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May 2, 2011

“Take ‘Em Out” at the Ball Game (Or: “The Jersey Pop”)

How should Americans respond to the news of Osama bin Laden’s death?  Relief?  Joy?  Righteousness?

I learned of the news while watching ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball” game between the New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies.  As word began rippling through the crowed equipped with iPods and Blackberrys, pockets of fans began chanting, “USA! USA!”  ESPN’s broadcast team quickly seized upon the patriotic trappings of the “national pastime,” showing proud fans as the announcers commented on the historic significance of the moment.

Among the most prominent images is the one above, a still frame from the telecast that served on Monday morning as the front page photograph at ESPN.com.

In this image we see the almost perfect conflation of sport and nationalism.  Here, the citizen as “fan” celebrates his “team,” the United States.  The death of an American enemy, then, is roughly the equivalent of a walk-off home run, a satisfactory resolution to a “game.”  Even the caption below the image—“America’s Game”—confirms that global politics can be conveniently reduced to winners and losers.

Even more troubling, as Salon.com’s David Sirota has already pointed out, is that these boastful expressions of pride and excitement too closely mirror the very actions of those whom we deem evil and insensitive when they cheer the deaths of Americans or our allies.  Indeed, since 9/11 the United States has all too often resorted to arrogant and belligerent displays of patriotism.  The Phillies fan captured in this photograph embodies such an attitude, as he is performing a familiar sports gesture—the “jersey pop.”  As NBA player Earl Watson, who some argue “invented” the jersey pop while attending UCLA in 2000, notes, “It’s like a form of showing off.  It’s kind of like a look-at-me type of thing.”

Sport promotes self-promotion.  It delights in false modesty.  But, of course, it is supposed to be fun.  None of these things is true of international relations or war, and instead of modeling the self-congratulatory celebration contained in the image above we would be wise to greet the significance of bin Laden’s death with humility and self-reflection. Pop that.

– Michael Butterworth

Cross-posted at The Agon.

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