by Bruce Dunlavy
(My blog home page and index of other posts may be found here.)

Americans are, by and large, a nationalistic people, and much given to symbolic gestures that reinforce that inclination. An earlier post explored the quasi-religious adoration Americans have for their national flag, and it is no surprise that the national anthem of the United States, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” is a hymn to that flag.

The USA is rare among developed nations in that no athletic match, from six-year-olds playing tee-ball to the highest-ranking professional games, can be started until after the National Anthem has been played. In most of the world, this is reserved for international matches. Actor Omar Sharif, a native of Egypt (scarcely a nation of modest national pride), once remarked that one of the most surprising things he found when he first came to America is that we play our anthem before all sporting events as if we cannot even play a game without first proclaiming what a great country America is.

There are times when – just like the flag – the anthem becomes a viciously contentious issue in which one’s patriotism or lack of it is called into question. Nowhere is this more prominent than in a sports event, perhaps because the anthem is so incongruous in such a setting. Other commercial entertainment is normally free from expressions of Americans’ veneration of their country. Movie theaters do not play “The Star-Spangled Banner” before the film starts. Singers and other musicians are not faulted for a failure to perform the national anthem before their concert begins. Sports entertainment, though, is another matter.

We are currently embroiled in an anthem fight centered on the National Football League, which in an earlier post I cheekily called “America’s National Religion.” Football is a uniquely American game, so perhaps it is natural that it would be the sport to experience a fight over the anthem.

Some football players, starting with Colin Kaepernick, began kneeling, instead of the customary standing, during the pre-game anthem ceremony. Like the NFL in general, these players were predominantly African-American. The explanation given was that kneeling served as a silent reminder that treatment of African-Americans by police forces was not living up to the promise of equality and justice embodied in America’s national symbols. As the practice spread, it fired emotional and bitter attacks and defenses. Kaepernick, a capable quarterback, has been unable to find a job in the NFL since, not even as the backup to the backup on a bad team.
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This is neither a unique nor a recent phenomenon. One of the most notable blow-ups over this issue came in 1968, at the Olympic Games in Mexico City. The Olympics, of course, have an aura of being a substitute for war, a peaceful way to show the rest of the world who’s Number One. It is reinforced by the custom of the Games themselves in which the flag of the winner’s nation is raised and its national anthem played at the medal ceremony. In 1968, after the 200-meter event, American gold and bronze medal winners Tommie Smith and John Carlos took off their shoes to protest poverty and put on scarves to protest lynchings. When the USA’s anthem was played, they raised black-gloved fists in protest of continuing racial intolerance and injustice in American society.

Reaction was swift and furious. Smith and Carlos (as they expected) were dismissed from the team and sent home, and the broadcast and print media reflected the general disgust of Americans at this “disrespect shown to our flag and our anthem.” Perhaps as telling a commentary as any was found in a feature article in Sport magazine on an athletically-inclined family. Included was a remark by the family’s sports-precocious young son that his goal was to win an Olympic medal and then stand proudly on the podium raising a white-gloved fist as a symbol of his love of America.

Since then, the two Olympians have been rehabilitated. Both went on to careers in education (one as a college sociology professor and coach, the other as a high school guidance counselor), and today there is a statue of their iconic moment on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. [Update: In 2019 they were selected for induction into the Olympic and Paralympic Hall of Fame.] It would be a bit of a stretch to say that all has been forgiven, but the outrage of the moment has clearly faded from America’s collective memory.

Now, fifty years later, comes the National Football League, still on the wrong side of history. The issue of players who kneel during the National Anthem has become the casus belli of today. It’s the reason for the fight, for one side to be able to say to the other, “Ha ha, we beat you!” Kneeling is certainly not disrespectful per se– ask any Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, or German Lutheran. In fact, is there any situation in which kneeling is a sign of disrespect?

Which provokes another question – how does one show respect for one’s country’s national song, anyway? The sentiments expressed in the words of the anthem are actually not entirely deserving of respect. For example, the second verse includes this passage: “No refuge could save the hireling and slave.” The line is a condemnation of indentured servants and slaves who were promised emancipation if they left their masters to join the British side – in other words, a condemnation of those who would fight for their own freedom.

The NFL does not have clean hands in the matter, either. Between 2011 and 2014, until it became embarrassingly public, half the teams in the NFL took millions of dollars from the Department of Defense to put on supposedly patriotic displays – everything from “Hometown Heroes” celebrations of veterans and active military to showing men in uniform on the Jumbotron. What was played up to be sincere and patriotic appreciation by the teams was actually a money grab. Seeking financial gain is not honoring the Flag and Anthem, but demeaning them. The same can be said of most singers who perform the anthem at major sports events. Instead of an honest straightforward rendition, they use the opportunity to show off their vocal stylings and gain free exposure. In that regard, the anthem does not elevate the event as much as the event demeans the anthem.

Thus what we have is not patriotism so much as phony sentiment used for the financial benefit of a commercial entertainment cartel. Let us remember that the NFL is not a public enterprise; it is a profit enterprise. The NFL owners are not in the business of putting on football games; they are in the business of making money. What concerns them about players kneeling for the National Anthem is that it might wind up costing them something. That “something” might be money, although the conflict does not seem to be hurting the League’s bottom line much, if at all, as revenues are not declining.

It might, however, cost them some good will in the eyes of that segment of American demographics that seems to be in control right now. The NFL team owners have acknowledged that they would likely not have engaged in a fight with their own players over standing or kneeling were it not for pressure they received from the White House. President Trump, they say, leaned on them to punish uppity players who refused to play the role they are told to play. The owners, just like any other employers, are unarguably within their rights to demand a certain standard of behavior from their employees while they are at work. Whether they should exercise such a demand is another matter.