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Ken Reed on public relations and sportsWhen President George W. Bush took the mound at Yankee Stadium to throw out the first pitch following the horrific 9/11 attacks, sports helped bring the United States together as a country. As Howard Bryant recently wrote, sports were a “healing balm” for a hurting nation.

But since then, pro sports owners and big-time college sports administrators have seized on the feel-good aspect of patriotism and used it as just another marketing ploy.

As but one example, consider the NFL’s phoney soldier salute. From 2011 to 2014, the Department of Defense paid 14 NFL teams $5.4 million for promotional salutes to military personnel.

Consider the New York Jets’ Hometown Heroes promotion. During timeouts, the Jumbotron camera would zoom in on a U.S. soldier who was strategically placed in a given seat. The soldier smiled and waved to the crowd. Fans stood and cheered, bursting with patriotic feelings and happy that their favourite football team was honouring true American heroes. In reality, the whole thing was a marketing and public relations scam, just another revenue stream for NFL owners, not a feel-good gesture at all. Sad.

Patriotic commercials and additional phoney patriotic acts have also been embedded in games. Pro sports and big-time college sports execs utilize field-length American flags, camouflage uniforms and flag stickers/patches stuck everywhere the eye cans see as PR tactics, not as true patriotic acts.

What started out as spontaneous expressions of patriotism and unity back at Yankee Stadium with Bush and that first pitch following 9/11 has devolved into commercialization gone bad.

“It all felt right, until temporary grieving turned into a permanent, commercial bonanza — and a chilling referendum on who gets to be an American,” wrote Bryant.

The message in this era of forced hegemonic patriotism is: don’t dare step out of line and exercise your basic rights of free speech and to peacefully protest. To me, Americans who exercise those rights in order to improve the country (whether I agree with their improvement ideas or not) are a lot more patriotic than those who stand at attention during the national anthem at sporting events but do nothing else as citizens to improve the country and help it live up to its ideals. Americans have the right – and responsibility – to contribute to the marketplace of ideas in this democracy.

As Bryant points out, some military veterans feel the same way. 

“I’ve heard from veterans who say they are horrified that a profit machine presents an orgy of mismatching military symbols at the stadium,” wrote Bryant. “The veterans said that they are grateful that it looks like Americans care about them. But they are also resentful of being used as shields to prevent any criticism of the country or the military. The soldiers know they serve so Americans can speak their minds, not be cowed into obedience.”

Exactly. Patriotic acts of any kind are meaningless if they are mandated. Forcing people to stand up during the playing of the national anthem so a certain percentage of the audience can feel good is fear-based and something that should be associated with third-world dictatorships, not the United States of America.

Ken Reed is sports policy director for League of Fans a sports reform project.  He is the author of Ego vs. Soul in Sports and How We Can Save Sports.

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