Friday, 2 September 2016

Kaepernick puts the right kind of politics into sport

Ask an American sports fan why the US national anthem is played before every single sporting event, and you will not receive a satisfactory answer. The truth is, no one knows. "That's just what we've always done" is about the best you can hope for. "Is it in case you forget which country you're living in?" I always ask. In case all those US flags that top so many buildings and that are displayed on so many suburban streets disappear overnight and you suddenly can't remember where you are? Nepal? El Salvador? England, for God's sake?

Heaven help you if you fail to join the overwhelming majority in standing up for it. I've tried, and have been - on the worst nights - cursed at and stared at with naked aggression. 
Daring not to stand for the SSB (note: this image
 on Facebook posted by a white US woman in Texas
 complaining the woman pictured had "zero respect"
 caused a furore on social media earlier this summer)

In the end, getting older, I capitulated and started to stand up with everyone else. Many US sports fans I know reluctantly do the same because it's just not worth the hassle. No one wants to spend a night at a sports event feeling like they're about to be confronted by a Bud-fuelled, raging redneck. It's not like there's going to be a debate. Ask an irrationally patriotic American why they play The Star-Spangled Banner and he or she will ask you back why you don't go and live in another country. That sophisticated discourse hasn't changed for decades.

The brave decision of San Francisco 49ers quarter-back Colin Kaepernick not to stand for this tedious ritual on political grounds is the best thing to happen in the National Football League since Ben Fountain's flag-challenging novel, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. That excellent work of fiction lays bare the empty ceremonies that NFL teams stage for marketing reasons to honour members of the armed forces. They are tokenistic, borderline insulting calls for fans to mindlessly cheer at fighter jet flyovers and reluctantly waving service members forced to smile politely when the kind of citizen who would vote for war but never venture close to a battle field blandly thanks them "for your service".

Kaepernick's absolutely reasonable justification is that he won't honour the anthem of a country which defies its own constitution by failing to treat black citizens as equals. You'd think that in a democracy, this statement from a high-profile athlete would be the starting point for a civil discussion of a pertinent truth. A section of the conservative white US citizenry is, however, still so threatened by the idea of equality, especially for those it's been oppressing for centuries, that the reaction is dominated by shrill accusations of treachery that barrel towards a single conclusion - patriotism is deaf and blind. It has to be, otherwise it can not bear the scrutiny of calm analysis that would expose it as a sham and a pernicious means of barking down dissent.

Novel approach to patriotism - Ben
 Fountain's brilliant novel.
What does this have to do with the 2018 and 2022 World Cups? Only that big-time, big-money sport wants politics to be a one-way street. It secures the advantages of political association when it's a simple matter of waving flags, playing anthems, and paying tributes to member of the armed forces - living, dead or just surviving. As at Rio 16, it will field a team of refugees as proof of its humanity, while ignoring the simultaneous state murder of poor people, including numerous children, in favelas just down the road. Because when a difficult political debate rears its head, sport stands back and claims to have no position, no authority, no interest. Sport and politics shouldn't mix, administrators and figure-heads explain with a straight face. Except that they do, every day, all the time. 

European qualifying games for Russia 2018 begin this weekend. Russian armed forces are currently amassing on the eastern Ukrainian border, threatening to invade. Russian armed forces are currently bombing Syrian civilians in a heinous alliance with the war criminal and dictator, President Bashar al-Assad. Maybe they'll be back in time for a flyover at the opening ceremony to showcase the power of the state. Fans can stand and applaud at their awesome might and noise. Why? That's just what we always do, just like we always stand for the anthem, and even sometimes sing along. Why, though? Why? 

When trying to answer that question we must spare some mighty applause for Colin Kaepernick, for his dignified protest while putting the right kind of politics into sport. And also ask: how will Fifa stage a global sporting event in a country which in 2018 may still be heavily involved in two wars, maybe more? And will fans and players remain politically, patriotically deaf and blind so that they can participate too? 

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