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No Football, No Trump? Why Professional Sports Matter Now

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch

As controversies about the "reopening" of America loom over our lives, nothing seems as intrinsically irrelevant -- yet possibly as critically important -- as how soon major spectator sports return.

If sports don't trump religion as the opiate of the masses, they have, until recently, been at least the background music of most of our lives. So here's my bet on one possible side effect of the Covid-19 pandemic to put in your scorebook: if the National Football League plays regular season games this fall, President Trump stands a good chance of winning reelection for returning America to business as usual -- or, at least, to his twisted version of the same.

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Why We Still Need Baseball So Badly

The worse it gets, the more I need baseball. The worse what gets? Well, what have you got? Watched the evening news lately? Some days, the promise of a three-hour break from what novelist Philip Roth called “the indigenous American berserk” draws me like a fountain in the desert.

Roth, of course, was a great baseball fan. He even wrote a 1973 book called “The Great American Novel”—a ribald saga about a New Jersey minor league team whose owner rented the stadium to the War Department, forcing his team to play the entire season on the road. If not Roth’s best, it has moments of antic hilarity. He told an interviewer that he had more fun writing it than any of his other novels.

When I was a kid, baseball was unquestionably the most important American sport. Nothing else came close. Debating the relative merits of Mickey Mantle, Duke Snider and Willie Mays—Hall of Fame center-fielders for the three New York teams—consumed much of my youth.

In my neighborhood, which team you supported was a more reliable indicator of personal identity than race or religion. We didn’t know from politics, but we all knew Monte Irvin. (My dad played semi-pro ball with Irvin, and he never quit talking about it.)

We also played baseball every day in warm weather. Also wiffle ball, stick ball, stoop ball, etc. To be a boy back then was to play baseball. You didn’t have to be an all-star, but you did have to know the game. Somebody said they didn’t understand the Infield Fly Rule, what they were telling you was they basically didn’t understand anything.

These days, not so much. Indeed, a whole genre of “baseball is doomed” articles appear regularly in the sporting press. The latest is called “Why No One Watches Baseball Anymore” by Dave Zirin, sportswriter for The Nation. I know what you’re thinking: The Nation has a sportswriter? Along with all those articles about “the inspiring energy of progressives?” Yeah, and a lively, provocative sportswriter at that, if a bit dogmatic for my taste.

There’s no doubt that major league baseball is less central to American culture than it once was. But then no one sport is anymore. Zirin cites polls showing that only nine percent of Americans call baseball their favorite—the lowest since Gallup started asking. In Monte Irvin’s heyday, it was in the 30s.

When the Pirates’ Bill Mazeroski hit a walkoff home run to win the 1960 World Series, so many kids were covertly listening on transistor radios that a subdued roar went up in my high school. That wouldn’t happen today. World Series games are played at night, and young people pretty much aren’t into it. Gallup says only six percent of Americans under 34 favor baseball.

Eleven percent favor basketball and soccer.

I love basketball too; soccer sometimes. Football only intermittently. Here in SEC country, the local team plays a dozen games—three they can’t lose, three they never win, and six maybes. No sooner does one disappointing season end than everybody yaks obsessively for eight months about the next. Meanwhile, I’ve watched 100 Red Sox games. I think it’s a game for people who don’t like sports as much as drinking parties.

But that’s just me, although football’s slipping in popularity too. But here’s the thing: You don’t need to know one thing about football to watch it on TV. Baseball, you do.

Zirin says that his problem with baseball is that “the games are too damn long.” He cites the recent Red Sox-Yankees series in London, England as an example. Both games lasted around four and a half hours. “Though a typical game falls more in the three-hour range,” he writes, “this is too damn long.”

To me, it’s just right. Three blessed hours of taut competition in which he who shall not be named, won’t be. Perfect. The problem with the London games was playing in a soccer stadium whose aerodynamics made pitchers unable to control breaking balls. So it became Home Run Derby.

Seventeen to 13, for heaven’s sake. That’s a slow pitch softball score. The English crowd seemed enthralled, but it wasn’t big league baseball.

Speed things up? Absolutely. Put in a 30-second pitch clock; limit hitters to one, maybe two time outs per at bat. Stand in there and hit.

The dramatic effect of defensive shifts could be altered by requiring two infielders on either side of second base. More situational hitting, fewer second basemen swinging for the bleachers and striking out.

Mostly, though, major league baseball needs to sponsor more youth leagues. You play baseball, you learn to love it.

Zirin also confesses to being a Mets fan like my brother Tommy, making the yearly transition from “Let’s Go Mets” to “Fire the Manager and Burn the Stadium.”

Usually in July, come to think of it.

IMAGE: Former New York Yankee Yogi Berra stands at home plate before the final regular season MLB American Leugue baseball game at Yankee Stadium in New York in this September 21, 2008 file photo. REUTERS/Mike Segar/Files

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High School Football Players Across The U.S. Join Kaepernick, Refuse To Stand For National Anthem

Published with permission from AlterNet.

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick declared last month, explaining why he chose not to stand during the national anthem on August 26. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

Since Kaepernick spoke these words, his protest has caught fire across the country, with NFL players from Miami to Seattle to Boston showing solidarity by kneeling or raising their fists in the air during the song. Meanwhile, players from other sports have joined in, with soccer star Megan Rapinoe kneeling during the national anthem, telling American Soccer Now that the gesture was “a little nod to Kaepernick and everything that he’s standing for right now.”

But getting far less attention are the high school football players across the United States, who, inspired by Kaepernick, are refusing to stand during the national anthem to protest racism and inequality. Many of those leading the protests are black and brown students who have grown up with images of young people who look like them being shot and killed by police.

Coaches and most members of the South Jersey Tigers high school football team, Woodrow Wilson, knelt during the national anthem on Saturday. “I am well aware of the third verse of the national anthem which is not usually sung, and I know that the words of the song were not originally meant to include people like me,” Tigers coach Preston Brown told NBC 10 on Saturday.

The third stanza states, “No refuge could save the hireling and slave/From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.” As the Intercept’s Jon Schwartz pointed out, Francis Scott Key wrote those words during the war of 1812, in direct reference to U.S. slaves who fought for the British, “who accepted everyone and pledged no one would be given back to their ‘owners.’” Schwartz continues: “So when Key penned ‘No refuge could save the hireling and slave/From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,’ he was taking great satisfaction in the death of slaves who’d freed themselves. His perspective may have been affected by the fact he owned several slaves himself.”

The Tigers’ protest is captured in the following video:

On Friday, numerous players for Watkins Mills High in Montgomery County, Maryland also kneeled during the national anthem. “We just wanted to make a statement that America is not what you think it is,” said junior quarterback Markel Grant.

Players from Maury High in Norfolk, Virginia to Auburn High in Rockford, Illinois have taken similar action. While these young people are certainly not the first to use their roles as athletes to protest racism and injustice in the United States, they are part of a fresh wave of resistance amid the ongoing movement for Black Lives Matter led by young people in cities and towns across the U.S. In some cases, individual players are making the decision to stage small protests of one or two, as in the case of Lincoln, Nebraska player Sterling Smith, highlighted in thisnews report.

Rodney Axson, a high school player at Brunswick High School in Ohio, reportedlydecided to kneel during the national anthem after he witnessed his teammates using racial slurs to degrade opposing players. The 16-year-old says he faced severe backlash as a result, including anti-black racial epithets.

Unfortunately, Axson’s case is not an isolated one. According to a local media report, the announcer for a Friday football game at McKenzie High School in Alabama’s Butler County suggested that those who do not stand for the national anthem deserve to be shot. “If you don’t want to stand for the national anthem, you can line up over there by the fence and let our military personnel take a few shots at you since they’re taking shots for you,” said the announcer, Pastor Allen Joyner of Sweet Home Baptist Church.

Mike Oppong, a player for Doherty Memorial High School in Worcester, Mass.,says he was initially suspended for a game for refusing to stand during the national anthem, but this punishment was revoked after public outcry. He told reporters, “We are disrespected and mistreated everywhere we go on a daily basis because of our skin color, and I’m sick of it.”

Sarah Lazare is a staff writer for AlterNet. A former staff writer for Common Dreams, she coedited the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War. Follow her on Twitter at @sarahlazare.

Photo: Screenshot.