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Batavick: Who qualifies as a ‘patriot?’

Who qualifies as a patriot? If you listen to some voices in our national conversation, you might think that pride in the United States and the principles it stands for are an exclusive conservative franchise. I’ve grown weary of this, especially the far right rants that equate the Democratic Party with socialism, Marxism and even worse. They apparently think they are the only true believers in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. In my lifetime, this tendency began during the ascendance of the John Birch Society in the 1960s and was ratcheted up most recently by the Tea Party. Today it emanates from those happily calling themselves Trumpists.

Sometimes the assertions are merely silly, as when presidential candidate Barrack Obama was castigated for not wearing an American flag lapel pin in 2007. But other times the statements are downright dangerous, as when President Trump drapes the flag over his assault on the rule of law. He recently berated the credibility of the Mueller investigation by encouraging Republicans and “real Americans” to start “getting tough” on the probe. Isn’t Mueller, the former FBI director, life-long Republican and a decorated Vietnam War combat veteran, one of those “real Americans?”

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During the last NFL season, Trump hijacked the American flag and national anthem to further his divisive racial politics and play to core supporters. The protest by black athletes has always been about police brutality and the disproportionately black prison population, not patriotism. The Washington Post started a database of police shootings in January 2015. African-Americans comprise 36 percent of the unarmed people shot and killed since then. As if in denial of this national scandal, Trump dis-invited the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles from the White House.

Howard Bryant, author of “The Heritage: Black Athletes, a Divided America, and the Politics of Patriotism,” traces the warping of patriotism back to Sept. 11, 2001. In the wake of that catastrophic attack, sports became “a healing balm for a broken country.” When game schedules resumed, there were opening ceremonies with flags, flyovers and color guards honoring the dead, especially the first responders in New York City. However, Bryant believes “it also changed how sports were sold, packaged, perceived and marketed. … It all felt right, until temporary grieving turned into a permanent, commercial bonanza — and a chilling referendum on who gets to be American.”

The Armed Forces recognized a unique opportunity to recruit warrior-athletes during this time and began to embed the military into professional sports. Lest you think the likes of the NFL eagerly welcomed this feature out of the goodness of the team owners’ hearts, the Department of Defense was required to pay for the privilege of having surprise homecomings of combat veterans and displaying “American flags the size of the football field.” It turns out that the NFL’s patriotism was transactional, just like the ad buys for the recruiting commercials that followed.

Almost two decades later, Bryant fears “the props and touches designed to uplift a wounded country have become permanent.” The American flag can be found on helmets, NBA backboards, and stitched on player and referee uniforms. That’s because it is good business. In 2015, a U.S. Senate investigation revealed that the Wisconsin Army National Guard was required to pay nearly $50,000 to the Milwaukee Brewers to perform the national anthem during home games.

This is the real scandal involving patriotism in professional sports, not the athletes who choose to exercise their First Amendment rights to protest the unfair treatment of their black brothers. Patriotism should not be used as a cudgel to keep people in line, and its trappings should not be extorted from the Department of Defense by team owners as if the flag was on par with the over-priced hot dogs and beer they sell in stadiums and ballparks. Remember, those are your hard-earned tax dollars parading on the field.

As you rightfully salute Old Glory this Wednesday and throw another burger on the grill, be mindful of this familiar quote by 18th century British writer, Samuel Johnson: “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”

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