One fine day last August, Bradley Campeau-Laurion just wanted to leave his seat and use the bathroom at the old Yankee Stadium. The 30-year-old New York resident had no idea that nature's call would lead him down a road to perdition where he would be accused of challenging God, country, and the joys of compulsory patriotism at the ballpark.
Under the 36-year watch of George Steinbrenner—and now his offspring—the New York Yankees have always wrapped their fans, like it or not, in red, white and blue bombast. This is the team that so loves God and country that it mandates the singing of two national anthems—Francis Scott Key's 1814 epic, "The Star-Spangled Banner" and Irving Berlin's 1918 anthem, "God Bless America."
For a while after 9/11, "God Bless America" was standard fare in major league ballparks. But while most ball clubs have let the practice slide, the super-patriotic Steinbrenners have ramped up the flag-waving, extending the seventh-inning stretch to include "God Bless America" along with the traditional "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."
Sometimes "God Bless..." is performed live by Irish tenor Ronan Tynan, but most often the tune is delivered over stadium loudspeakers via a scratchy vintage recording by the operatic warbler Kate Smith, who first popularized the song in 1938.
But no matter who's singing, the Yankees have been known to cordon off the aisles and put off-duty police officers in place to ensure the multitudes stand at respectful attention. (Fans of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but a long-dead singer and the chains on your bleachers!)
Not only do the Yankees expect fans to stand during the singing of patriotic songs, but during the Bush era, they virtually mandated fan support for the Iraq War, all the while extorting tax breaks and other public subsidies from city, state, and federal governments to build their new $1 .5 billion cathedral of baseball. (Separation of sports and state, anyone?)
For the Steinbrenners and the high-rollers who occupy Yankee Stadium's $2,500 top-shelf seats, this kind of power patriotism wedded to corporate welfare must be sweet as champagne.
But as the global economic meltdown has proven, there ultimately comes a time to put the brakes on corporate execs—to say nothing of mindless patriotism.
And while some Yankees fans have grumbled and a few intrepid sports bloggers, like former Deadspin editor Will Leitch, have raised concerns, it took one man's full bladder to hoist the Yankees organization with its own petard.
All Campeau-Laurion did was try to go to the men's room during the seventh-inning stretch. In swooped two New York Police Department officers working security detail, who reportedly roughed him up and threw him out of the ballpark. Now Campeau-Laurion has filed a civil suit against the the city, the cops, and the team for violating his rights.
"New York's finest have no business arresting someone for trying to go to the bathroom at a politically incorrect moment," said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, which is representing Campeau-Laurion in the lawsuit.
According to the complaint, Campeau-Laurion drank two beers and took the seventh-inning stretch to mean he could actually go stretch.
"As he walked toward the tunnel leading to the concourse, a uniformed New York City police officer put up his hands and mumbled something to Mr. Campeau-Laurion," according to the complaint, blocking his way to the bathroom during the singing of "God Bless America." As Campeau-Laurion tried to move past the officer, the policeman grabbed his arm and said, "He's out!" to another officer, who twisted his left arm behind his back, hustling him down the ramp and out of the stadium.
NYPD tells a different story.
"The officers observed a male standing on his seat, cursing, using inappropriate language and acting in a disorderly manner while reeking of alcohol, and decided to eject him rather than subject others to his offensive behavior," NYPD spokesman Paul Browne said in an e-mail reply to my query.
This account strains credulity. If it were standard procedure for the NYPD to kick out every drunken fan from Yankee Stadium, the place would be emptier than a John Ashcroft concert at the Apollo Theatre.
Campeau-Laurion disputes the NYPD account. "Not a word of that is true," he told Bloomberg News. "The whole incident didn't occur at my seat. It occurred at my section when I went to use the restroom.
"I don't care about 'God Bless America.' I don't believe that's grounds constitutionally for being dragged out of a baseball game...I simply don't have any religious beliefs...It devalues patriotism as a whole when you force people to participate in patriotic acts," he continued. "It devalues the freedom we fought for in the first place."
This ugly incident raises a series of inconvenient questions: Why does America feel compelled to bind sports to patriotic ritual? Why are publicly funded facilities like stadiums used to promote private religious or political beliefs? And given the putrid start of the Yankees' season, shouldn't management be more concerned with what's happening with the players than with the fans?
All should stand with Campeau-Laurion until we get some answers.