Photo: Telesur.

Photo: Telesur

Last week the National Football League, taking its cue from President Trump, announced fines and other penalties for any football player who displays any form of protest during the national anthem before games. Teams would also be subject to penalties. Trump had stated that anyone protesting “should be fired” and “maybe shouldn’t be in the country.”

Two years ago, Colin Kaepernick, a star quarterback, began kneeling during the pre-game national anthem to protest racism and the police murder of African Americans, inspiring other players to do the same. Ever since, NFL owners have refused to hire him and player protests have been subject to racist hostility and charges of “unpatriotic” behavior. This was and remains an attempt to drown the issue of racism in a sea of lies and hostility to the players.

But it wasn’t players protesting racism who politicized sports. It was the Pentagon. The U.S. military had paid billions in tax dollars to team owners to turn football into a huge recruitment ad with the unfurling of giant flags on the playing field, expensive warplane flyovers, color guard ceremonies  and other pro-military actions ad nauseum.

This was a calculated move by the Pentagon after Sept. 11, 2001 to use U.S. sports to glorify and normalize its wars of conquest and to recruit soldiers. Before that, there often wasn’t much more than the singing of the national anthem at many games. Until 2009, football players weren’t even on the field during the anthem singing.

It’s only when the players added a progressive and anti-racist voice to the pre-game activities that the expressions of outrage began.

“Free” speech never free under capitalism

The new rules by the NFL are a blatant violation of free speech. Working for a boss, even under capitalism, doesn’t mean giving up the right to exercise free speech, which is protected by the Constitution. This is also a violation of the National Labor Relations Act, which protects workers’ right to free association in the workplace. Additionally, the owners did not discuss the rule changes in advance with the NFL Players Association, the players’ legal representative.

But who is really calling the shots here? Under capitalism, “free” speech is never free. It is always bought and paid for. Ever see an ad for the military on TV, at football game, or at movie? It always ends with “Paid for by the U.S. Army.”

Tax dollars pay for militarizing sports

It’s really paid for the by the Army? No, not really. It is paid for by us – out of the $600+ billion Pentagon war budget.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the Pentagon has poured ever-more billions into glorifying war and militarism. Their propaganda is everywhere – paid for by our tax dollars that could otherwise be spent on health care, education, job programs or other socially constructive ends. But war is the ultimate profit-maker, so the Pentagon calls the tune.

The multi-millions of dollars being paid by the Pentagon to sports teams, primarily the NFL, for patriotic displays has gotten so out of hand that two pro-war senators from Arizona, John McCain and Jeff Flake,felt compelled to investigate the “paid patriotism” schemes in 2015. This is just a sample of what they found:

  • $377,000 to the New York Jets for patriotic salutes, charity events and other marketing activities, including a videoboard feature of “Hometown Heroes” at all Jets games.
  • $453,000 was paid to the San Diego Chargers for large flag presentations at five home football games, including a color guard ceremony.
  • $650,000 was paid to the Buffalo Bills football team for “Salute to Service” week, live reenlistment ceremonies, for Air Force flyovers at Bills home games, as well as a full-field flag unfurling.
  • In 2013 the Atlanta National Guard paid the Atlanta football team a total of  $315,000 to welcome 80 Guard members during halftime to unfurl the flag across the field at halftime, among other “patriotic” displays.
  • $570,000 paid to the Minnesota Wild hockey team for an on-ice soldier appreciation ceremony, a flag-bearer highlighted on the scoreboard for every game, all season long.
  • $400,000 paid to the Baltimore Ravens for color guard demonstrations and full-field flag presentations at three home games, among other perks.

But McCain and Flake were unable to find the full extent of the “pay for patriotism” program. The Pentagon refused to tell them. A memo they received from the Defense Department explained, “We are unable at this time to provide all the information requested.” The response from Sen. Flake was “the answers provided were insufficient and wholly unsatisfactory” and “provided no additional information beyond what was already uncovered and available in the public domain.”

Have such payments stopped, as claimed by McCain and Flake? It is impossible to believe. Their report was only the tip of a very large iceberg of war propaganda. For example, according to a report by the right-wing Rand Corporation, “During the late 1990s, the Defense Department spent more than $100  million  annually  on  advertising  programs  in  support  of military recruiting.” This report was to discuss the “effectiveness” of war propaganda. In the post-9/11 war hysteria, war propaganda has only increased exponentially.

Owners sold their souls to the Pentagon

The NFL owners, while complaining that the players are “politicizing” football, have sold their souls to the Pentagon war-makers. The owners claim ticket sales have decreased and TV ratings have gone down because of the protests. But it’s actually the constant attacks on the protesting players that have soured the atmosphere. It is the owners, the media, and of course, the Pentagon war-makers, that have made “patriotism” the issue, when the real issue is racism and police brutality.

The actions by the football players, as all protests against racism and police murder, deserve the wholehearted support of every working person.