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Singing the national anthem before games: Oh say can we stop?

By DERON SNYDER

The story is told of a man whose wife would cut off both ends of a ham before cooking it.

One day he asked why, and the wife said she got the habit from her mother. The husband questioned his mother-in-law, who said she got it from her mother. When the man finally queried his wife’s grandmother, the old lady reached into the cupboard and pulled out a timeworn pan.

“This was all I had to cook with,” she said. “The ham was always too large, so I’d cut off both ends.”

In some instances, we’re like the wife, performing rote tasks with no idea why. I’ve often thought the national anthem at sporting events falls in that category. I’ve asked the same question Yahoo’s Dan Wetzel posed this week in a thought-provoking column:

Why do we even play “The Star-Spangled Banner” before games?

If you thought the NFL killed this story by blackballing Colin Kaepernick, you since have learned otherwise. Oakland’s Marshawn Lynch and Seattle’s Michael Bennett sat out the anthem during preseason games last weekend, around the same time Klansmen, neo-Nazis and other white supremacists held demonstrations in Charlottesville, Va. The ensuing hatred and violence harkened back to clashes from the civil rights era a half-century ago.

“I’ve been thinking about sitting during the national anthem for a minute, especially after everything that’s been happening the last couple weeks,” Bennett said Tuesday in an as-told-to Yahoo article. “It’s just been so crazy right now, and I felt like the conversation wasn’t over. I felt like this needed to be a continuous thing that’s going on. I know it offends a lot of people, that’s why I kept it straightforward. I love America, I love hot dogs, I love everything about it.”

Some folks can’t grasp the concept of Bennett – or anyone – claiming to love America, yet choosing to sit during Francis Scott Key’s most-famous work. Critics see a disconnect.

But Bennett, Lynch, Kaepernick, Philadelphia’s Malcolm Jenkins (raised fist) and others, see the perfunctory performance as the perfect opportunity to move conversations from pride to introspection. That’s more than a lot of us can claim when “Oh say can you see …” gets started.

It’s better to sit during the song and work tirelessly to improve society, than to stand at attention and do nothing outside the stadium.

As far as litmus tests go, few reveal less than actions during the anthem, especially at sporting events. Wetzel correctly points out that plenty of people talk, eat, text, whatever, as the song begins. It isn’t routinely played before other public gatherings, so what’s so special about athletic competition?

The TV networks obviously don’t consider it a big deal; they’re typically in commercial, displaying patriotism via capitalism.

Conversely, protesters display patriotism via activism.

And there’s no better stage than the NFL’s weekly holidays. Everyone has an opinion and is asked about it, ad nauseum. “The national anthem is a special moment for me,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell told Arizona Cardinals season-ticket holders, according to ESPN.

“It’s a point of pride,” he said. “That is a really important moment but we also have to understand the other side – that people do have rights, and we want to respect those.”

Lynch, as usual, isn’t talking and hasn’t discussed his reason for sitting. Bennett has spoken eloquently, directly after the game and in Tuesday’s article. Their coaches – Oakland’s Jack Del Rio and Seattle’s Pete Carroll, respectively – said they believe standing is right, but they respect the players’ decisions.

“I love our country and I think we should all stand for the opportunities when the flag is represented,” Carroll told reporters this week. “But the fact that (Bennett’s) heart is in a great place, and he’s gonna do great work well after the time he’s with us, it’s easy for me to support him in his issues.”

Here’s the thing that gets lost, though. These aren’t the players’ issues. They’re the country’s issues. And the anthem has nothing to do with them.

Instead of tripping over whether players stand, kneel or sit, we’d be better served focusing on the social justice concerns that prompt the action. Running lists of who did what and arguments about the appropriateness might be great for ratings, but the hot takes obscure real-life causes.

Take the anthem out of the equation – take it out of the games – and national matters of race, justice and inequality will remain. The action would go on and we could lose ourselves in sports for a few hours, just like the good ol’ days.

But don’t get mad at athletes during the song when they protest to remind you of what’s happening. Get mad at the powers-that-be for force-feeding us from a political platter of empty symbolism.

The anthem became a tradition at sporting events in 1918, when the country was smaller, less diverse and not as complex. Everything is bigger now.

Maybe we should give it a rest and stop cutting the ham.

— Brooklyn-born and Howard-educated, Deron Snyder writes his award-winning column for The Washington Times on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Follow him on Twitter @DeronSnyder.

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