“Get That S.O.B.
Off the Field”
It probably wasn’t a mystery as to where Donald Trump stood regarding professional athletes not standing for the National Anthem, right? In case we weren’t sure, though, the “President” made it crystal clear Friday night at a political rally in support of Alabama senatorial candidate Luther Strange. As is Trump’s wont, of course, the event became a campaign rally in which the Narcissist-in-Chief decided to take on the NFL and, later, U.S. professional sports altogether --- particularly the Black athletes in those sports. In an apparent attempt at rallying his NFL donor/owner base (six NFL owners donated $1 million to the Trump campaign --- and the Jets Woody Johnson is now our Ambassador to England as a result), Trump told the Alabama crowd:
“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!! You know, some owner is going to do that. He’s going to say, ‘That guy that disrespects our flag, he’s fired.’ And that owner, they don’t know it [but] they’ll be the most popular person in this country.” (The Guardian, Sept. 23, 2017)
As in the Charlottesville controversy, Trump noted: "Total disrespect of our heritage, a total disrespect of everything that we stand for.” (bold, italics mine) You don’t need a Ph.D. to understand what "our" heritage and who “we” are in that statement to get Trump’s point. He has once again made it clear that he sees the United States as “us” and “them,” with “us” being White people. It’s disgraceful, of course, but no longer shocking or surprising.
Rather than belabor commenting on Trump’s behavior let’s turn to the controversy itself revolving around the National Anthem. Let’s remember that there have been National Anthem protests before --- in 1968 at the Mexico City Olympics and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (aka Chris Jackson) in the NBA in 1995-96 (essentially leading to his banishment from the NBA). By 1972, in his autobiography, Jackie Robinson, a WW II veteran, wrote: "I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world." But a larger question, raised briefly this morning on A.M. Joy on MSNBC by the great sportswriter William Rhoden, is why do we even play the National Anthem at sporting events?
Essays have been written about this topic, of course, and you can Google the question and read those. They range from questioning why we stand for a song that praises war (and some pretty brutal actions) to the behavior of people at the ballpark during the playing of the anthem (often quite disrespectful). My favorite question about the playing of the anthem was raised on a sports website (Odyssey) by an undergraduate writer named Kevin Cance:
When watching a sports event on television, how many of you stand up to “honor America with the singing of our national anthem?” If you are like me, the answer is not only have I never done it when sitting at home on the couch, but I have also never seen anyone else do it.
If the Anthem were so revered why don’t we stand up at home when it’s played? The YES network, which carries my home team Yankee games, seldom, if ever, broadcasts the Anthem being played. We get the game intro, go to commercial break (when the Anthem is played) and come back for “Play Ball.” If you’re at the ballpark (or in the stadium or arena) you know the crowd starts jostling and yelling long before the song is finished. Respect?
So, where did it all start? “In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson ordered that "The Star-Spangled Banner" be played at military and other appropriate occasions.” (Wikipedia) In 1931 an official bill was passed to make The Star-Spangled Banner the National Anthem of the United States. As regards the playing of the Anthem at ball games, it started in the World Series of 1918.
As legend has it, singing the national anthem at sporting events began during the 1918 World Series, when the nation was at war. As recounted by the New York Times of Sept. 6, 1918, it was the seventh-inning stretch of the first game between the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox.
“As the crowd of 10,274 spectators — the smallest that has witnessed the diamond classic in many years — stood up to take their afternoon yawn, that has been the privilege and custom of baseball fans for many generations, the band broke forth to the strains of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’
“The yawn was checked and heads were bared as the ball players turned quickly about and faced the music. Jackie Fred Thomas of the U.S. Navy was at attention, as he stood erect, with his eyes set on the flag fluttering at the top of the lofty pole in right field. First the song was taken up by a few, then others joined, and when the final notes came, a great volume of melody rolled across the field. It was at the very end that the onlookers exploded into thunderous applause and rent the air with a cheer that marked the highest point of the day’s enthusiasm.” Washington Post, August 30, 2016 - Fred Barbash & Travis M. Andrews
So, that’s how it started. It eventually moved from the 7th inning stretch to become a pregame ritual. And rituals are difficult to change.
Much the same way, since 9/11, 2001, we now are asked to “stand and honor America” during the 7th inning stretch --- usually for some rendition of “God Bless America,” layering on another coat of patriotic paint. In the immediate aftermath of the September 11th tragedy, I could understand this ceremony. But it was quickly appropriated by the Bush Administration (the Department of Defense pays to have military personnel “honored” at these events, or to do jet flyovers, etc.) to support jingoistic, imperialist adventures --- marching out veterans and demanding our “support” for wars and policies we may not at all agree with!
I remain at a loss when looking for a connection between sports and patriotism but it is now ingrained in our culture so it’s not going away (although I'll freely admit I head for the men's room in the 7th inning if I'm at the game). We have to be clear, however, that the First Amendment is equally ingrained and should be exercised in ways that inform our government of where we stand in relation to policies and issues that effect all of us on a daily basis. Colin Kaepernick may not always be the most articulate messenger but he did start what will now, thanks to our bumbling “President,” become a growing protest movement not only in our professional sports leagues but across the nation.
Take a knee.