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Giant field-sized American flags, like this one displayed prior to a recent Buffalo Billss game, have become the norm at many NFL stadiums.

Rich Barnes/USA TODAY Sports via Reuters

At noon in the parking lot outside a Carolina Panthers game in November, Dean Nass, 64, pressed a button on his laptop. The Star Spangled Banner began to play. His friends and family – 15 in all – put down their barbecued chicken, potato salad and cans of beer and stood at attention.

The Nass family isn’t the only one that has united around football and the flag during the past two decades. The NFL has made patriotism an integral part of the spectacle surrounding the game on the field and, at times, has had it placed at the centre of controversies off it.

Military personnel in uniform, fighter jet flyovers, field-size flags, and red, white and blue festooned NFL jerseys have become part of the game’s landscape. Despite criticism from certain corners about politicizing the game, the league has continued to embrace symbols of patriotism. Some teams even accepted money from the Department of Defense for patriotic displays during games; the league eventually returned more than US$700,000 after an audit.

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How the league and its players express their patriotism became a fraught issue in 2016, when Colin Kaepernick, then a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, knelt during the playing of the national anthem to raise awareness of police brutality against African Americans (after initially sitting on the bench, he chose to kneel on the advice of a former Green Beret). A handful of other players followed his example. Then, in 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump ignited a firestorm when he suggested during a political rally that NFL owners should fire players who refused to stand for the national anthem. Kaepernick, who left the 49ers after the 2016 season, has not had a job in the NFL since.

The ties between sports and displays of patriotism go back at least a century. Fans first stood to salute the flag while singing the national anthem at the 1918 World Series. In 1942, during the Second World War, Congress wrote regulations, enshrined in a federal law, but without penalties for violations, outlining the significance of the flag and how to properly respect it – regulations that are largely ignored today, especially at sporting events.

According to the code, the flag “should never be carried flat,” “never be used as wearing apparel” and “never be used for advertising.” Additionally, “no part of the flag should ever be used as a costume or athletic uniform.”

“The flag should not be used for advertising,” said David Janik, president of the National Flag Day Foundation, an advisory group in Waubeka, Wisc., “but the flag displayed in all respectful manners I believe is fine.”

As the NFL grew in popularity through the 1960s, it made a determined effort – led by Pete Rozelle, its commissioner and a Navy veteran – to align itself with patriotism. In 1968, Rozelle organized the first military flyover at a Super Bowl. Before long, in addition to USO trips and visits to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, honour guards and other staples of the military became a fixture at many of the NFL’s biggest events, as well as those in other leagues.

So has the occasional protest, whether it was Kaepernick or Megan Rapinoe, the soccer player, not putting her hand on her heart during the national anthem, or a cheerleader at Kennesaw State University in Georgia kneeling during the song.

The patriotic gestures can even extend to fan-driven actions off the field as well. At a game between the Panthers and the Tennessee Titans in early November, three teenagers dressed in fatigues moved from tailgate to tailgate, collecting donations in a boot for wreaths that would be laid on the graves of war veterans.

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By the end of November, every NFL team had hosted a Salute to Service game, during which active-duty military members and veterans could watch the game from field-level suites. Players shook their hands, thanking them for their service.

Spurred on by the public address announcer, fans repeatedly jumped to their feet for standing ovations. For Taira Davis, an ex-Marine and a police officer of 20 years, it meant a lot. “From my perspective, we never made a lot of money,” Davis said, “so being able to go to something like that was huge. It’s a special treat. And you know for someone to give you tickets, and for you to walk in there and be appreciated too? That’s big.”

At the Panthers game, Bart Bazquez, a Marine, used his phone to take pictures of his friend Thomas Garza, also a Marine, as he posed by a fountain with a Marine Corps embroidered flag. “I think people see football players how they see military,” Garza said, “watching them from a distance, idolizing them.”

There were American flags, including one that measured 75 feet wide and 25 feet high that members of the military unfurled on the field before the opening kick.

The patriotic pomp can have unintended consequences, especially when the simple act of watching a football game becomes a political statement, as it did for some in recent years. Davis, who served eight years in the Marines as a food service specialist before her career in law enforcement, said for years her family had a satellite television subscription so they could watch football.

“We haven’t had a TV in about two years because the games just became too political,” she said. “You can’t enjoy it.”

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