The big business of professional patriotism

Anyone who’s been to a baseball or football game recently must be wondering where the line is between honoring veterans and the military, and using their experience and wounds for marketing gain.

At Target Field, there are no more openings this year to be the veteran that raises the American flag — the moment which sparks loudest cheers at a Twins game these days. The games are all booked up for the rest of the year.

It’s a nice moment, for sure, but does the continuing exposition of the military have some exploitation involved?

Nick Francona, a former Marine (he was a sniper in Afghanistan), and the son of a near legendary baseball manager, blew the whistle on Major League Baseball during this week’s “Only a Game” from WBUR. He’s seen reality close up because he was a liason to veterans for the Angels, Dodgers, and Mets.

He created a program for Memorial Day for the Mets, he recalled, in which he paired Gold Star families with a player. The players recorded videos that told the stories of the fallen.

Memorial Day

Mickey Callaway, David Wright, Brandon Nimmo, Wilmer Flores and Paul Sewald each share a personal connection to a member of the mIlitary that lost their life on duty. On #MemorialDay they honor those men and women that paid the ultimate sacrifice. If you have a story of a fallen service member we encourage you to share it and join us in honoring them today.

Posted by New York Mets on Monday, May 28, 2018

He says the players were emotional and authentic. They wore wristbands honoring the dead.

Major League Baseball? Not so much, he says.

“So I’m on the flight back, and I get an email from someone with the Mets asking, like, ‘Oh, great job. Now we need to get all the families to sign these waivers, to waive the rights as licensees for the bracelets that these guys wore.’ And I’m, like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, were not … like, absolutely not.’

“They referred to them as ‘license holders.’ The families. And I’m, like, ‘I think you mean parent of dead Marine or soldier.’ Patently offensive. And there was no way I was going to have them sign that and refused to do so. I wanted to know exactly whose bright idea this was and was going to give them a piece of my mind. And that ended it pretty quickly. And the next day was my last day there.

“They called me in and said, ‘You’ve done a great job here, really had a huge impact. You’ve also had a big impact on the veteran stuff with Major League Baseball, but your comments aren’t compatible with having a career in baseball. So we’re going to have to part ways.’ “

He’s out of baseball now.

“I’ll find something else. I think it’s sad. And I think it speaks volumes about the state of Major League Baseball,” he said.

Much of this springs from 9/11, when patriotism — the real patriotism — brought the nation together in the pre-war aftermath of an attack on the country. The rituals served their purpose, says Bill Astore, a retired Air Force officer who writes about militarization in sports on his blog, “Bracing Views.”

“We sing ‘God Bless America’ during the seventh-inning stretch, because, well, that’s what we do now,” Astore says. “We have a huge flag and military flyovers because that’s what we do. We celebrate a military person after the fourth inning because that’s what we do. And we’ve come to expect it.

“I think we as Americans need to come together and recognize that all of this needs to be ratcheted back, that we need to return to a simpler time — when you played the national anthem, you respected our country and then you play ball. And you just enjoy the game the way it was meant to be enjoyed.”

  • Mike Worcester

    Is baseball more guilty (if that is the correct word to use) of this than the other pro sports? I don’t watch enough to be able to make a fair comparison.

    I will also say — potentially at the risk of being heavily criticized — that demanding the taking one’s cap off for God Bless America is not appropriate as it is not our national anthem. I don’t, but if others do, fine.

    • >>I will also say — potentially at the risk of being heavily criticized — that demanding the taking one’s cap off for God Bless America is not appropriate as it is not our national anthem. I don’t, but if others do, fine.<<

      I was about to make similar statement.

      It's a fine song, don't get me wrong, but I'm not going to stop talking to my buddies, take off my cap, cross my heart, or whatever because I look at it pretty much the same as I look at "Sweet Caroline."

      • Nato Coles

        It’s MUCH worse than “Sweet Caroline”. And I don’t like “Sweet Caroline”. The only song I might give the edge to GBA over is Joe Mauer’s walkup music (except when he uses “7” by Prince).

      • At Target Field, you’re instructed to take off your cap. If I’m an atheist singing basically a prayer to a higher power, why do I have to take off my cap?

        • theoacme

          Because when Trump and the Republican Party organization * says “God”, they do not mean the God of Mary Dyer, but the God of the son of Ayn Rand and Adolf Hitler.

          * – given how the Democratic Party organization has not condemned the military-corporate fascism of the Republican Party sufficiently (meaning, in real terms, not at all), I’d say that my belief that the Democratic Party organization is a completely submissive and concupiscent branch of the utterly fascist Republican Party is entirely confirmed.

    • Glsai

      Yes it is. Minnesota United I think had a giant flag out one day this year, The Fourth of July. They have the military present the flag at every game and they sing the national anthem of the countries playing (USA and Canada). Beyond that I don’t recall any military representation, well maybe the sky divers that brought the ball to the field on the Fourth (but I’m not sure they were military).

  • Nato Coles

    If you don’t take off your hat for GBA, there’s a decent chance some *American Hero* will take offense. It’s been awhile since anybody has verbally taken issue with me not removing my hat at a ballgame (I don’t), but the next time someone does, I plan to reply: “I don’t believe god exists, but if it did, I certainly wouldn’t try to curry favor with it by asking it to ‘bless’ my country through the use of a song that rhymes ‘oceans white with foam’ with ‘my home sweet home’. It’s the single worst rhyme of convenience that I can think of in the history of music! White with foam? Is that what Irv really thought of when he pictured an ocean???” …and let the chips fall where they may, ha.

    • RBHolb

      GBA is a terrible song. Woody Guthrie hated it so much that he wrote “This Land is Your Land” as an alternative.

      • Nato Coles

        Exactly! The other part of the story I love, and only recently learned: Berlin revised it, and it became truly popular, just before WWII as an anti-Hitler song. Not during – before. Berlin, as an American Jew, wanted to pay tribute to the USA for being a place he could live and prosper and be happy, as opposed to Nazi Germany. Funny how things go… or might go…

        • Jack Ungerleider

          Actually, according to the story in the accompanying link, GBA was originally written for “Yip, Yip, Yaphank” the musical review Berlin wrote as a member of the Army in WWI. The incredible thing, considering how it has been co-opted is that Berlin wrote it as a “peace song”.

          • Nato Coles

            Yes, it was written for that musical – then he ditched it and it went unused for 20 years. He revised and revived it as an anti-Hitler attempt at a peace song right before WWII (in 1938 I suppose) and only then did it gain its popularity.

    • >>If you don’t take off your hat for GBA, there’s a decent chance some *American Hero* will take offense.<<

      No kidding. I'd tell them to "get bent."

    • jon

      Yeah, when they are taking offense because they feel you are insulting their country, they’ll love it when you start insulting their imaginary friends and calling their very existence into question…

    • Glsai

      I have never taken my cap off for GBA, I have never stood for GBA. It’s been a couple years since I’ve been to a baseball game, do they sing it at every game, or only on Sundays?

  • Nato Coles

    That’s a great article. I saw it linked on the old HardballTalk blog (now the NBC baseball blog, hosted by Craig Calcaterra) a few days ago. Nick Francona should have a job in MLB, the fact he doesn’t says everything that needs to be said about sports, phony patriotism, and the state of the union regarding the intersection of both in 2018 (and the years leading up). The anonymous quote near the end reminds me of the old anecdote about the factory director who was the first guy to stop applauding Stalin at a party meeting…

  • Jerry

    How come every time we celebrate our country, it involves celebrating our military? I hope there is a lot more we can take pride in than our ability to beat other peoples at war. It’s like a perverse version of the people who support universities, but only actually care about the sports teams.

    • >> I hope there is a lot more we can take pride in than our ability to beat other peoples at war.<<

      And we seem to have not really "won" the last few we've entered.

      • Jerry

        You just have to move the goal posts.

        And we totally kicked butt in Grenada and Panama.

        • >>And we totally kicked butt in Grenada and Panama.<<

          LOL, the American Legion wanted me to join saying that I was a "wartime" veteran because I was in the service during Operation "Urgent Fury" (Grenada). I was stationed at Ft. Benning at that time and never left…

          I haven't laughed that hard in some time.

          • Jim in RF

            My old man who got a purple heart in the south Pacific in WWII (stabbed in hand-to-hand combat in the dark) got so steamed at the wannabes in the VFW in my small town that he quit.

          • RBHolb

            I’ll bet your Dad never talked much about that part of his service.

            My Dad used to say the loudest mouths at the Legion or the VFW were the guys who were never in real combat.

          • That’s usually how it happens.

            All I ever did was march up and down the square.


          • JamieHX

            Is your dad still around, Jim in RF? Either way, thanks to him; that sounds like a harrowing experience. May the Universe care for him and his memory.

          • Rob

            Urgent Fury is what happens when there’s no bathroom nearby, and you really, really need one.

          • Oh, I know it!

          • Jerry

            Is “Urgent Fury” when marketing executives took over naming military operations and they started sounding like bad Steven Seagal movies?

      • RBHolb

        We would have, except the librul media wouldn’t let us.

        Geez, it’s like you’ve never seen “Rambo.”

        • Jerry

          Isn’t that also the theme of “Mein Kampf”?

    • Jerry

      I also wonder why the only government employees we honour as heroes are those whose jobs require them to carry weapons, instead of those who try to guarantee clean water and safe buildings.

    • merry_rose

      Jim Wright calls it “fetishing the military”.

  • merry_rose

    Jim Wright, the retired Navy CWO who writes the blog Stonekettle Station, calls it “fetishizing the military”. It’s the never ending thanking of everyone in uniform and calling everyone who’s serving or has served “heroes”. It’s gotten to the point that it doesn’t mean anything anymore and tying everything to thanking active military and veterans diminishes the sentiment. He’s also pretty opinionated about turning every holiday into a “thank and support the troops, past and present, especially Independence Day which celebrates ALL Americans, not just the military.

    • JamieHX

      I really mean it when I say ‘thank you’ to someone, but I agree with some of this.

  • emersonpie

    There was a time when many, perhaps most, families shared in the sacrifice of fighting wars. Not any more. Our country is currently at war, but very few of us are sacrificing anything. So these displays make the audience feel they’ve done something for the troops, or the vets, and then they can go back to their fun.

  • TBH

    I enjoyed my time raising the flag at Target Field in 2012 tremendously. It was a good feeling.

    My honorable discharge was in 2014 and I am a fairly social person. I’ve met a lot of people in the past few years. They might guess that I was/am military based on the haircut I maintain to this day, but many of them don’t even know because I typically just don’t bring it up. Some only learn of my service when coming to my home for the first time and seeing my honorable discharge on the wall.

    I’ve gotten uncomfortable with and feel the “thank the troops” movement has gone too far. I struggle with responding when confronted with that as “I only joined because I wanted money for college” and “I just did not want to work in a restaurant and college was not for me” are not very acceptable responses (both of which describe me, but I do not speak for all). I typically will just respond with a handshake and a “thank you for your support.” Considering I have not worn the uniform for years, the scenario I described is extremely rare today.

  • Guest

    This is all better than spitting at vets and screaming Baby-Killers at them.

    • By “this” are you referring to the Mets’ attitude and how they see vets?

      • Support the Mets?

      • Guest

        The whole idea that supporting military brings more profit. Sure it is more driven by business than true thanks, but I am glad bringing forth vets no longer brings boos.

  • lindblomeagles

    I’m not entirely sure why the military pageantry before our sports’ contests has continued since 911, but, to me it feels like the teams and the fans’ salute is similar to “Tebowing” before a game. Instead of praying to the heavens for a victory, we stand before the National Anthem hoping our remembrance of those who sacrificed their lives will enable us to win the sporting contest.

  • MrE85

    My wife and I are both veterans. We don’t need flags and flyovers. Some of our fellow veterans need help finding a job or a place to live. Many also need help in healing the visible and invisible scars of war. What to thank us for our service? That’s how you can do it.

  • “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist.”