Ordinary sporting events have ordinary displays of patriotism. However, the Super Bowl has had extraordinary expressions of patriotism. Trying to live up to my pledge to give up football, I did not watch the Super Bowl this year, but a few years ago I was paying only partial attention to the opening ceremonies of the game as I was preparing dinner for the wife and the NBP (I am a modern sort of guy). Listening with half an ear, I thought I heard portions of what seemed like a five minute narration by Johnny Cash about the flag, and there was a trio singing, I think, “America the Beautiful,” and then a sprightly version of the national anthem, followed by the flyover of military jets flying in close formation low over the stadium just as the National Anthem ended.
I have no idea when the flyover ritual started. I am always amazed by it. How can the timing be so precise? My most memorable flyover was combined with another patriotic display, the flight of Challenger. This Challenger is a bald eagle, and I have seen him in action several times at Yankee Stadium. My memory is that the bird was originally released outside the stadium during the National Anthem and would fly to the pitcher’s mound or home plate where he would land majestically on his handler’s wrist. As time went on, Challenger would be released from right in front of the center field fence for his flight to the infield. It is magnificent seeing an eagle fly in the wild, and I always found Challenger’s flight nearly as thrilling. The last time I saw him (I say “him,” but I don’t know whether the eagle is male or female), however, was different. It was a playoff or World Series game because the rosters of both teams had been announced and were lined up on the first and third baselines. Challenger was flying in from the outfield as the National Anthem was concluding, and then the flyover came. This time the planes flew really low. I was in the fourth row of the upper deck, and my knees buckled a bit from the vibrations. (How do the residents of the Bronx respond to this patriotic display? Many must not know it’s coming, and perhaps think New York City is under attack again.) Challenger was not prepared for the flyover. He had been about to land on his handler’s wrist, but the jets seemed to knock him out of the air. It was as if he hit an air pocket, and he dropped like a stone for about ten feet. He then seemed disoriented. He swooped around the lower deck and returned to the playing field where he had Derek Jeter and other players ducking out of his way. He did not land on his handler. He finally settled unceremoniously on the infield grass and appeared very sad and discombobulated. His handler had to walk over and collect him.
Is there truly a connection between such patriotic rituals and the sports events that follow? This question brings back a memory of Rocky Graziano, who won and lost the middleweight championship within a year during the heyday of boxing. After retiring he wrote an autobiography, Somebody Up There Likes Me, which appealed to my schoolboy fantasies and was made into a successful movie starring Paul Newman. Later, he did the talk show circuit telling amusing stories in heavy Brooklynese. On one of them he said that he hated “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Merv Griffiin or Mike Douglas or whoever it was looked at him incredulously and asked why. Graziano replied quite logically, “I knew that whenever the national anthem was over, someone was going to try to knock me unconscious.”Those of us who are sports fans have heard the National Anthem countless times at stadiums and arenas and on broadcasts, but last year there were months when we had no spectator sports, and we weren’t getting the usual doses of the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Did we become less patriotic with its absence or is that ritualistic singing irrelevant in having a love of America? I had hoped that with the pandemic, we might reassess the connection between sports and patriotism. That seems to be what the Dallas Mavericks were doing, but just as there is “cancel culture,” there is also mandated culture. In this land of the free, you can apparently be required to act in a way some deem patriotic.be
Of course in the olden days when I first started going to sporting events, the venues did not have the fancy screens and scoreboards of today. Just imagine, you were expected to sing the national anthem from memory instead of reading it off a giant display. What does it say about the level of patriotism or the level of education of sports fans today that it now seems essential to provide the words to the spectators?
And I was taught back then not to applaud after the anthem to show it proper respect. That aspect of decorum is gone. If there is a connection between the singing and patriotism, then sports fans should love this country much more than those who do not know what a pick-off move is. Or at least sports spectators who are not golf fans should. I have heard it said that professional golfers are the most conservative of professional athletes and that golfers in general are more conservative than those who indulge in other pursuits. I do watch golf on television. Unlike every other televised sporting event I have seen (except maybe for tennis, another upper-class sport), I have never heard the national anthem as part of a golf telecast. May I assume that those at a golf event are less patriotic than those at a football game? I wonder if our previous Golfer-in-Chief ever sang “The Star-Spangled Banner”—assuming he knows the words—before he plopped down in a golf cart for his frequent eighteen holes. Perhaps if he had sung the National Anthem more, he would have supported the Capitol Police.