JOHN KIRIAKOU: Sport and Propaganda

John Kiriakou has a problem with the Pentagon using taxpayer money to turn sporting events into nationalistic propaganda.

The Air Force Thunderbirds conduct a flyover before a game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland, on September 10, 2017. (Ricky Bowden/U.S. Army)

By John Kiriakou
Special to Consortium News

I go to a lot of Major League Baseball games. I really love the sport.

If you’ve been to a baseball game in the past decade, you’ve probably noticed some changes. National Guard members and police color guard units now perform flag ceremonies between innings. Military recruits are enlisted right on the field. Surprise reunions of deployed men and women and their families play out before an audience of thousands. The seventh-inning stretch is dedicated to honoring our “wounded warriors.”

The games have morphed into choreographed patriotic events. Who’s paying for this hoopla? As it turns out, the Pentagon.

A few years ago, then-Arizona Republican senators John McCain and Jeff Flake announced that over the three year period from 2012-2015, the Pentagon shelled out at least $6.8 million for Major League Baseball, the National Football League, and other U.S. sports leagues to “honor” troops with cheap stunts at sporting events. The details are listed in a Senate report.

The total tally may now top $10 million — and even reach $100 million, if you count the military’s marketing deals with NASCAR.

The senators called this military marketing “paid patriotism.” It includes jet fighters flying over football games. 

For millions of your tax dollars, the Pentagon is buying things like ceremonial first pitches for recent veterans, club-level seats for vets at football games, and airport greetings for returning service members.

If that sounds crass to you, you’re not alone.

“We appreciate if they honor the men and women in uniform, but not to get paid for it,” the late McCain, himself a decorated war hero, said at the time.

“If the most compelling message about military service we can deliver is the promise of game tickets, gifts, and player appearances,” his report concluded, “we need to rethink our approach to how we are inspiring qualified men and women to military service.”

The U.S. Air Force Color Guard prepares to post colors at Yankee Stadium before the Yankees vs. Red Sox game during Air Force Week 2012 in New York City on Aug. 18, 2012. (U.S. Air Force/Master Sgt. Jeremy Lock)

I’d go further than that.

Patriotism can be a good thing. It can be unifying and inspiring. But what we’re seeing at sporting events isn’t patriotism. It’s nationalism — propaganda, even — and it’s potentially dangerous.

The Pentagon even pays for “sponsored” renditions of “God Bless America.”

Irving Berlin wrote that song in 1918 as a show tune for a revue called “Yip Yip Yaphank.” In 1940, it served as the official campaign song for both Franklin Roosevelt and his Republican opponent Wendell Willkie. In the 1950s it was adopted by the fledgling civil rights movement before becoming a rallying cry for supporters of the Vietnam War in the 1960s. Opera singer Kate Smith, as a counter-protest song, sang it in place of the national anthem at Philadelphia Flyers’ ice hockey matches beginning in 1969.

On Sept. 11, 2001, “God Bless America” began a new life when members of Congress sang it on the steps of the Capitol — supposedly spontaneously — as they gathered to mourn the terrorist attacks from earlier that day.

Since then, it has taken on a life of its own and has become an official part of Major League Baseball games. In stadiums around the country, the tune has replaced “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” in group sing-alongs during the seventh-inning stretch.

In fact, this former show tune has become mandatory in some places. In Washington, DC, fans are specifically asked to “stand to honor our troops with a rendition of ‘God Bless America.’”

In 2008, a fan at Yankee Stadium was restrained and then ejected by police officers for attempting to leave his seat for the restroom while the song was playing. The following year, three minor league fans of the now-defunct Newark Bears were ejected from the stadium for refusing to stand during the song.

In 2019, finally, the Yankees stopped playing Smith’s recording of God Bless America, not because it’s forced propaganda, but because journalists found that the singer, who famously sang it for more than a half-century, had also sung racist songs, including one called “That’s Why Darkies Were Born.” Its outrageous lyrics included, “Someone had to pick the cotton, someone had to pick the corn, someone had to slave and be able to sing. That’s why darkies were born.”

Standing for the national anthem is patriotic if it’s freely chosen. Forcing people to stand for “God Bless America” isn’t, and I simply will not stand for it, either literally or figuratively.

This is about more than taxpayer money. I won’t be told what to do. And the government has no business propagandizing the American people.

John Kiriakou is a former CIA counterterrorism officer and a former senior investigator with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. John became the sixth whistleblower indicted by the Obama administration under the Espionage Act—a law designed to punish spies. He served 23 months in prison as a result of his attempts to oppose the Bush administration’s torture program.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

18 comments for “JOHN KIRIAKOU: Sport and Propaganda

  1. Zman
    June 24, 2021 at 09:02

    I have a long-time friend that has become handicapped from an accident. He is not quite all there…yet he can see this for what it is. Although we don’t watch baseball, we do watch football and every single NASCAR race. When the ceremonies begin, the sound goes off. It stays off until it all is over and the race about to start. He asked (his memory is gone) if they always did this, because he doesn’t remember seeing it ‘before’. I told him it didn’t use to be, but since about 9/11 it started big time. When I told him it was all paid for by the gov, he wanted to know how much it was costing. I told him millions. He just looked at me and asked why we don’t have free health care instead. I told him healthcare would be good for the people, but that this was good for General Dynamics. If a person of limited mental ability can see this for what it is, why the hell can’t the rest of Americans? Are we so F’ing dumbed down that we can’t see what’s right in front of us? Or is it easier to just go along or even consume it like the kool ade it is? This overt brainwashing is directed at impressionable young people that need something to believe in, especially today. When they honor someone that is permanently disabled, it’s too bad they don’t also mention how many come home this way or how many commit suicide, as the rate today far outnumbers that of the VietNam war. Or the fact that the gov will use every trick in the book to deny culpability for things like DU induced problems, because it is an illegal weapon…or how hard it is to get treatment period. No, that’s all in the fine print you can’t read. Isn’t it strange we go to whatever lengths to try to get young people to not smoke tobacco, but will spend millions to get them to go murder innocent people and possibly come home in a bag or permanently maimed? Americans in general need an epiphany.

  2. Jimm
    June 23, 2021 at 21:19

    Better to say that American taxpayers pay for this “hoopla” while the Pentagon doles it all out. As the saying goes, “patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels”. And how about the trophy presentation at the recently completed US Open golf tournament, a two F18 fighter jet fly-over choregraphed for the large international television audience. Notice that there were no dumps of napalm or dousings of agent orange for the audience to fawn over.

  3. C. Parker
    June 23, 2021 at 20:42

    And Heaven forbid should a professional player take a knee.

    • Zman
      June 24, 2021 at 09:06

      What?!…and exercise the very rights that the military is supposedly fighting for? Are you kidding?

  4. Sam
    June 23, 2021 at 18:44

    I go to baseball games too, and I usually get there in the second inning to avoid the national anthem. Now with ” God Bless America” being played at the seventh inning stretch it looks like there is no escape.

  5. General Strike
    June 23, 2021 at 18:41

    Fascism stalks the land. The U$A is finished. Good riddance.

  6. sanford sklansky
    June 23, 2021 at 17:41

    Great article. As for Kate Smith and God Bless America, it wasn’t really a counter protest. From Wikipedia. When the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team played Smith’s rendition of “God Bless America” before their game on December 11, 1969, an unusual part of her career began. The Flyers’ public address announcer had noticed that people would not pay attention or show disdain for the “Star-Spangled Banner” playing before games, due to the tensions of the Vietnam War, and decided to use Smith’s rendition of “God Bless America” instead and the crowd responded more favorably to this. After the Flyers won the game, it was decided by the team that the song would be used as an alternative to the “Star-Spangled Banner”, but only for certain, important games. Back in the 30’s she sang a song that should have been considered racist at the time. After this was discovered the Flyers and the Yankees stopped using her version of the song. I guess it was easier to cancel her than cancel many of the founders who were slave owners and take down statues of them.

      June 24, 2021 at 03:02

      Disdain for the national anthem was protest against the war. The protest was countered with God Bless America. “Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” has not only endured, it has become a statement of patriotism, of home front support for troops at war. In the Vietnam era, it was an anthem of counter-protest. And while it has brought a lump to the throat of many an American, it has also annoyed many who hear it as a tune of syrupy nationalism and trivialized faith.”


  7. June 23, 2021 at 14:35

    The song “God Bless America” rubs me the wrong way. It does so particularly in the manner in which it invokes the name of God.

    The song seems very much to me to be telling God what to do. It seems to be telling God that our nation of America is so great and wonderful that God has no choice but to bless our nation. To me the song reeks of the attitude of American exceptionalism.

    If God, in the commonly understood sense of the word, is really real and worthy of the name, then God is concerned about all of humanity, and is not at all concerned about or interested in blessing any one particular tribe or nation above other tribes or nations. This includes both America and Israel.

    And given the atrocities that have been committed by Americans over the years which we are frequently reminded of on this web site, I would think that it is very offensive to God (if God is really real) to tell Him or Her to bless our nation.

    And as a patriotic song the song is very disrespectful of patriotic Americans, Americans who love their country, who are atheists, who do not believe in God, or who are of a particular religion that does not worship the Judeo-Christian God. A key founding American principle is that of religious freedom, which includes separation of church and state. A person has the absolute right to believe or to not believe, to worship or to not worship, as he or she chooses. A person has the right to acknowledge or to not acknowledge any deity, including the Judeo-Christian God, and including any deity associated with any other religion. It is no part of the patriotic duty of any American to give any acknowledgement to the Judeo-Christian God or to any other deity. A person’s religious duties, duties to God or to any deity, are no part of any American’s duties or obligations to his or her country. A person’s religious duties and patriotic duties are completely separate.

    And yes, I also think the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance are wrong and fundamentally unAmerican.

  8. Carolyn L Zaremba
    June 23, 2021 at 13:11

    I despise nationalism. I refuse to stand with my hand on my heart for capitalist imperialism, or sing it’s nationalist anthem. I refuse to pleage “allegiance” to a flag that represents war, conquest, destruction, and slaughter around the world. Patriotism is, indeed, the last refuge of a scoundrel. It always has been. I WILL stand and sing “The Internationale”.

    • Stuart Estrine
      June 23, 2021 at 18:45

      Comrade, it is worse than that. Expect vilification, denunciation and to be ostracized if you don’t say “ Thank you for your service “ to war criminals in the uniform of the United States military. I call them out as war criminals if asked why I refuse to engage in such Fascistic practices.

  9. teresa smith
    June 23, 2021 at 12:22

    Might as well turn these arenas into true gladiator stadiums and allow all caged animals to go after the opponents. This is what we have become. Sporting events are grotesque displays of money, power, propaganda and self-aggrandizing celebrities of all stripes. We pay athletes far too much in comparison to people working for a living and now apparently we will be paying student athletes as well. This is an insane idea that will further fracture the haves from the have nots. How do you ever determine who gets what? Does the kid sitting on the bench deserve less than the pitcher, quarterback, fill in the blank? Will all sports be treated equally. Will women still lag behind male athletes? Tuition would need to be free for all college students to begin to make any sense to me. This coming from the ex-captain of the womens golf team in high schol. It was circa 1973 and only agreed to it to get out of detention but I generally don’t mention that and no one really thinks golf is a sport anyway.
    Love your stuff John

    • Zman
      June 24, 2021 at 09:16

      Agree totally. This manipulation reminds me of the movie rollerball. Who would be surprised to find out that it’s not just the ceremonies that are choreographed, but if the games themselves are? As well, it seems that our schools no longer turn out educated children, but likely future sports players. Ever notice the commercialism surrounding our schools as well? We’ve become commodities in our own capitalist system.

  10. John R
    June 23, 2021 at 09:05

    To go along with flying US fighter jets during sporting events we also have the TV commercials telling us and the younger people watching how great our military is and that they should join and support our troops. They usually wait until later in these games to pump up the viewers. That’s our tax dollars at work – keeping people stupid and patriotic.

  11. Andrew Peter Nichols
    June 23, 2021 at 08:33

    Looks like those patriotic rallies that Hitlers Germany put on to whip up the fervour of the masses back in the 1930s. Leni Riefenstahl filmed them as “Triumph of the Will”

    • Carolyn L Zaremba
      June 23, 2021 at 13:12

      I agree.

  12. June 23, 2021 at 07:13

    Couldn’t agree more John. I have thought ever since I was very young that sports have always had a component that was meant to reinforce and enhance people’s tribal tendencies. But now it has gone even further to push a nationalistic, us vs. them mentality and pro-war sentiments. We are immersed in propaganda. I can’t even watch TV news because it is pure propaganda.

    • Carolyn L Zaremba
      June 23, 2021 at 13:13

      I got rid of my television in 2012 for that very reason. It’s a brain washing machine and not welcome in my home.

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