On Sunday, the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team (USWNT) defeated the Netherlands 2-0 to win the 2019 Women’s World Cup. In a video of the ensuing celebration, posted to Twitter by Jonathan Gilliam, team member Allie Long appears to try to give an American flag to team captain Megan Rapinoe. Rapinoe waves it away and Long drops the flag, after which she, Rapinoe, and another team member step on it during a celebratory dance. Meanwhile, a fourth team member comes up from behind to retrieve the flag from the ground.
The display was no surprise to anyone who has been paying minimal attention in recent months. Rapinoe has received extensive coverage for her refusal to place her hand over her heart, sing the national anthem, or visit the White House if invited. She is not, of course, the first sports figure or celebrity to do any of those things. But when one is playing on a team that has “U.S.” in its name, the snub seems more than a little ironic.
The long train of entertainment and sports figures disavowing cherished national symbols has now chugged on so long as to be yawn-inducing, but back in the ‘80s, it wasn’t quite so common. In fact, there was a time that even liberal California Democrats and activists like Norman Lear knew how to respect the flag.
In 1982, Lear’s newly formed organization People for the American Way (PFAW) produced a two-hour television program titled, “I Love Liberty.” Lear had founded PFAW in 1980 in direct response to the right-wing Moral Majority. PFAW is still operating today with the stated goal of fighting “right-wing extremism.”
Airing on ABC on March 21, 1982, “I Love Liberty” included two hours’ worth of patriotic music, skits, interviews, and recitations. In a review published at the time, the Christian Science Monitor described it as “an unabashedly patriotic, flag-waving, freedom-loving, electronic paean to America’s diversity of people and attitudes. Just about every patriotic song is sung, just about every hero of American history is quoted in this rousing rally, a flag love-in taped at the Los Angeles Sports Arena to celebrate Washington’s Birthday. The backdrop throughout the show is a 30-by-60-foot American flag.”
A 30-by-60-foot American flag? Celebrated by the Hollywood elite, no less? How times have changed. Now it’s apparently racist to put a postage-sized flag on an athletic shoe.
In the “believe it or not” department, “I Love Liberty” included celebrity appearances by such politically opposed figures as Barbra Streisand, Barry Goldwater, Jane Fonda, and John Wayne, who all seemingly set aside their differences for one night of patriotism. The segment that still gets shared on social media more than 35 years later is not Streisand’s rendition of “America the Beautiful” or the Muppets acting out the Continental Congress, but Robin Williams channeling Old Glory:
Delivering a dramatic monologue from the perspective of “flag,” the U.S. flag, Williams movingly observes:
People haven’t always been respectful to me…but I don’t let it get me down because I’m not a stay-at-home kind of flag…But I gotta tell you something honestly. I haven’t been getting out much lately. I guess it’s not very chic to put up the flag anymore…But look at this way. Don’t look at it as saluting me. Look at it as saluting yourselves. Hey, I’m just a flag, a symbol. You’re the people. If I may say so from here, long may you wave.
Williams seemingly understood what today’s left does not: that the flag is a symbol not of any particular president, party, or agenda, but of the American people. Those people, and their nation, have a varied history and makeup. Some of it is not so good. Much of it is better than anything the world has ever seen.
But for good or for bad, the flag symbolizes the common bond holding a diverse and complex people together. It doesn’t represent any one view or faction, but the nation as a whole. This is why I continue to embrace it even though the country it stands for still allows more than 600,000 abortions per year. I believe the flag represents not our reality, but our ideals; not what we do, but what we aspire to be.
As Williams so powerfully dramatized in 1982, when we disdain the flag, the anthem, the White House, or any of the various national symbols about which there is so much shrieking today, we disdain the people they represent. When we dismiss them, we dismiss a part of our history, and we deny who we are.
Rapinoe hadn’t even been born when, to the delight of a nationwide television audience, Robin Williams channeled the American flag. She ought to stop trampling on that flag long enough to watch a video of Williams’ performance. She might just learn a thing or two.