Old Glory and New Wounds
The true meaning of the flag is lost in the world of sports
Far more than any other place in our daily lives, the sports arena has become an outlet for the patriotic fervor stirred by the Persian Gulf war. There is hardly a pro or college team in the land that hasn't made some symbolic gesture in support of the U.S. forces. Flag decals and patches are everywhere, from the helmets of NFL players to the backboards of NBA arenas, from the shoe of a high school wrestler to the jersey of Waad Hirmez, the Iraqi-born soccer star of the San Diego Sockers (SCORECARD, Jan. 28).
Why do sports evoke such strong feelings of country? Possibly because watching sports is a communal experience in which spectators are encouraged to express themselves loudly and clearly. There may also be some kind of association at work here: Like the troops in the gulf, athletes are young, healthy and in uniform. And as often as not, their deeds inspire us. So we expect them to wear symbols of support for our fighting forces.
These symbols can be moving and meaningful. Still, it is wrongheaded to use them as a test of where individuals stand on the war, as was done in the case of Marco Lokar, a sophomore guard from Trieste, Italy, who played basketball for Seton Hall until last week. Because of his religious convictions—"From a Christian standpoint, I cannot support any war," he said—Lokar refused to wear the American flag on his jersey.
Lokar's coach, P.J. Carlesimo, and his teammates accepted his decision, but many people did not. During a Feb. 2 game against St. John's at Madison Square Garden, Lokar was roundly booed every time he touched the ball. He received threats that unnerved him and his pregnant wife, Lara. Finally, he announced that he was leaving school and returning to Trieste.
Lokar wasn't the only one criticized for not wearing Old Glory. Acting on a sensible suggestion from NHL president John Ziegler, the St. Louis Blues put the flag of the United Nations, not of the U.S., on their helmets. There are, after all, players from many countries in the NHL, and the U.S.-led coalition in the gulf is acting to enforce U.N. resolutions.
But the Blues came under attack by, among others, sports-caster Ron Jacober of St. Louis radio station KMOX, even though the team has only one U.S. citizen, Brett Hull. "My patriotic blood boiled a bit," said Jacober, who has two sons in the armed forces. "What the Blues have done doesn't make too much sense to me."
It is unfair to pressure athletes, either foreign or American, into donning flags when the same isn't expected of others in the public eye. We best support our country by recognizing that one of the things our flag symbolizes is the right not to wear the flag.
The intolerance directed at Lokar and the Blues mocks the very values that Americans have fought and died for. As Woodrow Wilson said, "The flag is the embodiment not of sentiment, but of history, and no man can rightly serve under that flag who has not caught some of the meaning of that history."