Oh, say can you see…that maybe we don’t need the national anthem before every game? Yes? No? Well at least consider the history of it.
I wrote earlier this week that I really wasn’t interested in Colin Kaepernick’s feeble attempt to become the new John Carlos and Tommie Smith by protesting black oppression by sitting during the national anthem. But now Megan Rapinoe of the U.S Women’s National Team has one-upped Kaepernick by taking a knee during the Star Spangled Banner, which forces me to embarrassingly confess that I do care (but only a little).
Rapinoe drew fire from a number of quarters for her actions before last Thursday’s friendly against Thailand, not least of all from the United States Soccer Federation, who immediately issued a statement which read, in part, “As part of the privilege to represent your country, we have an expectation that our players and coaches will stand and honor our flag while the national anthem is played.”
The criticism didn’t faze Rapinoe, who, seemingly oblivious to the conflict of interest in proudly wearing the United States’ shield while dishonoring its anthem, argued she was only exercising her First Amendment right.
“I think that we need to look at all the things that we say the flag and the anthem mean and everybody that it represents and all the liberties and the freedoms that we want it to mean to everybody, and ask ourselves, ‘Is it protecting everybody in the same way?’” she said in an interview with ESPN after the match.
It was a silly thing to say, not only because the meaning of anthems and flags is obvious the world over, but also because they can’t protect anyone, since they’re made of quarter-notes and nylon, respectively. Perhaps what she meant to say was that she shouldn’t be trying her hand at political science on television because she’s not very qualified to talk about it. Oh, if we could only get that admission from some of our politicians, too!
Nevertheless, our culture has brought this headache of hackneyed civic discourse on itself. We live in a country that gives professional athletics a political overtone with the ubiquitous playing of the national anthem, which like it or not, is a political statement being interjected into a sporting event. Just because most people happen to agree with it doesn’t make it any less political.
To be fair to the athletes who feel the need to air particular societal grievances, when better to channel their inner-Patty Hearst than during that most political of moments in all of sport, the national anthem? Oh, the protests have all the priggishness of a whites-only country club, to be sure. But for activist athletes, kneeling or sitting during the anthem is a legitimate way of having a say in public dialogue, and I can’t fault them for taking advantage of the occasion.
But while it’s not entirely hypocritical to use the Star Spangled Banner as a springboard to give a lecture on civics, it is one thing athletes aren’t particularly skilled at doing. That’s why I said I don’t really care about Kaepernick’s political posturing: it’s not that I don’t give him the benefit of having convictions, or even that they may be legitimate ones. It’s that he’s an NFL quarterback whose words carry absolutely no weight as a political philosopher. As Jonah Goldberg at National Review pointed out, making political statements is “not in a quarterback’s job description any more than it is in a plumber’s.”
That’s why, at a deeper level, maybe Rapinoe’s question about what the national anthem stands for isn’t that stupid. What intrigues me most is not the meaning of the national anthem (because, as I said, that’s obvious), but rather why we’ve tied it so closely to sports. The playing of the national anthem, after all, is political propaganda, and if we don’t want athletes interposing politics into sports, we’ve got to reconsider our ways before we do the same thing as fans.
So who put the “state” in “stadium”, anyway?
The answer to that question is probably the Chicago Cubs, who had a military band play the Star Spangled Banner during the seventh-inning stretch of Game 1 of the 1918 World Series against the Boston Red Sox. The song proved a healthy shot of civic morale, as it came at a time when the public was weary from the toll of World War I. As the band struck up the tune, Red Sox third baseman Fred Thomas, an active serviceman home on furlough, snapped to attention, saluted the flag, and soon had the entire crowd singing with him.
The moment proved immensely popular with fans, the Red Sox followed suit in Boston, and soon it was played before every World Series game, making the rest, as they say, history; the Star Spangled Banner became the official national anthem in 1931, and starting during World War II – another heightened time of patriotic fervor – Major League Baseball played the anthem before every game.
But now that we’re not in a time of war, do we still need the national anthem before every single game? Is it becoming more divisive than uniting, or is it still necessary to rouse us out of our cultural malaise of individualism, as I’ve argued elsewhere?
Well, it’s probably both, but if we prefer that our sports stars stick to what they do best (and it ain’t being Aristotle), then one simple fix to the problem of activist athletes would be to stop playing the national anthem before most major sporting events. Someone will say that that’s unpatriotic, but I’m a believer in “less is more”; for instance, Christmas is more special when it comes only once a year.
In the same way, I’d be happy to sing the national anthem when it should be sung: occasionally, like on the Fourth of July, Memorial Day, maybe before the World Series, and – without question – before the playing of U.S. Women’s National Team soccer matches. Skip it in San Francisco this season. Believe me, not that many people will protest.