SPORTS, MILITARISM AND FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
LOS ANGELES -- On this, the anniversary of the invention of the term "wardrobe malfunction," it seems appropriate to consider the history of politics in the sporting media. An interesting story comes out of Florida which suggests that times really have changed. Along the way, we will consider a recent story from Tokyo along with historical visits to Pasadena and Mexico City.
As to that wardrobe malfunction, the aftermath was straight out of "Casablanca": Just as the police chief was shocked to learn that gambling was going on at Rick's Cafe, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission was shocked to find that television peddles the female form.
Most of the American people found the incident a lot less interesting than the television commercials. Sports and entertainment seem to bring out a streak of authoritarianism in governmental figures, but the viewers didn't seem to buy into the crusade.
The more interesting story out of Florida this year involves a baseball player by the name of Carlos Delgado. He is that rare commodity, a left-handed power hitter. Delgado doesn't have the huge batting average, but he has hit 30 or more home runs each of the past 8 years.
He does have this one little eccentricity though. He has refused to participate throughout the 2004 season in a ritual where players stand during the playing of "God Bless America."
Delgado came up for free agency at the end of the 2004 season. How do you think baseball's patriotic establishment dealt with his show of rebellion? A hint: it turned out to be more comedy than tragedy. But first, a modest digression.
The time was 1968 and the scene was the Olympics in Mexico City. Reading the history of those times, we find that African-American athletes were considering a boycott of the Olympics in order to protest racism and discrimination. It didn't really get very far, but two athletes managed to make their point.
Tommie Smith and John Carlos finished first and third in the 200-meter dash. At the award ceremony, they appeared without shoes, each wearing a black glove. During the playing of the national anthem, each bowed his head; Smith raised his right arm, fist closed. Carlos did the same with his left, each of them making the gesture known as the "Black Power Salute."
The results were as dramatic as they were hypocritical, dishonest, and deplorable. The idea that Smith and Carlos had any right to freedom of expression did not seem to occur to our track and field establishment. The two athletes were suspended from the U.S. Olympic team and sent home from Mexico City. Back home, they received death threats.
It was a strange and ugly era. A year earlier, Muhammed Ali saw his title revoked when he refused to accept being drafted into the military.
This year of 2005 has its similarities and its differences with the Viet Nam era. The current war lacks the impetus for rebellion that the draft inspired in the 1960s, but there are tensions. Its popularity wanes by the day.
Enter Carlos Delgado.
Baseball teams began playing "America the Beautiful" in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. By now, the practice has dwindled. Some teams perform it once a week or so. The Yankees play it during the "seventh inning stretch" at every game. The custom apparently is for players to stand and remove their hats during the playing.
Delgado opposes the Iraq war. As he has explained to numerous reporters by now, he decided when the war started that he would no longer participate in the ritual associated with the playing of America the Beautiful. He didn't make a big deal about it publicly; in fact, most fans and reporters never even noticed until Delgado explained what he was not doing.
New York newspapers broke the Delgado story because Toronto was coming to play the Yankees. Reports are that Delgado came in for some boos during the games, but there seems not to have been any organized protest.
At the end of the season, Delgado became eligible for free agency and his big bat was up for auction. He eventually signed with the Florida Marlins in a four year deal estimated at $52 million.
Do the Marlins intend to enforce obedience from the rebellious slugger? Are we in for 1968 in sequel?
Here is how Sports Illustrated online (CNN web site) quoted the Marlins' response:
"The Marlins don't support it, and we don't not support it," team president David Samson said. "He's an adult. The club's position is that what he does is up to him."
You have to laugh. Here is a guy who, to give him his due, is an outspoken antiwar critic who refuses to participate in a patriotic act made sacred by no less than the members of the U.S. Congress on the day of the World Trade Center attacks. (Remember how they all stood on the steps of the Capitol and spontaneously began to sing?)
And what does our once-ferocious athletic establishment do? They recognize the player's freedom to expression. Even if its only lip service, it's a major improvement over the shabby way Smith and Carlos were treated 36 years ago.
The Sports Illustrated article even described a little banter between the team's brass.
As usual, McKeon drew the biggest laugh. He has lobbied for a left-handed power hitter ever since becoming the Marlins' manager in 2003. "Jack, I guess now you know you've got the left-handed bat you want," owner Jeffrey Loria said. "It's about time," McKeon responded with a playful grumble.
So freedom of expression, at least at some minimal level, is now recognized in major league baseball, particularly if you happen to have eight consecutive thirty home run seasons.
I think this is evidence that our society and culture really have changed over the past several decades. I can remember living in Pasadena, California during the mid-1970s. It was a time when the country was still massively divided over the (by then lost) Viet Nam War.
On New Year's Day, I would wander down to the Rose Parade route and watch floats and bands go by. It didn't take me long to notice one curious fact: Just about every single float that had some patriotic theme managed to win an award, whether or not the float had much in the way of artistic merit. Floats that were decorated more beautifully but which failed to honor our nation's efforts at external bellicosity rode by without an award banner. It was a not-too-subtle way for Pasadena's social in-crowd to try to maintain an air of patriotic supremacy.
Parenthetically, there is a much more serious argument going on in Japan over patriotic symbols. Tokyo schools recently enacted a rule that students and faculty must stand while students sing the national anthem during graduation ceremonies. More than 200 teachers refused to participate, and the matter is now in the courts. No less an establishment figure than the Emperor of Japan has now weighed in, suggesting that compliance with these rituals should be voluntary.
The Japanese argument is at a far more serious level because it involves postwar concerns, at least for some Japanese, that the anthem represents militarism.
Still, there are curious parallels in all these cases - the baseball slugger, the red, white and blue festooned parade floats and the Tokyo graduation ceremonies. The thread that ties them all together is the notion that forced patriotism is something that we seem to be growing out of, no matter how much the militarists would have it otherwise.
Afterward: The 2005 Superbowl had its patriotic rituals including a television commercial in which people waiting at an airport spontaneously applaud American troops walking to their plane. The commercial ends with the written words, "Thank you."
For those of us who remember the bad old days, it is a very different message, muted and nuanced, compared to what went before. In all, the 2005 celebration of patriotism still refers to the military, but it lacks the venom directed against the antiwar faction that was so evident in the 1960s.