Keep politics out of sports? Mark Cuban tried. Then all hell broke loose

From the moment nearly five years ago when Colin Kaepernick first kneeled during the national anthem to start a conversation over racial inequality and social injustice, the collective plea from the American right has been loud and clear: Keep politics out of sports.

Well, Mark Cuban obliged them. Then all hell broke loose.

The rightwing media ecosphere spent the entirety of Wednesday condemning the decision by the billionaire owner of the Dallas Mavericks to not play the anthem before the team’s home games. The Mavs managed to get through 13 preseason and regular-season contests at the American Airlines Center over 56 days before anyone seemed to notice. But notice they did, finally. And the news of Cuban’s decision published late Tuesday night was like manna from heaven for the conservative outrage machine, if only to divert attention from the comically inept start to Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial.

On Fox & Friends, Fox News’s flagship breakfast show, anchor Brian Kilmeade oscillated between faux anger and pearl-clutching disgust: “This is anti-Americanism,” he cried. “All those other countries that play the national anthem, they’re perfect. We’re not perfect, so we shouldn’t stand for it. Now we can’t even play it.” (Co-host Ainsley Earhardt was done in by the wicked irony in the name of the Mavs’ home court: “And they play in American Airlines [Arena]!”)

On Outnumbered, another Fox morning program, former Wisconsin congressman Sean Duffy chalked it up as a decisive win for Xi Jinping for those keeping score at home: “Let’s be clear: Mark Cuban is a globalist, he’s not a patriot … This is bad for America and this is great for China.”

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The predictable parade of Texas pols took their swings, led by the former Houston-based talk radio host turned lieutenant governor Dan Patrick, who described it as a “slap in the face” and called on Cuban to sell the team to “some Texas Patriots”.

Over on Newsmax, the upstart black tar heroin alternative to the Fox News dopamine rush, a panel of no fewer than six pundits decried the “cancelling” of the 207-year-old song (“Will they replace it with the Chinese national anthem?”), with a mum Mark Halperin barely able to conceal his embarrassment. On RedState, it was taken as a sign that Cuban is positioning himself for a run at the presidency in 2024.

By midday, the NBA forfeited whatever social credibility it had banked in the Kaepernick era when it stepped in to say all teams will play the anthem moving forward in keeping with longstanding league policy. And Cuban issued a terse statement saying the decision to not play it so far this year was the product of ongoing conversations with members of the community who felt the tradition “did not fully represent them”.

But that resolution did nothing to turn down the temperature on the right.

At 5.28pm on the east coast – while every other US news channel was carrying the Senate impeachment trial and chilling new Capitol security footage from the 6 January insurrection – the co-hosts of Fox’s afternoon panel show The Five took turns teeing off on Cuban and the NBA: “Kneeling is one thing,” co-host Jesse Watters said. “Cancelling the anthem? We finally found out where the line is with social justice and Mark flew right past it.”

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But none could hold a candle to the weapons-grade aggrievement of Leo Terrell, the civil rights lawyer and regular guest on Sean Hannity’s show, who went for the gold:

What Mark Cuban did is appeasement to millionaires, predominately minorities. Millionaires enjoying the greatness of this country. You see, the NBA is a left-wing socialist sports organization. Economically, they’re in bed with China. They support Black Lives Matter. And now they’re talking about social injustice. These are millionaires who don’t vote. If they really care about social injustice, let’s work on black on black crime. Let’s start working on school choice. But these millionaires are being victims. And I find it insulting, this argument of systemic discrimination. … Who is this bogeyman who has implemented systemic discrimination? It does not exist in America, because of that flag and because people sacrificed and gave a lot for this country.

You get the idea. The anthem remains one of those hot-button issues in the culture wars because it exposes a fault line between those who see the old battle hymn and US flag as ideals beyond reproach and others who believe patriotism is contingent on how a country treats its citizens. It’s the 1776 Commission v the 1619 Project, in the flesh. The rift is reflected in the origin stories each side tells itself about how we came to play the anthem before every domestic sporting event in the US, which, note to Kilmeade, is a very American phenomenon.

In one version of the story, the practice was born during Game 1 of the 1918 World Series between the Red Sox and Cubs at Chicago’s Comiskey Park as a tribute to the more than 100,000 soldiers lost in the 17 months since the US had entered the first world war – in addition to the bombing of the Chicago Federal Building only four days earlier, an attack that killed four people and injured 30 others.

In another version, the adoption of the anthem as a daily pre-game tradition around the start of the second world war, when the government had started to draft major league ballplayers for military service, was a shrewd way for baseball’s owners to define their business as patriotic and essential to national morale. Hardly a gesture of selfless patriotism, but a gambit of craven self-interest and just plain good for business.

The truth, like so many things, is somewhere in between. But finding the middle ground isn’t exactly our strong suit these days. Which likely explains why the NBA folded like a lawn chair rather than engage in the completely reasonable conversation that Cuban tried to start. But the fact that it took nearly two months before anyone noticed it tells you everything you need to know about just how empty and performative this ritual has become.

“During our games, most people don’t even show up for the anthem. When they’re at the game, on the concourses they don’t stop. Some don’t even stand,” he told the Dallas Morning News. “I would rather not play it if people won’t respect it, and I would rather not play it if it is going to be used as a weapon when people disagree with what it represents.”

“I wanted to see if anyone noticed,” he added. “No one said a word.”



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