A mockery was made of the national anthem all right.
But it wasn’t by the San Francisco 49ers.
Vice President Mike Pence turned the anthem into a prop Sunday, co-opting it for a stunt that served no other purpose than to sow division, further enrage the administration’s conservative base and try to cow NFL owners. That it likely deflected attention from yet more neo-Nazi protests in Charlottesville was all the better.
Please, though, tell me again how it’s the players who are so disrespectful.
Pence was so incensed by the sight of several 49ers kneeling during the anthem at Lucas Oil Stadium that he left immediately afterward. Not so incensed that he wasn’t right there with a carefully crafted statement to let the world know of his outrage, however.
“President Trump and I will not dignify any event that disrespects our soldiers, our flag or our national anthem,” Pence’s statement said.
In case anyone missed how righteously indignant he was, he quickly updated the background photo on his Twitter profile to one of him standing for Sunday’s anthem, hand over his heart, next to someone in a military uniform.
This isn’t about patriotism or love of country or any other garbage excuse. This was a carefully orchestrated PR move — one staged at no small expense to taxpayers, given Pence flew to Indianapolis from Las Vegas on Saturday night and was heading back out West to Los Angeles later Sunday.
“After all the scandals involving unnecessarily expensive travel by cabinet secretaries, how much taxpayer money was wasted on this stunt?” Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., asked on Twitter.
Before anyone starts squawking, this has nothing to do with whether Pence has a right to express his opinion about the player protests. Of course he does. You can question the impact on our democracy when the vice president and president make statements that could be seen as chilling to dissent, but that’s an argument for a different time.
No, this is about the sincerity of Pence’s “protest.” This was not a heartfelt expression of political dissent, as the player protests have been.
This was pure political theater, as disingenuous as it was calculated.
Pence knew exactly what he was walking into in Indianapolis. The protests started with then-49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick more than a year ago. San Francisco safety Eric Reid, the first to join Kaepernick in taking a knee during the anthem, has made it clear his protest will continue this season.The 49ers have also been the most staunch defenders of both their players’ activism and reasons for it. They donated $1 million last year to Bay Area organizations that promote social justice, and have left no doubt in the wake of President Donald Trump’s rant two weeks ago that they consider the protests appropriate.
“For more than a year, members of our team have protested the oppression and social injustices still present in our society. While some may not have taken a knee or raised a fist, we have all shared the desire to influence positive change,” the 49ers said in a statement issued last weekend on behalf of the players, coaches, ownership and staff.
“As the majority of us have done throughout our careers, we use our platform as members of a NFL team, and our right to freedom of expression, to speak up for those whose voice is not heard.”
As media pool has been made aware, a staffer told pool that VPOTUS may depart the game early. Did not indicate how early. https://t.co/G1f2WljJAW— Vaughn Hillyard (@VaughnHillyard) October 8, 2017
If there was any team Pence was guaranteed of seeing protest, it would be the 49ers. Yet he went to the game, anyway.
Perhaps that’s why the media pool was left to wait in vans outside the stadium. NBC’s Vaughn Hillyard said on Twitter that the pool was told Pence “may depart the game early. Did not indicate how early.”
"This was like a PR stunt," Reid said after the game. "This is what systemic oppression looks like."
Pence knew what he would see and he knew what his response would be. Trump confirmed that, saying on Twitter that he “asked (Pence) to leave stadium if any players kneeled, disrespected our country.”
Some of the 49ers knelt, but the disrespect came from Pence. In a shameless bid for political points, he tried to play the country for a fool.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.