Our sporting life and the myths of patriotism

Forrest Johnson

There are many myths in this world. There have been creation stories throughout the ages and mythmakers have been busy over the years creating the many myths of this nation, from Pecos Bill to Paul Bunyan to the notion of a free market operating within a true democratic society.

Our myth, our folklore, has more often been created by marketeers than by balladeers. Our poets have labored to influence the conscience of the nation while fear mongers, puritans and profiteers have swept the population along toward preferred and myopic mythological destinations.

Mom and apple pie and the flag pin you wear on your lapel. 

The thinnest of beliefs. 

After getting my daily dose of patriotism thanks to another stirring rendition of “God Bless America” by the wife of a staff sergeant during a recent Twins game, I couldn’t help but think just how many modern cultures try to prop themselves up with myths that border on the very edge of hollow gesture.

Our culture is pretty good at it.

Flags the size of football fields are often paraded across the fields of play. Jets fly overhead. The populace must be reminded that freedom comes at a price before you can consume large quantities of beer and stuff in as many overpriced hot dogs as you can afford before you head back to your hut in the shadow of the homes of the owners and players and the titans of industry and finance.

This is a democracy you understand. The place where everybody gets a fair shake, a voice.

We’ve spent trillions of dollars for theaters of operations in Iraq, Afghanistan. No, we’ve borrowed and spent a trillion dollars or more for theaters of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now it appears as though our military presence will remain tied to the Saudis and their war in Yemen and we’ll stir the pot with Iran. Patriotism, or the false notion of it, is certainly a tool that can be used to make sure that the populace is somewhat docile, eager for beer and the next game to assuage fears over burdensome mortgages and jobs with stagnant pay and a lack of health insurance.

Bring out the flags and get a military wife to sing a song for a national audience. 

I remember Spanky and the Gang putting on shows for the neighborhood kids of 1930s Hollywood. I was born in 1954 but made to remember the depression through cinematic drama. Spanky would tell Alfalfa that they’d forget their troubles and put on a show. I loved those old comedies. I still do. They were putting on a show.

That’s what big time sports is all about nowadays. A kind of a placebo for our economic and social ills. Except that today these guys make millions and don’t have to sell cars or work at a golf club in the off season. It helps take the mind off failed efforts at nation building.    

All I’ve ever thought is that these things were games. Athletic events. Sporting entertainment. Don’t mix sports and false patriotism or politics. The cultural icons are long gone from the professional game. Find me a Muhammad Ali or a Babe Ruth that would have been upstaged by the fluttering of flags and hollow gestures.    

I’ve never thought an athletic event was a good stage to try and wring out a little patriotism in people but a captive audience waiting for a game to begin in a billion dollar stadium with million dollar sky boxes seems to be a perfect fit in today’s frenetic, myth-ridden, energy drink and iPhone world.    

Kate Smith opening Philadelphia Flyers hockey games back in the 1970s seemed different. It was for the Philly fans and their team, a way to fire up the crowd before another Broad Street Bullies game, before some teeth would be loosened and rabid fans would pound on the plexiglass for a touch more roughhousing in the corners. They didn’t name arenas and ball fields after corporate sponsors in those days.

When Kate Smith sang that tune the message of the song was different to me. It wasn’t as hollow as it is now, taken over by the military, the conservatives and the religious right. When Kate Smith sang God Bless America” it reminded me of Woody Guthrie singing “This Land is Your Land.”    

Kate Smith’s singing didn’t pander to a hollow patriotic nature and a larger culture of what we seem to consider the benevolent militarism of America. How do you deal with death in a benevolent manner, no matter if it comes to friend or foe? How do you deal with “collateral damage” in a benevolent manner. How about the collateral damage in the minds and souls of those who’ve been a part of war? Cultural scions have been able to remove philosophical discussions of overt militarism and the selfishness of the free market out of the societal realm.  

Would you like another myth fueled by those that seem to want their working class passive and herded as easily as cattle to pasture?

According to Charles Kenny of Bloomberg Businessweek the myth of small business as the main engine of job growth in this country is false. Politicos of all stripes like to portray that mom and pop notion of business as the heart of American industry. While 90 percent of companies have 20 or fewer employees, the numbers indicate a very different employment picture. Fully eighty percent of workers are employed by what would be considered larger firms. Not all of those employers are Fortune 500 companies but it points to the fact that a larger number of people work for corporate America than for mom and pop.

Mom and pop tend to stay home and know the first names of their customers.  

Larger firms tend to be the ones that are traded on the New York Stock Exchange, flee for cheap labor and have a hard time remembering just who their employees are let alone the names of their customers.

Ah, myth.

Ah, myopia.

Boy are we good at it.