The Proper Standard: Prohibited Flags on Athletic Uniforms

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The Proper Standard authors Hunter and Ross Simmons
The Proper Standard authors Hunter and Ross Simmons

By Hunter and Ross Simmons

drop-caps-w-webhile there is no greater symbol of freedom worldwide than “Old Glory,” the authors believe that its patriotic display is only mildly more inconvenient, but far more reverent and appropriate, if done compliant with federal law and consistent with the Rules of Flag Etiquette.

Prohibited Flags on Athletic Uniforms

The tie between sports and patriotism is customary and appropriate, and the pageantry of athletic competition is integral to its experience, cherished both by athletes and audience. There is an obvious analogy between good sportsmanship and good citizenship, and we applaud their celebration. National anthems are played and national flags are displayed, both gestures, when done properly, being important reminders of patriotic themes for all participants. We encourage such reflection at every opportunity, and athletic competition provides an obvious one.

Still, athletic competition is uniquely about the athletes; the talents they possess, the sportsmanship they demonstrate, and the many hours and personal sacrifices dedicated to their development. As a result, national interests are, and always have been appropriately made subordinate to personal and team accomplishments. In ancient Greece, a truce existed between all participating city-states three months before and after ancient Olympic games suspending jingoistic matters, in part to celebrate its participants and facilitate their safety. Similarly, both our collegiate and professional sports’ ranks are blessed with foreign nationals, representing the most talented and dedicated men and women in their athletic disciplines. In our view, we must take care, while celebrating their accomplishments, to remain sensitive to their right to remain dedicated to their own, home countries, rather than insist that they pay homage to ours.

We have separately concluded that flag designs are inappropriate for printing, embroidering or otherwise displaying on clothing as a general matter. (See No Flags on Clothing, Please.) We have also broadly construed Section 8(j) of the Flag Code which provides that “a flag patch may be affixed to the uniform of military personnel, firemen, policemen, and members of patriotic organizations.” (See Flag Patches on Uniforms (Non-Athletic).) At issue here, however, Section 8(j) begins in the negative: “No part of the flag should ever be used as a costume or athletic uniform.”

No need to wax philosophical; this rule says what it means. It appropriately and categorically prohibits use of the image of the flag on athletic uniforms.

Very few, if any athletic teams could be or should be “patriotic organizations” such as those permitted to make limited use of a “flag patch” (by military personnel, firemen, policemen, and members of patriotic organizations) at Section 8(j). None that we are aware of require an oath to our country as a prerequisite to participation, nor should they, as many sports permit us to enjoy the skills and celebrate the achievements of foreign athletes, and to us it would seem invariably inappropriate to compel their allegiance to the United States solely in order to enjoy the benefits, to them and to us, of their participation in athletic pursuits within our borders.

We anticipate that our conclusion might be challenged anecdotally, in that the image of the flag has been occasionally found on athletic uniforms (for instance, occasional Major League Baseball uniforms, the United States Olympic Team, among others). We empathize with those gestures, but empathy does not make that display and use proper when, as we have concluded, it is not.

We have no quarrel with this statute, an outright prohibition of flags on athletic uniforms, notwithstanding contrary but unsupported sentiment. Whether it is a rule deserving of reconsideration or clarity is a question for our elected, legislative representatives. To be sure, if the Flag Code is to be overridden at the initiative of private interests (no matter how patriotic their motives may be), then it undermines the very purpose of its existence, and too, the respect for the very emblem it exists to assure.

Question: This year, I’ve noticed that the helmets worn by players in the National Football League (NFL) bear a sticker likeness of the United States Flag. Is this display proper?

Answer: No, it is not. We have interpreted Section 8(j) as prohibiting display or use of the United States flag, or even its image, on athletic uniforms. Moreover, apart from our interpretation of Section 8(j), we have other concerns. Certainly, in that the helmet of a football uniform is, by its nature, intended for protecting a player from the sport’s invariable contact with other participants as well as the ground itself, it is clear that a flag’s image in that location cannot be afforded the respect the Flag Code requires (i.e., “the flag should not be dipped to any person or thing,” at Section 8; “the flag should never touch anything beneath it; such as the ground,” at Section 8(b)). More difficult, we believe that its presence on the helmets of participants who are not citizens of this country puts them in an untenable position relative to the dedication they have to their own homeland, and hence, cheapens the display of that emblem by those who truly do so by virtue of their United States citizenship.

Authors Ross Simmons and his son, Hunter, are life members of the National Eagle Scout Association, and Ross is Scoutmaster at Imperial’s Troop 4070. Have a question of Flag Etiquette? Please submit your questions or photos to submit@properstandard.com. (By submitting, you’re licensing content for use.)