With everything else to worry about, – think North Korea, health care, hurricane victims – Donald Trump should be excoriated for distracting us with his attack on the National Football League players and team owners who make political statements by choosing to stand, kneel, sing or not sing our national anthem. The President of the United States is an ignorant, intemperate, undisciplined and ultimately dangerous adolescent, with his hand on the nuclear button. Any normal President, whether Republican or Democrat, would be embarrassed to behave in this way.
But Trump’s last line of defense is playing to his base. For nearly a week he has been upping the ante, calling on team owners to “fire the sons of bitches” who participate in such protest. Trump has once again gotten on his high horse about patriotism. Could he be over-compensating because he was a draft dodger, avoiding the Vietnam War because of bone spurs (though he played sports in college)? As I watch Ken Burns’ wrenching documentary of the Vietnam years, I keep wondering what Donald Trump was doing at that time.
A year ago, Colin Kaepernick knelt rather than stood for the national anthem before a San Francisco 49ers football game to protest racial inequities in our criminal justice system. Unfortunately, the ensuing discussion focused more on Kaepernick’s effrontery than on the underlying issues. So it is today. Even while support for the players has grown (to the point where football viewers are tuning in for pregame rituals to see who’s kneeling and who’s standing, locking arms), the discussion has become grossly distorted, wrongly using those decisions as a litmus test of patriotism.
It would be nice to think of this as a clear-cut First Amendment free speech issue. But the free speech clause only extends to stopping government from abridging freedom of speech. Much as we might bristle at the idea, employers may control employee speech in the workplace. Even when events are public, football owners may dictate what goes on in their stadiums. What the controversy reminds us is that, as a society, we need to do better at creating environments where both majority and minority views may safely be aired. Perhaps that’s why it was slightly reassuring to see so many team owners locking arms in solidarity with their players on Sunday.
As for the National Anthem, let’s remember a few things. First, writer Francis Scott Key was a slave owner and opposed the abolitionist movement. (Just read the words of the seldom sung third stanza.) Second, Key borrowed the music from an 18th century British pub song about drinking and sex called Anacreon in Heaven. (So much for made in America.)
The Star Spangled Banner was a relatively late arrival in the history of sports. It was introduced into baseball in Chicago in the 1918 Cubs/Red Sox World Series game during the seventh inning stretch much the way “Sweet Caroline” or “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” is used today. It wasn’t declared our National Anthem until 1931, and the tradition of singing it before games didn’t start until the Second World War.
Yesterday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions echoed his boss’s call for the NFL to establish a rule requiring that players honor the flag and the anthem. At the same time, Boston Globe writer Jeff Jacoby wrote a compelling article calling for the elimination of the National Anthem at all sports events, believing that the practice both trivializes the meaning of the anthem and fails to produce unity anyway. He’s absolutely right about the dissonance and ineffectiveness of the symbolism. But I don’t agree that we need a blanket elimination of its use in sporting games. Owners can make that decision individually for their own venues, in the interest of preserving workplace harmony and the enjoyment of their own fans. Including it or not including it should be a matter of personal judgment rather than a measure of patriotism or support of American troops.
We live in a great country with many more important problems to worry about. It would be a fitting comeuppance if our Divider-in-Chief’s faux-patriot antics led to teams’ voluntarily dropping the National Anthem to avoid the level of controversy he inflamed.