Performing America’s Soul: The NFL, the National Anthem, and the Power of Cultural Institutions

“The soul is a terrible reality. It can be bought, and sold, and bartered away. It can be poisoned, or made perfect.” — Dorian Gray

“I’m sorry, I thought this was America.” — Randy Marsh

After two years of hoping the controversy would simply go away, on May 23rd 2018, the NFL announced a new official policy that all players must stand for the playing of the national anthem. Those wishing to show signs of social protest must do so in the private, secluded confines of their locker room.

There’s multiple ironies and contradictions here, from the notion that protests should be invisible, to the NFL’s lax policies on domestic abuse and on-going cover-up of the dangers of CTE, to debate over whether there even was a vote taken, to, of course, the timing of the announcement right before Memorial Day when Americans are encouraged to think about those who have sacrificed for our national ideals.

The media reaction has been swift on both sides, with some lauding the NFL for doing what it should have done two years ago, to others claiming this will only make things worse. On top of this, social media has exploded with countless new constitutional lawyers and labor contract experts to comment on how the First Amendment — the right to free speech — does not pertain to private employer-employee relationships. The NFLPA, for its part, has vowed to make sure the right to protest is in their next round of contract negotiations or something.

Some owners have attempted to position themselves against the policy, notably Jets co-owner Christopher Johnson, who said he’d pay for any fines levied against his players and Jed York, the owner of the 49ers, who claims he abstained and will shut down concessions stands during the national anthem.

For what it’s worth, the new policy contradicts the league’s initial reaction to Kaepernick’s protest in August 2016:

“Players are encouraged but not required to stand during the playing of the national anthem.”

The 49ers also immediately released a statement in August 2016, reading:

“The national anthem is and always will be a special part of the pre-game ceremony. It is an opportunity to honor our country and reflect on the great liberties we are afforded as its citizens. In respecting such American principles as freedom of religion and freedom of expression, we recognize the right of an individual to choose and participate, or not, in our celebration of the national anthem.”

These were both responses to Kaepernick’s initial explanation of his actions:

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way.”

Kaepernick’s act was immediately controversial however, with his own former teammate Alex Boone declaring:

“You should have some f — ing respect for people who served, especially people that lost their life to protect our freedom … We’re out here playing a game, making millions of dollars. People are losing their life, and you don’t have the common courtesy to do that.”

The narrative had been set. Kaepernick was either a social justice activist utilizing his fundamentally American rights to free speech or he was a disrespectful and ignorant son of a bitch doing a terrible thing, and tanking the NFL’s ratings while trying to get a better contract.

There are no shortage of subplots to this affair, including Kaepernick’s status on the 49ers before the protest (he was benched and asked for a trade earlier that year), Kaepernick’s “pig” socks, the competing factions within both NFL and veterans communities, the larger political dynamics of #BlackLivesMatter and police brutality, the possible collusion among owners and the military to keep him unemployed, and of course, being directly targeted by the President of the United States as a “son of a bitch.”

It might be confusing to some how a protest of police brutality can be warped into a referendum on the military and nationalism, but the history of football is the history of blending sports and American identity. Over the course of the 20th century football was developed, marketed, and written about as if it was more than a game or even a professional sport, but in fact a reflection of American character. The spectacle had become ritual, the players had become national heroes. A pro football game holds the same reverence today as any other celebration of civic pride (if not more). To protest the performance of football is to protest America itself. And, as we will see, after 9/11, to protest America is to protest its military.

To understand the context here, we have to look back at the history of pro football as well as its role as a cultural mirror, both reflecting and distorting Americans’ view of themselves. Unlike other sports that may have more distant or unknowable roots, football is a product of modern America in every sense — political, corporate, social, racial, and gendered.

Football was developed by and for the upper class of white society and spread through collegiate America. Through the popularity of sports reporting in the early 20th century, football was deliberately and successful married to the American character. As Michael Oriad has documented so thoroughly, football and America became intertwined, elevating the sport out of its collegiate home into the mainstream American consciousness. Baseball may have been the national pastime, but football was the national soul.

As World War II gave way to the Cold War and the US was increasingly becoming comfortable with its role as global empire, football became the perfect vehicle for that cultural tension. It’s no coincidence that some of the NFL’s earliest heroes were also military men: Bednarik, Staubach, Landry, Lombardi. The spectacle of the football game was loaded with parallels to military parades, formation maneuvers, and war games. George Carlin so brilliantly deconstructed the militarism of football’s rhetoric, and Alan Dundes wondered if football had taken place as an anthropological coming of age necessity for American boys.

And yet this reflection was a distortion. Cold War American society was not a monolith, its politics were not bucolic, and its popularity was not universal. Like any hegemonic force, the NFL sought to neuter threats. The social unrest of the Sixties remained largely hidden under the helmets of players. Football’s most recognizable counter-culture figure was Joe Namath, who fancied himself more playboy than revolutionary. NFL Films published a steady diet of easily digestible shows meant to showcase the league and its players as icons, not corporate managers. More propaganda than journalism, the NFL wanted to be the American ideal, not the American reality.

The first Super Bowl was everything the NFL wanted, both on the field and symbolically. Two of the three broadcast networks showed the game. Lombardi’s Packers proved the conservative NFL was superior to the upstart (and more racially diverse) AFL. The halftime show included men on jetpacks flying about and the dual pageantry of University of Arizona’s marching band alongside the Grambling marching band forming a massive continental US. The “Super Bowl Chorus” sang “America the Beautiful.” Celebrities dotted the sideline and the sunny weather couched in palm trees fed into what Jim Cullen called the California Dream.

The national anthem was announced with a simple: “Now ladies and gentlemen before the Super Bowl, our national anthem.” The performance went unremarked upon as the announcers went immediately back into pregame breakdowns. The symbolic message was clear: pro football was for everyone, pro football was glamorous, and pro football was unambiguously American.

Across the country, Super Bowl I took on other dynamics, all of which fed into the larger identification with national character — albeit a heteronormative patriarchal one. The morning after Super Bowl I, Bernard Weinraub wrote a column titled “Husbands Stare — And Wives Glare,” [Husbands Stare and Wives Glare: City’s Males Spend Day at TV Sets at Home, in Bars [New York, N.Y] 16 Jan 1967: 33.] framing the conversation and reinforcing gender stereotypes. “City’s males spend day at TV sets at home, in bars,” he declared. Weinraub’s article was peppered with quotes lamenting the mindless spectatorship of men and sympathetic to the frustrated domesticity of women. After all, the inside of the house was the woman’s domain; the walls forming a literal barrier between gender spheres. Sports were meant to be performed and consumed outside of domesticities’ constraints, free from concerns of social norms and rules.

Football’s ties to American masculine identity are almost impossible to overstate, and it is this relationship that helps inform the sport’s cultural power. Men see their own anxieties and place in the world reflected back at them from the gridiron. It follows then that in order to be a good Super Bowl spectator, men must embrace the hypermasculinity of the sport — be it the managerial head coach, the playboy quarterback, or the brutish lineman. Jerseys and superstitions provide one form of imitative magic for sports fans, but football’s unique tie to militarism demanded a new reverential form of performed masculinity. It wasn’t simply enough to root for a team, a football fan had to understand the strategy, the tactical maneuvers. It wasn’t simply enough to like a player, a football fan had to quantify the accuracy and lethality of a player’s weapons.

The Super Bowl only got bigger and more elaborate as time moved forward, and the national anthem was always a part of the performance, although the militarism was never overt or even largely substantial. The entirety of the Vietnam War went by uncommented upon until a military color guard paraded out for Super Bowl VI. A large cross-service retinue gathered on the field as the announcer gave the introduction:

“Our national anthem will be sung by the United States Air Force Academy Chorale directed by James Roger Boyd. We will also see a double flyover of Phantom jets from the 33rd Tactical Fighter Wing based at Eglin Air Force Base at Fort Walton Beach in Florida. … When our Phantom jets appear, by the way, they will be in what is known as the missing man formation to remind all of us of our men who are missing or captured in Southeast Asia. We ask that you remember them in your thoughts or prayers.”

The next overt show of militarism was eight years later at Super Bowl XIV when Cheryl Ladd declared: “We’d like to dedicate this to our American hostages in Iran.”

For the next 11 years, the Star-Spangled Banner was introduced with a variation of “And now ladies and gentlemen, to honor America…” usually followed by the performers’ names. Super Bowl XI didn’t even have a national anthem; Vicky Carr sang “America the Beautiful” instead.

The Super Bowl for its first twenty four years was a celebration of America, of technology, of popular culture, of masculinity. But it was never a celebration of the military. As we see, the military’s only substantive involvement was in reverence for missing soldiers or hostages.

Super Bowl XXV may appear in retrospect as a turning point, but it wasn’t. The event was a perfect storm of performative nationalism: the Cold War ending, the Gulf War starting, the post-Vietnam hangover dissipating. Heck, both teams — Giants and Bills — were even wearing red, white, and blue. In a poetic sense, it’s easy to look at Whitney’s performance as a unifying moment for the nation, and one that set the course for football’s transition into the 1990s. But it didn’t really play out that way at the time.

The following year Harry Connick, Jr. brought the Super Bowl back to reality and its track-record of mundane pregame shows. His performance is notable however, for the beginning of including ASL translators. Pro Football always kept up with social demands. Super Bowl XXXV, January 2001, marks the end of this era. The Backstreet Boys gave a relatively conservative performance that would largely be forgotten if not for the date.

The New Militarized Super Bowl

A year later, at Super Bowl XXXVI, the national anthem performance had transitioned into a spectacle in its own right. Mariah Carey stood at the center of dozens of policemen, firemen, troops, and sailors. Oh, and the Boston Pops orchestra. Mariah Carey was introduced as the “biggest selling female recording artist in history.”

The Star-Spangled Banner has arguably never been as star-spangled. A mock-up of the Iwo Jima memorial was countered with an NYPD copy. Carey’s performance was methodical and bombastic. Excess was always welcome at the Super Bowl and this year did not disappoint. She posed, her arms fully outstretched multiple times, and the crowd let loose in emotional cheers and “U-S-A!” chants. Just as America’s ego had shattered months earlier on live TV, America’s new patriotism had been codified on live TV.

(And in a bit of historic irony, at the Superdome in New Orleans.)

If history was to repeat itself, the National Anthem would go back to being mundane and ordinary. But that didn’t happen. Although not quite as garish, the Dixie Chicks would follow-up the next year as the NFL moved to embrace pop-country demographics and its emerging place in a neo-conservative America. F-18 Superhornets screamed overhead and the cameras cut back and forth between deployed troops and live reactions from soldiers on the field. Ironically, a year later the Dixie Chicks would be outcast as they opposed the preemptive war in Iraq. The terms of America’s new patriotism had been set and were being enforced.

In a symbolic act that still resonates (note: not in a good way), at Super Bowl XXXVIII Beyonce was escorted to the stage by General Peter Pace, as if she needed the Joints Chiefs approval to perform. Pace had the honor of being the father of the bride and watched proudly as she engaged in the ritualistic marriage of popular culture and militarism. And for the first time in Super Bowl history, the announcer (Greg Gumble) asked the audience to rise. From then on, “please rise” or “please remain standing” would join “to honor America” as the staple language accompanying national anthem introductions.

Cold War America demanded increasingly little physicality from men — the Atomic Age had made domestic life easier, the explosion of managerial capitalism made labor life easier. After Vietnam, even war had become a dance of computerized smartbombs, depersonal and disembodied. Managerial experts ruled the masculine spheres now, and there was no place for physical masculinity among the upper classes — or so popular culture told us. Football, however, remained rooted in mid-century masculine ideals, a living memorial to the social norms of the past. The biggest, strongest, and fastest remained kings of the gridiron. For the dadbods sitting on their couches, real America was found on Sundays in football stadiums. The ritualized spectacle of escapism included giant American flags, cheerleaders in skimpy outfits, and of course, a stirring rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner, cut with screaming jets overhead. To celebrate America was to celebrate excess and there’s nothing in pop culture more excessive than pro football.

After 9/11 and the start of the Global War on Terror, American identity took on a new dynamic. No longer secure in itself, Americans turned to popular culture for comfort. Pro football was there to help them, as it’d always been. The NFL embraced the psychological need of a shattered nation, just as football has always embraced the psychological needs of privileged masculinity. The groundwork had already been done, the NFL already existed as an extension of America. When American society became militarized in 2001–2002, the NFL only needed to tweak itself. Instead being limited to solemn moments of remembrance, the military was quickly integrated and normalized as a thing to be celebrated. To celebrate America now is to celebrate the military, and there’s nothing in pop culture more militarized than pro football.

Note: I’ve notably and perhaps erroneously largely ignored the racial components in all of this. That’s not an omission of bias, rather an omission of practicality. For one, I don’t feel fully qualified to discuss the racial dynamics at play, beyond the obvious, and of course, this is already a very long blog post, in no means meant to be comprehensive. I hope that other more appropriate voices will address that, in part because I want to hear what they have to say on the topic.

Academic and Trekkie. I talk about the politics of culture, review nerd stuff, and golf a lot. Co-host: @podmeandering, #TopFive, @folkwise13

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