What I Think About the National Anthem Protests: NFL Players Can Kneel & Trump Is a Bum

A grandfather, father and son; three generations of William Sabia’s; three generations of Philly sports fans used to go watch 18 baseball games every summer. We watched them together from our right field seats all through my younger and more vulnerable years. We watched the best years with the mullet brigade of 1993 that lost the World Series to a bunch of Canadian hosers. We also watched the worst years of Philadelphia Phillies baseball. The years when future Hall of Shamers Von Hayes or Steve Jeltz were the best players, the years when the stadium was a non-descript, circular, multi-purpose green hole called Veterans Stadium. The floors were wet even on sunny days, the food was limited to soggy hot dogs or stale pretzels and the bathrooms were intimidatingly filthy, but my memories of those summer nights remain as pure as Kevin Costner’s plan in Field of Dreams.

We’d eat a big Italian dinner at Dante & Luigi’s then make our way to the parking lot. (Later we’d relocate from that eatery to Medora’s Mecca due to an attempted mafia hit in 1989.) The games, as all American sports, began with a rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner.” I used to take off my hat, stand at attention, hand over heart and peek up at my grandfather who served in the Navy during WW2. He seemed to be rather emotionless and more excited to mark down the bases and strikes in the program book. The song reminded me of him, and my other deceased family members who served.

It was my feelings that I can more surely remember. Beyond the excitement of sitting with my Naunu and Dad with their undivided attention on me and whatever phase of young problems were bothering me at that moment, I was definitely moved by that song every time. To this day, the goose bumps still raise my sparse arm hairs, chilling each nerve during the final crescendo of that contrasting anthem to war and freedom.

Playing Pee-Wee football in my little town, we couldn’t afford helmets or pads newer than the 1970’s dress-up kits in which we used to be outfitted. Thus, our little crappy speaker system, on which my Italian surname was consistently and variously butchered, played a very weak instrumental version of the national anthem. Nevertheless, we all stood, swimming in our oversized helmets and one size fits none shoulder pads. Most of the time, the flag lay limp on the pole, a far cry from the 100 yard flapping inspiration held taught by veterans we see on Sunday Night Football. The “flag was still there” is the way to understand it. We play contact sports under the lights and under the flag. We zone out while pledging allegiance to it. Cheesy American backpackers during the Bush era used to sew Canadian flags to their rucksacks to avoid political conversations about Iraq. The flag is there, even when you don’t notice it or try to hide it.

The flag is boldly symbolic of our unity and passively suggestive of the manifested destiny of struggles our past has provided our future. It means different things to all, just like our country. Some immigrants imagined America as paved with gold, a metaphor for golden opportunities for their children. Other forced “immigrants” found a world of cruelty and enslavement. The “flag was still there” through all those rounds of foreigners coming voluntarily or vice versa. The stars kept growing and history kept moving. The American flag is a visual expression of our pride, or our pain. Surely, we can all understand both sides.

The benevolent peace I experience from the national anthem as a white male, non-veteran yet proud American may be starkly divergent from my cultural opposites. I’ve seen the cellphone videos of police brutality and I watched in disbelief through the Rodney and O.J. affairs. I recently watched Ava Duvernay’s 13th (Netflix) and Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro (Amazon). They are eye-opening glimpses of an American experience where the stars and stripes provide a twisted pride. A pride of earned freedom but never escaping from under a racist thumb, people rising as a Phoenix from their historical ashes only to sink again under the destructive weight of racist oppression.

Enter Colin Kaepernick in 2016, a Super Bowl caliber NFL QB confronting his American confusion from within his bi-racial skin while growing up adopted in a white family, part of an all-Black college fraternity, blessed with superhuman sporting skills and cursed with a mind too curious to just keep his mouth shut and cash the checks. He lives in a world where Obama is president to only half the country, Black men’s murders are being caught on video at a terrible pace and here he is, making millions, wondering what words or even what right he may have to use his celebrity to say something.

He takes a knee. Like the proverbial ripples on a still pond, his kneel reverberated. The ripples cost him his job. The ripples have now flowed from the Bay Area to D.C. This week, our disgraceful 45th president, who never misses a chance to take an uneducated, unthinking, unsophisticated gut reaction into the public without any semblance of nuance called Kaepernick and anyone else kneeling a “son of a bitch.” He called American men, American athletes, American protesters, American heroes—sons of bitches. He called them that because they are looking to enact change, or at the least bring awareness to a decades old problem—some police see Black men as dangerous. Let’s ignore the fact that Trump speaks the way kids imitate their drunk, racist grandfather and just acknowledge that he is a boring, tactless, race-baiting, impulsive, spiteful, incurious, douchebag. His opinions are as useless as a bikini in Saudi Arabia. His face is as paunchy as a hippo duck facing a selfie. Instead of being sympathetic or simply ignoring this story, he blew moonshine into the bonfire.

Johnny Cash was the man in black. “I wear it for the poor and beaten down, living on the hopeless, hungry side of town. I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime, but is there because he’s a victim of the times.” These football players are men in black, men whose blackness defines their life, but not their identity. Many of them came from that hopeless, hungry side of town. Many of them may know someone in prison for a victimless crime like marijuana. Johnny Cash wore black; they are choosing, like Kaepernick, to take a knee, to show that America has not fully reconciled its slave-holding past. We have not fully committed to our motto, E Pluribus Unum. Thirteen letters, thirteen original colonies, thirteenth amendment. America is trying to move forward. Trump is a gold plated, bone spurred step backward.

We all must try to understand that black lives matter doesn’t negate other lives. Taking down Civil War statues doesn’t negate history. Kneeling before the flag doesn’t negate others’ sacrifices. The NFL players are allowed to kneel for the song. The flag will still be there. It reflects what we project upon it. Whatever you see within those Stars & Stripes probably reveals part of your own personal American history, standing, sitting or kneeling.

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Football Runs on America

Most sports fans in America are a fan of two sports, football, and any one of the others. I know I’m generalizing, but it is certainly the most popular sport in the USA. Living abroad, the NFL season appears out of nowhere. We are not subject to the onslaught of misleading preseason games, training camp dramas, draft day projections or constant SportsCenter coverage. It’s not to say I wasn’t unaware that it was approaching, it just wasn’t in the forefront of my mind. Football is the opiate of the masses in America. It is the great pacifier of the American male. As long as they have NFL games on Sunday, they could never assemble into government attacking militias, and I think those powers that be understand this fact. They would never have allowed that strike to happen at a time when unemployment is high and houses are being foreclosed. It is a desperately symbiotic relationship.

I watch the games onDemand through the Internet. The season opening game of defending champs NY Giants and the Cowboys of Dallas began as most games do, with the national anthem. It is the rallying cry for unity in the stadium and in the homes before the brutal, concussive combat and geographical animosity expressed by the colors of the jerseys turns average men into anxious Romans at the Coliseum salivating for violence on God’s day of rest. We know the feeling of testosterone surging and the way we catch ourselves gritting our teeth on 3rd and long or 4th and 1. We know the way we hate a player and know he is a disgrace—until he plays for our team. We know that Sunday is for football; it is comforting. The national anthem is that unifying moment where we all can remember it’s just a game and that it’s freedom that makes it possible. What is a little too symbolic is the flyover.

“Please rise for the singing of the national anthem…followed by a flyover of three Blackhawk helicopters,” said the announcer. Queen Latifah had a cool, new, hip-hop version of the song, which surprised and slightly annoyed me at first, but quickly grew on me. I like that it can be updated. And any excuse to repeat the favorite line of armchair singers “…home of the brave,” will be a desired change. The helicopters flew over the giant, glistening MetLife stadium in North Jersey after the last goose-bump inducing line was delivered, and a wild roar surged from the crowd. I realized they were cheering because those flying machines were on our side. They were cheering for how safe having those flying machines make us feel. They were cheering because war, and the elements of war, makes us feel something. It makes us feel a strange humility bred with arrogance for our great nation. Americans alive today have grown up on warfare and only had a handful of years when some foreign war was not involving the USA. We have tacitly given consent over the last half-century into the military-industrial complex. It is our economy. We produce beautiful celebrities and beautiful weapons. I’m not quite sure where it’s leading us, but being involved in two wars, the purposefully endless War on Terror and the fact that Hollywood will never run out of a pretty face to manipulate, makes it a safe bet that behavior continues. Beyond the subliminal jingoism of a flyover, it also reeks of an unintentional indoctrination though. It’s as if some invisible powers are telling us: “These jets and helicopters make this game possible, so don’t worry about the inconceivable amount of tax money we spend to keep them shiny and updated, and just enjoy the game.”

It’s completely natural to respect your country’s military. It’s natural to feel a bit of flag-waving patriotism when you see the might that is our arsenal. Somehow it just felt like a commercial when those helicopters flew over the Meadowlands.

European Football

Soccer may never catch on in the USA the way it has taken control of the world sports market. In Europe, soccer stars can make more money than A-Rod or Kobe Bryant. Manchester United has more worldwide fans than any other team in the world. It is a phenomenally popular sport. It is also very popular with the young kids in America, but once they grow up and become true Americans, they usually desire to hit something or someone, leading them to other more violent sports.

Perhaps I’m oversimplifying it, but that is what happened to me. I grew up skating on frozen ice surfaces, then playing organized hockey and as an eight-year-old, I knew I would be a professional ice hockey player. In high school, at 5’8” and <100 pounds, I was definitely more suited for soccer than football and ice hockey, but I still saw soccer as the dancing, falling, “foot fairy” sport it was at my all boys, testosterone filled high school. I may have been great had I practiced soccer with the zeal I put into my backyard roller blade sessions and slap shot. But that is just a dream. Besides, I loved to hit and I would’ve just got red-carded out of every game I was in anyway. Tackling and body-checks, despite my meager frame, were some of my favorite parts of those games. Now that I’m older, I see the perfection in basketball and soccer of using finesse to embarrass your opponent instead of just ramming your head into their chest.

In 2004, while on a brief, one-month stay for my last credit in college, I lived near Kensington Park in London, England. I lived in a large flat with 10 other U of Delaware students and we got real interested in the Tour De France, Wimbledon and of course the Euro Championships. England was doing well, and they drew host nation Portugal in the first round. Of course, it went to penalties, and anyone familiar with soccer knows, England doesn’t like them. They lost on PK’s for a fourth time in international play, and a collective sigh washed over the U.K. We were in a bar with a pile of dejected English hooligans and it was approaching midnight. We quietly, wisely snuck out instead of offering condolences. Greece went on to win their first championship against those same sweaty Portuguese. It was my first time experiencing the exhilaration of well-played soccer with passionate fans.

In 2006, the World Cup was in Germany, I was living in Austin with 4 other guys who loved the game. We had a DVR, air-conditioning, and I was working part-time; therefore, I watched every single game of that World Cup and it was awesome. Italy finally took the championship after a random and brutal head-butt red card ejected one of the all-time greats, Zinedine Zidane. We watched the final on our tiny TV at the Jersey shore with everyone rooting for Italy except for my crazy lady friend at the time who wanted France to win out of spite for Italy having defeated her beloved Germans. One month later, I was in Europe traveling and visiting all the places I had just seen on TV. I also caught a live game at the Stadio Olimpico in Roma, and learned a few curse words from the harassing Italian fans on some poor female ref. I also learned you can set off fireworks and flares in the stands at a soccer game.

I was living in Los Angeles briefly in 2007 with a beautiful girl and wanted to see the Mexico vs. USA final in the Copa De Oro (Gold Cup).  We had no TV, so my girlfriend asked her Mexican neighbors if we could watch with them. It was magical, USA won, but I mostly enjoyed listening to her translate my broken Spanish and converse with these nice old people for 90 minutes. They offered my super sweet Mexican soda and tortilla chips. It meant a lot to me that she went out of her way to find me the game I wanted to watch.

2008 saw the Euro Cup back in my life. This time I was working at a high school in Austin and had the summer off to enjoy each game again. This was the year of Spain’s domination. They never gave up more than one goal a game and usually scored more than one. One afternoon in Las Vegas, in a nice comfy hotel, the ex and I awoke with wicked hangovers from a friends’ wedding the night before. I found the Netherlands and Romania as well as the Italy and France games. We ordered greasy room service and watched 5 hours of soccer coverage. I was in heaven albeit with a stomachache; she was too sick to complain.

The World Cup was in vuvuzela world, South Africa, in 2010. USA was primed with young talent and ready to go. We surprisingly tied England, had a tough tie against Slovakia and amazingly pulled out a shocker win against Algeria, with a goal I’ll never forget by Landon Donovan. This was the hottest summer on record in Texas. They were in a terrible drought and it was basically too hot for A/C to effectively cool. The sun won the battle everyday. We sat inside due to lack of options and watched all the games again. It was a great month for me and a boring 30 days for the ex. I was not a fan of this World Cup, due to the constant drone of the African horns. They have since been outlawed in every corner of the world except South Africa, where they are seen as a “cultural heritage.” They may be, but I like to hear the songs and whistles of a soccer game, not the whine of a dying elephant through a didgeridoo. South America represented hard in this competition with four teams in the quarterfinals, but eventually, the Spaniards relentless defense and accurate attack won the day.

Last year, the Women’s World Cup showcased a new breed of American female athlete—the soccer player. Many are familiar with the WNBA or LPGA, but now we can root for those lovely ladies on the pitch. The American women blew through everyone on their way to the semifinals against Brazil, a perennial powerhouse. I can’t write down the fascinating and unbelievable culmination of that game because you probably saw it. Hell, to celebrate the ladies’ victory over Brazil, I cut my hair in the all too stylistically vexing, yet simultaneously efficient—mullet.  It seemed like everyone was watching those games. I know I had everyone around me fired up for the final. They took the country by storm and were on cereal boxes and Jay Leno and movie premieres, and they didn’t even win the title. Those poor Japanese people, still reeling from the devastating tsunami of March 2011, were more than happy to get the chance to celebrate something, and honestly, I could see the writing on the wall. Japan played hard and won fairly, but it was good for their country to have that win at that time. Just like when the Saints won the Super Bowl a few years after Katrina’s destruction.

Finally, here we are, post Euro 2012, Spain champions again. To watch the games here in South Korea, I had to wake up at 3:45 a.m. I can hear people laughing at the idea. It is too late to just stay up, and too early when the game is over to go back to bed for any substantial amount of sleep. Needless to say, I missed lots of games. I eventually hooked up my TV for the last few rounds. Soon, I found the rhythm, go to bed at 9, wake up at 3:30, watch the game with a slice of pizza around 4:30 and then back to bed at 5:30 before waking up for work at 7:30. It is ridiculous I know, but it was what I wanted to do. I like soccer. I used to wake up at 6:00 a.m. to go to Fado’s Irish Pub in Austin to watch Man United play premiership games while pounding Irish car bombs and Guinness’.

These competitions make stories of where I am in my life. I can remember exactly where I was and what I was doing due to the regularity of their timing. It is fun to watch with new people, bring your memories along with you for the ride to the next round. Now the Olympics are here in a month, and I will be rooting for South Korea (unless they are against USA.) Sport connects the world, it connects me to my love of athletic competition, and it connects us all in a positive manner. I’m glad to be a crazy fan.

Super Monday?

Super Sunday is a party day in America complete with gathering friends, extensive dip selections, cursing at the TV, watery beer, and the inevitable disappointment.  The disappointment for me comes knowing it’s seven months until football season again, sometimes disappointment in a boring, lopsided game, and for others it is the disappointment of being the supporter of a losing team.  For the lucky few who support the winning team, it is pure exhilaration of bragging rights for the whole year (despite having done nothing to contribute to the winning cause except second guess every 3rd down play and pretend to support the time they went for it on 4th and goal.)  As we know, all games need to have a loser (except in that rather excessively gentlemanly game of European football, where draws leave a sour yet satisfactory flavor in the mouth of its fans.)  But this post isn’t about winning and losing, it’s more about the community of the game.  At any time during Super Sunday, you can be sure there are chips, wings and beer being consumed.  You can be sure there is a myriad of pickup games, or a pre-game catch being played across the country.  The people watch the game even if they hate the two teams.  The party happens even if they have an early meeting the next day.  Women know not to expect men to attend church, go shopping, mow the lawn or do anything but watch the four-hour pre-game.  Although not every man in America watches this game, the ones who do find pure spirituality in the peace of one Sunday a year put aside to relaxation and competition.  I have always found the Super Bowl a time to measure a year, a time to know where I was that year by whom I was watching the game with.  One year, it was my first week in Austin, when the Eagles lost to the Patriots.  One year, it was a whole day spent with my Dad before watching Joe Montana.  This year was my first Super Bowl outside of America, and it felt different to watch the game on Monday night after work, but watching with friends and food always feels good.  This will be the year I ate Ramen during halftime and drank soju instead of beer.  This will be the year where we made it happen no matter what.  This is my first Super Bowl without commercials or a halftime show.  This was a Super Bowl to remind me how good it is to have friends.  People to laugh and enjoy life with.  I miss my friends in America, appreciate my friends in Korea and understand that being around people who both share common goals or interests while also sharing their disparate aspirations and activities helps people grow themselves.  Sports bring people together in a fierce atmosphere.  Competition is good and healthy.  At our “English teachers weekly game night” aka ‘Winnsday’, we all want to win, but usually, the laughs are the most important part.  After all, in charades, it’s not if you win or lose but how silly you can look while doing it.

Super Bowl

Everyone is a critic on the day after the big game. Since everyone saw the game, watching ever so closely so as to not miss a single commercial, halftime nipple slip, game-changing interception, replay of the Leon Lett fiasco or a classic Deion Sanders suit shot. It’s funny to hear non-sports fans discussing who played well or who was the hero or what commercial blew goats. Ladies, it’s not just you. I hear the men talking too. They all think they knew who was going to win. They all could have made that catch or made that pass, despite the mouth full of dip and hands slippery from a beer can’s condensation. The truth is, even the people who thought the Packers would win were still pretty nervous when that last drive began. After all, Big Ben has done it before, a la 2008 vs. Arizona. As good as it must feel to have confetti stuck to your chin with a Super Bowl hat on your head, it must be equally as bad to lose that game. We lost an ice hockey state championship when I was a senior in high school. The locker room was so quiet afterward, we could hear the ice melting. Sports requires a winner and a loser. There are no ties in sports. There are no ties in life. You either get the job or not. You either get the girl or not. Your life is like the Super Bowl everyday. The wins and losses don’t seem as big because there aren’t 100 million people watching. If you wrote a memo to the boss asking to take charge of the new account; depending on what he says and who is rooting for you, some of those 100 million will cheer and some will boo. There are two kinds of people: haters and the hated. Luckily, hopefully, we all get to be both at some point in our lives. A wise man once said, “no matter how good you are, there is always someone better.” The world needs haters and the world needs people to hate on. Ask Silky Johnson or Buck Nasty, they’ll tell you hating is a way of life. Football provides the fodder for hating and we provide the hate. Enjoy the game, pretend like you know what you’re talking about, eat yourself gorged, drink a few brewskis, and don’t forget to hate. This game is America. This game is when we all get together and enjoy Sunday. The playoffs are enormous fun to watch and usually the most stressful. The Super Bowl is when we can all sigh the relief that our team didn’t make it (as long as you’re an Eagles, Falcons, Chargers or Jets fan) and just enjoy the game. The spectacle of the day, the anticipation of the two week buildup, the beauty of Sunday funday creates a thunderdome of satisfaction. The Super Bowl is my Christmas. It’s not a holy day, just a day I look forward to enjoying. They do seem similar: I’m with loved ones usually, eat a big meal, watch the TV, and it’s highly commercialized. The difference is, we don’t get Monday off.