Posted March 31, 2008
At opening day for baseball’s Washington Nationals, George W. Bush was booed as he took the field to deliver the first pitch. For the President, who usually keeps his public appearances carefully regulated to prevent hecklers, this interruption during a usually celebratory moment of baseball ceremony might have been a surprise, especially because sports is usually a venue for obligatory displays of patriotism. The ritual playing of the national anthem, with all fans and players standing at attention, has been supplemented in the post-9/11 era with a seventh-inning stretch singing of “God Bless America.” During the build-up to the Iraq war, sports crowds would often spontaneously erupt in a chant of “U-S-A, U-S-A.”
In these cases, nationalism is built into the very structure of the game and the crowd’s response. And this is usually interpreted by fans and sportscasters as “apolitical.” When college basketball player Toni Smith protested the Iraq War in 2003 by refusing to face the American flag during the national anthem, she sparked a nationwide controversy about the role of politics in sports. Many fans and sportswriters argued against Smith by insisting that sports rhetoric should be free of politics. They did not take into account the political implications of “God Bless America” or chanting “U-S-A, U-S-A” with a war looming on the horizon. Only resistance, according to this rhetoric, classifies as an intrusion of “politics” into the sports arena.
This blindness to nationalism in sports is why the crowd’s spontaneous behavior of booing Bush is so significant. Despite the fact that he was performing an ostensibly “non-political” act by simply throwing out the first pitch, Bush sparked a political reaction from the crowd. The persistence of the boos suggests that the crowd felt justified in its anti-Bush expression. They were not shamed by the rest of the crowd into expressing traditional nationalist sentiments of respect for the President. The crowd suggested that, if baseball is America’s “national” pastime, then the baseball field is a political arena to express dissent. Stuck in a visible public space performing a ceremonial task, Bush was caught in a position that allowed the public to speak and prevented him from responding.