Remember when the national anthem prior to games was such a big deal that networks didn’t bother televising it? When many fans barely paid attention, too concerned with their concessions and conversations, their smartphones and last-second sprints to the restroom? When folks at home didn’t know and didn’t care whether players stood, kneeled, put hands over hearts or fists in the air?
Seems like a long time ago.
Now TV cameras pan the sideline during the formality, looking for signs of protest. Fans at the stadium make their own star-spangled statements, with homemade signs as back-up. Media members compile weekly lists of who did what as the song was sung, later seeking answers from the participants.
The national anthem has become a national obsession, thanks to a second-string quarterback’s opposition to oppression.
Colin Kaepernick was on the cover of Time magazine last week, with a headline that read “The Perilous Fight.” His decision to take a knee during the anthem has sparked a wave of similar actions, trickling down to colleges and high schools, too. The decision also has riled a considerable segment of society, unleashing a steady stream of invective at Kaepernick and his sympathizers.
Then the game begins and we sort of forget about the controversies (the singing and the shootings). Sports proceeds to work as the escape so many want.
Except the discussion continues because people keep weighing in on the protest (and police officers keep killing unarmed people). Then it’s time for the next game and the next anthem and the cycle repeats.
According to ESPN, players on 14 teams protested in Week 3 entering Monday’s game. There were several lone operatives. Such as the Broncos’ Brandon Marshall, the Rams’ Robert Quinn and the Panthers’ Marcus Ball. When asked repeatedly about his gesture of choice – standing with right hand raised and index finger extended – Ball told reporters “One love.”
That’s the wishful thinking displayed by the Seahawks. They stood and linked arms as a symbol of unity during the anthem for the third consecutive game.
But the issue is just another sign of the deep division within our country. A recent Yahoo Sports survey indicates that opposition to Kaepernick’s movement is so fierce, 44 percent of fans claim they would stop watching the NFL if the demonstrations continue.
The situation couldn’t happen to a better league, an entity that punishes players for wearing the wrong socks, celebrating touchdowns and being accused of criminal mischief. Commissioner Roger Goodell might gladly yield a measure of his omnipotence for the power to make Kaepernick stand.
You can argue that the NFL should have anthem etiquette included in its labor agreement, like the NBA does. But the NFL and Goodell shouldn’t follow the flawed reasoning of so many other critics who conflate the protests with patriotism.
Confession time: There was a point while coming of age that I opted to remain seated at sporting events when the national anthem was played. It was my silent protest – a form of civil disobedience, so to speak – in response to the ugly truths I was learning about America.
No, I didn’t hate my country, just some of her policies and tendencies. But I also loved the notion of purported freedom and thought not standing would express both emotions.
After entering the media and attending sporting events regularly as part of my job, I felt it reflected poorly on my employer if I remained seated. So I adopted the habit of standing with head bowed and eyes closed, in silent prayer for my country, for her past, current, and future generations.
Mark Twain defined patriotism as “supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.” I liken that to walking outside and seeing a family member being attacked. You don’t stop to ask questions; you jump in and try to help.
Once it’s over, you might want to hit the family member yourself if you determine they started the fracas. But the point is you were there for them, right or wrong.
Patriotism isn’t believing that America is faultless and flawless. It isn’t agreeing with every policy, domestic or foreign. It isn’t standing for the anthem or wrapping yourself in the flag. It’s wanting what’s best for the country and determining to fight for that, no matter what.
“If (protesters) don’t like the country, they don’t like the flag, get the hell out,” former Bears coach Mike Ditka said in a radio interview Friday. “That’s what I think.”
He’s not alone. Plenty of others suggest that Kaepernick and his supporters should love it or leave it, be grateful for what they have and quit complaining. Never mind that this nation was built on protest and sports figures have played leading roles.
Let me be clear: This is Kaepernick’s country as much as Ditka’s. The coach and like-minded individuals are free to exit if they don’t like the protests. If they choose to obsess over the national anthem rather than strive to make America match her so-called ideals, they can do so someplace else.
Think about that the next time a player kneels or raises a fist before the game. That’s as American as it gets.