It was a rather somber Chicago crowd at the first game of the 1918 World Series between the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox. Who could blame them? World War I was at its peak and their beloved Cubs were in the midst of being shutout by a Red Sox pitcher named Babe Ruth. Then came the 7th inning stretch. Later, the New York Times would describe what followed as “far different from any incident that had ever occurred in the history of baseball.”
A U.S. Navy band of twelve men were in attendance and seized the moment to begin playing the Star Spangled Banner. Red Sox Third baseman, Fred Thomas, on furlough from the Navy to play in the Series, turned to face the right-field flagpole, promptly snapped to attention, and offered a military salute. The other players in the field removed their caps, placed them across their hearts as they too turned to face the flag. A few of the fans started singing, and with each verse, more joined in, until at the end, the crowd erupted with cheers so loud that the New York Times would later report it as marking “the highest point of the day’s enthusiasm.”
In the years that followed, other baseball teams started to play the Star Spangled Banner during the 7th inning stretch. Finally, in 1931, Congress voted to make this popular patriotic song the nation’s first National Anthem. During World War II, Major League Baseball decided to move the song to the beginning of the games rather than the 7th inning stretch. Following the War, other sports, including the National Football League, also decided to play the National Anthem during the opening of each game. Who could possibly have a problem with mom, apple pie and the playing of the Star Spangled Banner? As Gomer Pyle used to say, “Surprise, surprise, surprise.”
Over the years, the playing of the National Anthem at sporting events has not been without controversy. Who can forget Roseanne Barr screeching out the Anthem at a San Diego Padres game in 1990 or the black American athletes who raised their fists during a Gold Medal Award ceremony at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics? Now the NFL has its own star-spangled controversy when in 2016, San Francisco 49ers quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, opted to sit during the playing of the Anthem as a way to protest the treatment of minorities in the United States. He later changed to kneeling during the Anthem as he thought it showed more respect for the military. His actions sparked a red, white and blue firestorm. Other players followed suit until the NFL finally issued a League policy last week (May 24, 2018) requiring players to either stand for the National Anthem or remain in the locker room until after the Anthem has been performed or risk being fined and disciplined.
Anyone think this policy statement settled the issue? Old Uncle Sam has to be scratching his head over this one.
Whether you lean left or right on the political spectrum, here are a few points to ponder:
- I cannot help but recall another football player known for kneeling. Tim Tebow was often seen kneeling before and after games in a silent, private prayer. While mocked by some, he is generally considered to be a pious, devout man who lives out his faith. Just so happens that Kaepernick is a Christian too and known for making significant donations to needy ministries. Most of his tattoos are of a religious nature. Yet he is saluted by some for his free speech bravado and damned by others for his apparent lack of respect for the flag and country.
- Can a business restrict the behavior of employees? Doesn’t the First Amendment mean I can say anything I want whenever I want? Not so fast Mr. Speak-Truth-To-Power. Employees do not have a Constitutional right to free speech at work. Business owners are generally free to impose behavior/speech restrictions when an employee is at work. If an employee’s behavior undermines their business, should they not have the right to terminate the employee? Wasn’t Colin Kaepernick “on the job” when he was dressed in a San Francisco 49ers uniform and standing, excuse me, kneeling on the sideline? Ah, but doesn’t requiring someone to stand for the National Anthem make a mockery of the freedom we Americans so dearly cherish?
- If it is legal to burn an American flag, why isn’t it alright to sit or kneel during the National Anthem?
- Given all the venomous and vile political discourse these days, at least Mr. Kaepernick’s protest is a silent one.
Professional athletes have a platform from which to influence society by their actions both on and off the field. Using the occasion of the National Anthem to make your protest, however, is risky business. While it grabs the spotlight for your cause, it also offends those who have seen too many flags draped over coffins or placed on battlefield cemeteries. However justified the protest, many of us find it hard to sympathize with a protester that seeks attention by disrespecting the symbol of our country. Besides, if we take a knee every time we disagree with our government, we’ll become a nation on our knees. Which is not a bad thing, if we are praying, but a questionable tactic if we are protesting.
Do the NFL owners have a legal right to require a respectful posture? Yes. Should they? Maybe. Do I have the choice to turn off the TV or walk out of a stadium as a protest to his protest? Yep.
Yes, the Star Spangled Banner is an odd song to have as a National Anthem. The words are difficult if not archaic, and the tune is even more of a challenge to sing. And, most folks are unaware that it has four stanzas. Still, it serves to remind me of one other thing — we need to treat all people with the respect and dignity that comes from being made in the image of God and from living in a “One Nation Under God.”
While I most prefer to be inspired by the Fred Thomas’s who stand and salute when no one else does, I do think Mr. Kaepernick’s behavior is an exercise of his freedom of speech. Though I disagree with his actions, I respect his right to kneel during the Anthem if for no other reason than it motivates me to stand a little taller, sing a little louder and always be grateful to live in the “land of the free and home of the brave.”
So, Mr. Kaepernick, if your Star Spangled posture serves to draw attention to racial prejudice AND inspire us to salute our flag and honor our veterans, then go ahead and kneel. It reminds me what I am standing for.
Let me close with my favorite of the four stanzas of the Star Spangled Banner— the last one.
Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved homes and the war’s desolation,
Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the Heav’n – rescued land
Praise the Pow’r that hath made and preserved us a nation.
Then conquer we must, for our cause is just,
And this be our motto–“In God is our trust.”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.