March 30, 2020

Kneeling Tall

By Stephen Tuttle | Sept. 30, 2017

As far as we know, a baseball game in 1897 was the first time the Star Spangled Banner was played at a sporting event. It's one of the few things about baseball that does not have endless statistics.

We do know the song was played in the seventh inning of the first game of the World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs in 1918. We were mired in World War I, there were barely 10,000 fans in attendance — one of the lowest turnouts in World Series history — and the Cubs' owners wanted to generate any kind of crowd interest. 

Though the Star Spangled Banner didn't officially become the national anthem until 1931, the tradition of playing it before sporting events grew from that 1918 game. 

The anthem, and how one acts during its playing, is now front and center because one former player, Colin Kaepernick, late of the San Francisco 49ers, decided not to stand during the anthem. His protest, he said, was to draw attention to police violence toward African-Americans, and racial injustice in general.

A handful of players joined him. Kaepernick is now unemployed, but the silent protests continue through current players. Then President Donald Trump, who likely has no understanding of the issues and clearly none regarding our own Constitution, contributed his typically sophomoric take on the issue: Any player who doesn't stand for the anthem should be fired, Trump said. And he called any such player a “son of a bitch.” Then he went on a Trumpian rant of irrational gibberish and tweeted and tweeted and tweeted. In fact, the league didn't even require players to be on the field for the anthem until 2009. Nor is there any law or regulation requiring anybody to stand. 

Many believed there was a racial tinge to the president's comments since the players who started the protest are African-Americans, the majority of NFL players are African-Americans, and racial justice was the reason for the protests. It's also likely Trump still has a grudge against the NFL; three times he has tried unsuccessfully to buy NFL teams, only to be outbid or turned away. 

But the president did once again successfully distract us from the reality of his presidency: ongoing, endless war in the Middle East, schoolyard taunts with the megalomaniacal dictator in North Korea, virtually no effective interaction with Congress, the entire mess with election meddling by Russia, slow relief for the Houston/Florida/Puerto Rico disasters and a divide-and-conquer style that benefits no one, including him.

Maybe even more distressing, the president seems to have very little appreciation for, or understanding of, the Constitution. It's one thing to strongly disagree with Kaepernick and those who have now joined him; that's fair enough. But it's quite another for Trump to suggest that those with whom he disagrees should be punished or silenced. That's the precise opposite of our Constitutional protections. 

(It should be noted the NFL's patriotism and love affair with the military is mostly a pretense. We now know, thanks to an investigation by Senators Jeff Flake and John McCain of Arizona, the NFL’s patriotism is faux patriotism of the monetized variety; during the 2013–2015 time period alone, the U.S. Department of Defense actually paid NFL teams $6.5 million for salutes to the military. At least some owners were very patriotic, as long as they were paid for it.) 

We don't yet know whether the latest wave of athlete protests is  actually supportive of Kaepernick's quest for social justice or just a reaction to another Trump vulgarism. Most of the teams involved called it a display of unity for teammates and the league. Of course, NFL owners turned it into a pregame extravaganza, carefully orchestrated and choreographed.   

The anthem protest is truly in the best American tradition; it’s non-violent, addresses a real issue, and has garnered significant public attention. One could argue it honors what the flag actually represents: an ideal of freedom more important than a piece of cloth or a song. That's supposed to be what our military fights to protect. 

Kaepernick's protest did make people who both agree and disagree with him pay attention. And there's no evidence his current allies intend to disrespect the national anthem, the flag, or military personnel. Their cause is racial justice; the anthem before an NFL game is simply a vehicle by which they can most publicly alert us to it.  

If the result here is a real discussion of real issues being raised by the players, the protesters will have rendered a valuable public service. Even if last Sunday's display was nothing more than standing up to a bullying president, that's helpful, too.

There's more to real patriotism than just standing for the national anthem, and those now kneeling stand taller than their critics.



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