Professional sports love to wrap themselves in the American flag. They assume that spectators and television viewers are super patriotic and that they will appreciate their favorite sport's devotion to the spirit of nationalism and gratitude towards those who made sacrifices for our country. Every home club selects someone to sing the National Anthem before the game begins, and the flag waves on high.
It was not always so. The patriotic ritual only began in baseball during the First World War. Clubs doubled down on the nationalist spirit after the 9-11 attacks. The Red Sox regularly display an enormous flag that drapes the entire Green Monster wall in left field. They offer special discount pricing on tickets to active-duty, reserve, veteran, and retired service members and their families and recognize a veteran during each game.
The American flag is a symbol of unity in a country that is deeply divided over political and social issues. In the same way that burning the Koran or drawing cartoons of Muhammed triggers the outrage (and sometimes violence) of some devout Muslims, burning the American flag is sure to infuriate proud Americans. Symbols are meaningful.
That is why the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) took the controversial step of banning the official use of the Confederate flag (often referred to as the "battle flag") in any NASCAR activity. The reason that decision was controversial was that Southerners see themselves as NASCAR's greatest fans, and some see the flag of the failed rebellion as their treasured icon.
In response to the Charleston massacre of nine bible-studying churchgoers, Americans of all political persuasions saw the connection between the alleged perpetrator and the Confederate flag. Although persons of color have long appreciated the hateful implications of the stars and bars, it took a national tragedy to open the eyes of many of their brethren.
NASCAR has urged its avid followers not to bring the Confederate flag to their races: "[W]e are asking our fans and partners to join us in a renewed effort to create an all-inclusive, even more welcoming atmosphere for all who attend our events." It will be interesting to see if the hardcore comply.
Those who now understand the secondary meaning of the Confederate flag, as a symbol of slavery and the continued patterns of racial domination, originally may have intended no harm. But by continuing to wave their dastardly symbol, they have chosen sides in this battle. While amajority of Americans may still see the flag only as a symbol of Southern pride, it is much worse than that. Every region of the country should be proud, but not at the expense of their fellow citizens.
Sports and politics have long been intertwined, and the flag dispute is but the latest example. In 1937 and 1938, when boxing was the most popular sport in the world, Joe Louis and Max Schmelling fought two bouts in sold-out Yankee stadium. Many Americans, particularly those of Southern heritage, had real problems rooting for the black son of a sharecropper. They knew, however, that his opponent was a German favorite of Der Fuehrer, and they had no trouble recognizing the evil lurking behind the swastika. Louis lost the first match, but prevailed in the second. Americans hoped it was a portend of the war against the Nazis that was soon to break out.
For African Americans, the Confederate flag is as odious a symbol of racial hatred as the Nazi flag. All Americans may not yet appreciate that fact, but NASCAR does. This weekend, Daytona Speedway has offered those patrons who bring the stars and bars to the race the opportunity to exchange it for the stars and stripes. The Civil War is over.