An NBC sports writer named Craig Calcaterra may not have intended to do so, but he awakened a patch of patriotic pride many Americans possess when he responded last weekend to a Twitter photo of a giant flag at the Atlanta Braves' baseball park opener with a suggestion to "keep politics out of sports."
He has been explaining those words ever since, though not necessarily apologizing for their sentiment.
Calcaterra's claim is that excessive displays of patriotism ramped up after Sept. 11, 2001, and never decreased. That bothers him.
He refers to the displays as "conspicuous patriotism," "performative patriotism" and "a huge part of political strategy."
"Let us not pretend that, over more than a decade and a half of it," Calcaterra wrote in a blog post, "many have not learned how effective it is to leverage patriotism to aid their political careers, their images, or their marketability and the marketability of their brands. Patriotism is a feeling and an ideal, and like any other feeling or ideal, it can be twisted to any number of other ends, good, bad or neutral."
If baseball games were political rallies, we could understand his thoughts. Politicians, political parties and presidents love to wrap themselves and their events in flags and in the red, white and blue of the American flag.
Indeed, patriotic symbols make politicians do strange things. For instance, former President Barack Obama, on the campaign trail in 2008, told a reporter he believed the flag pin had become "a substitute for, I think, true patriotism" and that he had decided he wouldn't "wear that pin on my chest" but would allow his explanations about "what I believe will make this country great" to be "testimony to his patriotism." Despite that statement, not long after that, he began wearing the flag pin and never stopped for the rest of his presidency.
But baseball is baseball, a game ingrained into the American psyche for more than 150 years. You've long heard of something referred to as American as "Mom, apple pie and baseball." And a car company's 1970s, America-themed jingle extolled the virtues of "baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet."
If the flag displays are, as Calcaterra believes, "a huge part of political strategy," we wonder which politicians they are assisting and just how they are doing that.
We recall, for instance, seeing a flag similar to the one in Atlanta last Friday stretched across Dodger Stadium in pregame ceremonies for Memorial Day in 2014. That was right smack in the heart of Liberal Land and in the midst of the Obama presidency. And similar displays occur at every ball park.
So what is the secret political strategy?
Calcaterra doesn't say, but he does mention a 2015 "pay-for-patriotism scandal" in which it was revealed the Pentagon spent $6.8 million between 2012 and 2015 for various ceremonies and displays at professional sporting events. National Football League teams, the report said, got the most money.
The Atlanta Braves received $450,000, the most of any Major League Baseball franchise.
We're not sure what they bought with their money, but professional sports teams long before and after this "scandal" have displayed flags, had guests sing the national anthem, saluted troops and received military flyovers. Yet, we're not aware of any polls that have ever linked attendance at a flag-bedecked stadium to an increase in volunteers for military service or support for one candidate or another.
The Braves, themselves, have had Atlanta Opera tenor Timothy Miller sing "God Bless America" during the seventh-inning stretch of every Sunday home game since 2010 and have honored a "Hometown Hero" member of the military at many home games for years. But seeing the "heroes" greeted with handshakes, pats on the back and thank-yous for their service by fans as they walked from the field and up through the stands always seemed touching and not in any way "conspicuous," "performative" or "political."
Calcaterra believes teams are "unwilling to cut back on the big flags and the military initiatives" because they might be called unpatriotic. We don't think in time fans would miss a flag here or a salute to the military there, but we think it might be that those things stick around because fans enjoy them. And if they cause fans to feel patriotic for a moment before biting into their $8 hot dog or appreciate someone's military service before encouraging their team to rally, what's the harm?
The NBC sports writer said since what he now calls his "little joke" was tweeted, people have said he should be burned at the stake, hanged, or get cancer, that his tweet was treasonous and that he was a commie. He said he's had death threats.
We'll defend Calcaterra's right to speak his piece, to maintain "our country is stronger thanks in part to the efforts of those who have found fault with it at times," but believe his "little joke" was not funny to those who see the flag not as political but as a symbol of what is right and worth saving about the country.