I don’t like American sports, and I don’t make a habit of watching them. I’ve read Moneyball, but I have to admit that, when it came to the technical jargon, I didn’t really understand what Michael Lewis was on about. I question whether British people can really ‘enjoy’ watching NFL and NBA, whether Josh, 29, from Nottingham is really a Boston Celtics fan or whether his girlfriend just picked up a green snapback the last time she went to Footasylum.
Anyway, the weirdest thing about sport over the pond – weirder even than wide receivers constantly feeling the need to ‘bump chests’ and grown men arguing about who has the best ‘slugging percentage’ – is the furious patriotism espoused by the majority involved.
The quarterback Colin Kaepernick attracted controversy a few months back by kneeling during the national anthem – a gesture designed to highlight the perceived negative treatment of African-American people by police. Instead of actually discussing the issue behind the gesture, conservative commentators clambered over each other to express just how much Kaepernick hated America.
Kaepernick’s example was notable not just for the thinking behind it, but also because it was an exception; his peers usually stand, hand on hearts, flanked by shaven-headed men in fatigues as the Star Spangled Banner is blurted out pre-game by the wife of an ex-serviceman. It’s like porn for patriots, and it’s strange for us in the UK to watch, because we don’t quite indulge in the same zealotry when it comes to sport.
Or do we? The events of the last couple of weeks would suggest otherwise.
The row between the FA and FIFA over whether England and Scotland should be allowed to wear poppies for their game on 11th November is tedious, but it highlights just how tetchy the nation has become over the whole issue of remembrance. As several have highlighted, the little red flower wasn’t adopted on the shirts of Premier League clubs until 2010, while England have played plenty of games on Armistice Day in the past without visibly commemorating the war dead on their playing kit.
Now we have a situation where teams are wearing poppies towards the end of October; where a player is being openly vilified for refusing (with good reason) to wear one and where clubs are entrenched in a game of one-upmanship, coming up with fresh new ways to ‘pay their respects’. The poppy is a symbol and, like most symbols, it can represent a number of things. To many on these shores, it references the sacrifices made by the British war dead, particularly in the two world wars, but to others, especially abroad, it is an emblem of the very worst excesses of British nationalism.
So why has this patriotism permeated into the Premier League, in effect an international product? You have to wonder what the likes of Ahmed Musa, of Nigeria, and Argentina’s Claudio Yacob thought as they glided across the poppy-gilded pitch at the King Power at the weekend, not to mention the global audience who the clubs usually try so hard to appease. Just as we might see the singing of the Star Spangled Banner at every US sporting fixture as over the top, Premier League viewers overseas may look upon the weekend’s gestures of remembrance as overly exuberant, excessive and, ultimately unnecessary.
If you’re a fan, by all means remember the fallen however you like. Stop, however, making silly demands of this sport we all cherish: a footballer born in the late ’80s does not owe it to you to conform, or in any other way to be an embodiment of your morality. Remembrance should be an individual, voluntary gesture, not something we have to force upon others – surely, if we do that, it loses its meaning altogether?