmly on my head.
And one final important thought: any fan of the Yankees is a class traitor. Go Mets!
Featured Image Credit:Image modified by Tempest.
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Thomas Hummel is a member of the Tempest Collective and DSA based in NYC. He was born in Buffalo, New York.