ESPN's Howard Bryant capped off a year of flag-fear and injection of racial politics into sports with his “The Truth” column in the magazine’s December 26, 2016 issue: “Fight of Our Times – In a year of great victory and great unrest, the legacy of Muhammad Ali has never felt more vital. But will athletes continue to rise up in 2017?”
Bryant is known for his BLM-style rants against the alleged epidemic of racist police brutality, and has a particular loathing for public patriotism in professional sports. He really doesn’t like cops singing the National Anthem before games, as it contributes to an atmosphere “decidedly, often uncomfortably, nationalistic.")
Bryant took his familiar shots in his 2016 wrap-up, equating American flags at the ballpark with the squelching of dissent:
In the final months of 2016, which saw the year transform from tumult into crippling clarity, an authoritarian image for an authoritarian time stood out as definitive: the spectacle of sports, particularly every Sunday in the NFL. The veneer of patriotism baked into the sport’s DNA created an appearance of unity and oneness designed to obscure cultural divisions and intimidate dissent.
Sports were played in 2016 along the fault lines of race and gender and class, each increasingly inescapable, but instead of engagement, the sports machine responded with more flags and more flyovers.
Instead they were met with an energized opposition; many of the predominantly white season-ticket buyers and members of the media reacted to protests with increasing fatigue. They were intractable, largely disinterested in the grievance of police brutality, preferring to explore the anger at the popular, though false, narrative of black anti-Americanism. Fans wanted less kneeling and more touchdowns, for their home team or their fantasy team, telling the players they cheered to stick to sports, even as they were surrounded by more politics -- more police, more military, more obedience on game day.
Bryant talked of the acquittal of South Carolina policeman Michael Slager in the death of Walter Scott and lamented that the uprising against racist cops would evidently be postponed for now.
It is this, the stunning lack of accountability, the insulting lack of collective outrage – and not an attack on patriotism or the flag – that explains why these athletes kneel, why they do not shut up and play. It explains the T-shirts, the interlocking arms, the defiance. It also explains why all players did not in 2016 -- and likely won’t in 2017 -- rise to their feet and actually become one.