Why does Sports World wrap itself in the American flag? I wondered about that last weekend as President Trump strained his thumbs firing off more than a dozen tweets criticizing National Football League players who knelt rather than stood at attention during the playing of our national anthem.
On Sunday, players were protesting Trump’s tweets, a right they hold under the Constitution, and supporting former San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick who a year ago knelt to protest racial discrimination and police brutality against blacks. Last Friday, preceding his tweet attack, Trump suggested that NFL owners should fire protesters. His stance, he tweeted, was about respect for the anthem, the flag, the nation and those who serve it. It was not about race.
I’m all for patriotism. I love Bristol’s oldest-in-the-nation Fourth of July Parade and applaud the veterans, from Iwo Jim to Iraq, who ride or march. I admire the young men and women from Naval Station Newport in their crisp white uniforms, and the equally impressive crew of whatever Navy vessel is anchored at the entrance to Bristol Harbor. I laud the troops who serve half a world away in a war reminiscent of the mess my generation knew as Vietnam.
Yes, patriotism is important, but do we really need a display of it before every football, basketball, baseball and hockey game in America? Such frequency cheapens the act of standing and singing our national anthem. How many Patriots fans at Gillette Stadium actually sing The Star-Spangled Banner? How many know all the words? Who wrote them? What they signify? When they became the national anthem? The origin of the music? Other than standing, how many fans really pay attention? I could ask the same of fans at any ballpark or stadium in America.
And how many performers turn the Star-Spangled Banner into a personal riff when they get to “and the hoooome…..of…..the….braaaa-AAAAA-aaaave?”
Few non-sports events begin with The Star-Spangled Banner. The Rhode Island Philharmonic opens each season in September with a brisk rendition, and that’s it until the following September. The capacity crowd at Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Providence stands, sings and sits. The rest of the music season is anthemless, and the musicians and their audiences do just fine.
Plays at Trinity Rep in Providence and Second Story Theater in Warren, and every musical or drama I have seen on Broadway, begin with the lights going down and the curtain going up. No anthem. Any public meeting I have attended might begin with the Pledge of Allegiance. No anthem. Major fundraisers for charitable organizations succeed without the national anthem, and their supporters are just as patriotic as Patriots fans.
So why do we have giant flags covering football fields or hanging on the Green Monster at Fenway Park? What about those flyovers by military jets? Are they really necessary? I don’t think so.
The NFL probably wraps itself in Old Glory because we often equate football with warfare. We think of the players as gladiators, warriors in helmets, protective padding and uniforms in their colors. Coaches like Bill Belichick are strategists, and quarterbacks like Tom Brady are field generals. Football players attack, defend, march, invade, blitz, feint and throw bombs. So do soldiers.
Our flag represents all of us. Athletes, bus drivers, nurses, teachers, firefighters, lawyers, doctors, even the President of the United States. Protesting the statements or position of one, like the president, does not imply a protest against the statements or position of any other.
Protest is a bedrock of America, or have we forgotten the Sons of Liberty? Peaceful protest can right wrongs, or have we forgotten Henry David Thoreau and civil disobedience or Martin Luther King and civil rights marches? Football players taking a knee during the national anthem looked like a peaceful protest to me. Was it disrespectful? I don’t think so. Let’s see if they do it again this weekend. In Green Bay Thursdy night, the Packers and a few of their fans linked arms.
Okay, the answers to the pop quiz. Francis Scott Key, a lawyer, wrote The Star Spangled Banner in 1814 to commemorate the bombing of Fort McHenry in Baltimore during the War of 1812. The music is from an old English drinking song. The anthem gained traction during the Civil Way, again during World War I and again in World War II. Baseball was the first sport to adopt it on a regular basis, during the 1918 World Series and the waning days of World War I. The Chicago Cubs stopped playing the national anthem after World War II and resumed in 1967. Now, everybody plays The Star-Spangled Banner. Is it really necessary?