In a sport filled with blown-out knees and blown up egos, concussion and controversy, the National Football League last year found itself blitzed by new foes—able-bodied players who refused to stand tall during the playing of the National Anthem. It’s impossible to gauge exactly how much of the drop in league attendance and TV ratings (about 10%) was the result of this, but the impact was not insignificant. Many fans just want their heroes to shut up and play.
The owners need more than that. So the league passed a rule that all players must either stand proud…or remain in the locker room during the anthem. (As if there won't be seething fans watching to see who comes out late.) But what happens next when a player stands…but faces away from the flag? Or raises a defiant fist? This is only going to get worse.
Before moving on, let’s lay out the relevant facts: 1) white cops have frequently killed black citizens for no apparent reason; 2) many players chose to take a knee to protest this; and, 3) many fans (urged by right wing propaganda) claimed these players were instead deliberately defaming our flag/our troops/our nation, etc.
To be clear, let me say that I fully support those players and their original intent. Long live freedom of speech. And the right to freedom—and life.
But my feelings don’t fix the NFL’s problem. So, let me just do that now:
STOP PLAYING THE DAMN ANTHEM!
See how easy that was?
But, wait—wouldn’t that be sacrilegious…or immoral…or somehow even criminal?!
Think about it for a minute. You go to a sporting event, and you’re conditioned to expect the National Anthem to precede it, right? But how come? You don’t hear it before a movie or a play…or a wedding or a funeral—you don’t even hear it before a symphony or a rock concert, when there are musicians sitting right there, ready to play!
In September of 1918, the Chicago Cubs hosted the Boston Red Sox in a World Series game. But things were more than a little off. The immortal Yankee slugger Babe Ruth was still playing for Boston then…and he was pitching that day (masterfully, as it turned out, throwing a 1-0 shutout). Also, the game itself wasn’t played in the Cub’s iconic lair, Wrigley Field (which was deemed too dinky), but instead in the larger and more majestic home of the crosstown rival White Sox. But more importantly, the crowd was spooked. The papers that morning headlined the latest group of Chicagoans killed in World War I….and the previous day, some type of terrorist had tossed a bomb into the local Federal Building, killing four and wounding many more. Could a ballpark be the next target? Only 20,000 fans dared to show up and find out.
At the same time, it so happened that the band of the Naval Training Station north of Chicago was led by a guy named John Philip Souza (of renowned marching band fame). And Souza had just finished a new arrangement of what was known then as the anthem of the Army and Navy. But no one was hearing it-- outside his parade ground. So he decided, in effect, to put out a beta version--and a World Series audience seemed like a promising test group. Indeed, it was. When the band started to play during the seventh inning stretch…it expelled all tension from the crowd. By the time it was finished, fans were singing together in pride and defiance, and a tradition was born. (But in fact it didn’t immediately take hold everywhere. Not until the 1940’s, during WWII, did some teams begin to play it every day. And ironically, the Cubs—the team that inaugurated the idea—did not begin playing the anthem daily until 1967, during the Vietnam War.)
ver since Francis Scott Key composed the lyrics during a naval battle in 1814, the anthem has been associated with freedom and patriotism. But patriotism embodies several aspects beyond the militaristic (cultural, political, historical, etc.).
Which means it inevitably allows an interpretation different from the one that, maybe, you hold. Thus, it’s observation can and should be open to individual expression, as well. (I still can’t figure out why men were required to remove their hats, but women were not.)
More to the point, a ceremony inaugurated a century ago because it acted to bring Americans together is now doing exactly the opposite. It’s separating owners from players, players from fans, and fans from each other. We don’t need this. In a nation already drunk on division, we don’t need the National Anthem as one more for the road.
There’s a convenient way out for the league (and those poor, embattled NFL owners). Save the anthem for Memorial Day and the Fourth of July—both safely outside football season—and let’s just get on with the game.