Aside from the stupidity and indignity involved in the President of the United States playing “the dozens” with professional athletes over their taking a “knee” during the playing of the National Anthem at professional sports contests, there is something real at stake here. That is, despite the President’s recent “tweet” that “race has nothing to do with it,” race has everything to do with it. If you look at the history—both of the playing of the Anthem at professional games, and the few occasions when athletes have refused to salute during its playing—you can see that the overwhelming majority of those who have used this form of protest have been black. Muhammad Ali said he wasn’t going to Vietnam because “no Viet Cong ever called me nigger,” and his career was essentially terminated. Tommi Smith and Juan Carlos raised their fists in the Black Power salute during their victory stance at the 1968 Olympics, and they were similarly vilified; as was Chris Jackson (now Mahmoud Abdel Rauf) who, playing basketball for the Denver Nuggets in 1995 sat down during the playing of the National Anthem (he said the flag was a “symbol of oppression, of tyranny”), and was subsequently forced to stand by the NBA commissioner, and shortly thereafter lost his basketball career. Now we have Colin Kaepernick, the Super Bowl-winning quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, first taking a knee during a pre-season game on August 26, 2016, and who is this season still undrafted by any professional football team. His career may well be over as a result. But what he said to justify his refusal was simple and eloquent:
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder” (quoted in “A Brief History of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ being played at games and getting no respect,” by Fred Barbash and Travis M. Andrews, Washington Post, Aug. 30, 2016).
Kaepernick’s refusal to stand, and its being taken up by a few other football players, and then the similar but not identical refusal of Steph Curry of the championship Golden State Warriors to go to the White House to be ‘honored’ by President Trump, has now morphed into open warfare between the President and professional (mostly black) athletes. And yes, it is about race. Because the (asterisk) President chose, after an obvious race-baiting campaign, to use a campaign stop in Alabama to say that NFL team owners should fire players for taking a knee during the national anthem. He also said owners should respond to players taking such action by saying “Get that son of a bitch off the field now, he’s fired. He’s fired!”
There was no mystery who the “son of a bitch” was. Trump clearly meant the black Colin Kaepernick (though Kaepernick was actually adopted and raised by white parents, so his ‘bitch’ mother is white); the also-black Michael Bennett of the Seattle Seahawks, who also has been taking a knee; and after these comments, the scores of athletes, both black and white, who knelt or sat during the National Anthem on September 24 to show their solidarity with Kaepernick and his reasons for refusing to honor the national anthem: e.g., to draw attention to the police murder of black men that has incited the “Black Lives Matter” movement. There is no mystery that Trump, and those who support him, hate the Black Lives Matter movement. There is no mystery that candidate Trump used this and other alleged ‘outrages’ to appeal to his white supremacist audience, his white supremacist base. For that has been the Republican Party’s clear strategy since Richard Nixon inaugurated his ‘Southern strategy’ during the 1968 presidential campaign. But Nixon and most others tried to disguise their appeal to racist Southern states by claiming to be addressing the “silent Majority.” Trump has abandoned that cover story. As a result, his has been a more or less open and overt appeal to racists, xenophobes, anti-semites, and anti-elitists—all those Muslims and Mexicans and Blacks and coastal elites whom he blames for the demise of the Great America he promises to restore. And his recent war with African-American athletes was carefully calculated to occur in one of the most racist states of the deep South, using the kind of language that would be sure to appeal to southern resentments and white anger. For how many public figures, never mind a President, would dare to call a black athlete a “son of a bitch”?
The question that arose for me this morning, though, was whence comes this jingoism at professional athletic contests? Why should a kid’s game become the occasion for mawkish displays of national pride? One can understand why this might happen at the Olympics—which are, after all, thinly-veiled displays of national prowess, where athletes compete for their home countries. But why should the same pride be displayed at domestic ball games? The above-referenced article in the Washington Post explains why. It turns out that the first known playing of the Star-Spangled Banner occurred during the 1918 World Series, at the first game between the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs. The key is the date: the United States was then at war in Europe, having just joined the First World War effort in 1917, after immense campaigns to get Americans behind the war effort (which most were reluctant to do). In the traditional seventh-inning stretch at the World Series, the crowd suddenly heard a band playing the Star-Spangled Banner (not yet the official national anthem, which it became officially only in 1931). Some in the crowd began to sing along with the music, and then most of the fans did likewise, cheering at the end. As explained in the Post article: “The event had a public relations bonus for ballplayers in 1918, as there were people wondering why they were on the ballfield rather than the battlefield.” In other words, why the hell are you perfect physical specimens playing a kid’s game rather than doing your grownup duty in battle? Almost immediately, baseball’s owners caught on, with the Red Sox the first team to open every game with the national anthem, and other teams quickly following suit.
So there you have it. The reason the national anthem is played at sports contests has less to do with “respect for flag and country” and more to do with public relations. Professional sports owners have to provide a cover story to explain why grown men are paid enormous salaries to play a kid’s game rather than joining their peers in defending their country. We who opposed the war in Vietnam could see this most clearly in the late 1960s, when Sunday football games became obvious metaphors for (hoped-for) American might on the battlefield—or in the corporate sector. The whole spectacle became so nauseating that for years I could not watch football or any other professional sport. It still nauseates some to this day, augmented these days by the knowledge of the dreadful brain damage that is being incurred by football players at every age. Now, though, we have some of the black athletes who make up huge percentages of major sports teams taking advantage of their prominence by trying to draw attention to the plight of their less fortunate brothers. And that sticks in the craw of all those who think these athletes should be grateful for their success. They should be good workers on the sports plantation and give thanks rather than complain. They should not insult the national pride in the flag and the anthem that celebrate American might and military prowess (or bullying). They should simply shut up and play their kid’s game with childish abandon, leaving the big issues to the grownups.
But many of them are finally, and forcefully saying no. And the President, as is his wont, takes the “no” personally: it’s all directed at him. At his constituency. At his people. At his great America. But the truth is, it isn’t. It’s directed at all of America, America since the beginning, and at last it is saying: if you give us this platform because of our skills and bodies and hard work, then we have the right to use that platform to the benefit of those who have no voice. And we will continue to do it, and draw attention not just to the current outrages, but to the 400-year history of those outrages, until they stop. And all of us with any sense of justice or history or compassion should applaud them—not the National Anthem they are using to make their point.