And when the Roman Proconsul pressed him again and said, “Swear by the genius of Caesar,” Polycarp answered, “Since you are vainly urgent that, as you say, I should swear by the genius of Caesar, and pretend not to know who and what I am, hear me declare with boldness: I am a Christian … [And] we [Christians] are taught to give all due honor to the powers and authorities ordained by God as long as it does not entail injury to ourselves.”
The Martyrdom of Polycarp, X
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Did you ever wonder why the national anthem is sung at major athletic events, and not at, say, rock concerts, ballets, symphonies, plays, poetry readings, or performances of Broadway musicals?
The reason is simple: the professional sports establishment is, in effect, an adjunct of the State. It’s a branch of the military-industrial complex, a tool for propagating patriotic sentiment, loyalty to country, and nationalistic pride.
It’s not without cause that in 2009, just eight years after 9/11, the U.S. Defense Department began paying the NFL to “encourage” its players to participate in the singing of the national anthem. According to Arizona Senators Jeff Flake and John McCain, “nearly $5.4 million were paid out to fourteen NFL teams between 2011 and 2014 to honor service members and put on elaborate ‘patriotic salutes’ to the military.”[i] This is the reality behind President Donald Trump’s suggestion that not standing for the national anthem constitutes an affront to military veterans.
Trump’s critics have denied this, of course. Fox News’s Shepard Smith, for example, has stated that players who take the knee are not “attacking the anthem, troops, and flag …”[ii] Actor and civil rights activist Jesse Williams has gone even further, asserting, “This anthem thing is a scam. This is not actually part of football.”[iii]
Unfortunately, it is. Much as some of us may hate to admit it, Trump’s sensibilities are, in this instance, closer to the truth than Williams’s. There is in fact an inescapable logic behind his excoriation of the protesting NFL players. In the final analysis, football and the anthem do go hand-in-hand. That’s because the sports establishment exists primarily to promote the interests of the State.
French sociologist Jacques Ellul understood this. In his landmark 1954 book, The Technological Society (La Technique), he stated the case in the following terms:
“It is needless to speak of the totalitarian frame of mind for which the exercise of sports paves the way. We constantly hear that the vital thing is ‘team spirit,’ and so on. It is worth noting that technicized sport was first developed in the United States, the most conformist of all countries, and that it was then developed as a matter of course by the dictatorships, Fascist, Nazi, and Communist, to the point that it became an indispensable constituent element of totalitarian regimes.
“Sport is an essential factor in the creation of the mass man.”[iv]
It is also needless – or should be – to point out that this “totalitarian frame of mind” is not only incompatible with the Pilgrim’s identity as a stranger and sojourner in the world, but inimical to the Pilgrim’s determination to “pledge allegiance” to no one and nothing but his Lord.
Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick deserves a word of commendation for being Christian enough to decline participation in “elaborate patriotic salutes” that belie the Pilgrim’s fundamental calling. In his case, there’s just one question remaining:
Is he also Christian enough to give up football?
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[i] Melanie Schmitz, “How the NFL sold patriotism to the U.S. military for millions;” thinkprogress.org, September 25, 2017.
[ii] Steven Ruiz, “Fox News’ Shepard Smith on NFL protests: They’re not attacking the anthem;” USA Today, For the Win, September 25, 2017.
[iv] Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, pp. 382-384.