There is nothing that compels us to stand for the national anthem or place our hand over our heart during its playing. Nor, for that matter, are we required to salute the flag, unless, of course, we are in military uniform. We don’t have to pledge allegiance either.
In fact, we citizens aren’t required to perform any of these actions, which are meant as expressions of respect for our nation but, realistically, are more often compelled by routine than by deep patriotic feelings.
One’s sense of patriotism, after all, can burn hot or cold depending on the national condition. And if things are particularly bad, we might want to send a message.
That’s what San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has done in refusing to join his teammates in standing up for The Star-Spangled Banner at the beginning of recent exhibition football games. It’s his way, he has said, of expressing unhappiness at police treatment of blacks in this country. He’s even worn socks portraying police as pigs.
It’s his privilege to do so, just as those who strongly disagree with him are allowed to express their views on the matter. That’s what this nation really is all about: the right to protest and to protest against those who do.
No one can legitimately compel you to raise your hand and constantly display your loyalty in blind support of a government and its supreme official, as Germans did in the 1930s and 1940s.
Over the years, athletes have on numerous occasions sent messages not unlike Kaepernick’s. At the 1968 Olympics, black runners on the medal stand raised their fists in defiance as the flag was raised and the anthem played. It was an act roundly and hysterically condemned as a disloyal, treasonous gesture rather than being recognized as a display of frustration with the continued exploitation of a race in a land dedicated — in its claims, at least — to equality.
Why in the first place are we opening every game, from our nation’s sandlots to its stadiums, with the playing of our official song? Is the practice an effort to declare ourselves loyal Americans, as though someone was keeping score not of the game but how many times we sang, “Oh, say can you see!” followed by yells of, “Play ball!” which always seemed to me somewhat in bad taste. I can’t remember, however, when I didn’t stand up for the national anthem or the flag. It didn’t occur to me not to, I guess.
Perhaps nothing had angered me enough, not even when I agreed with the youngsters who peacefully opposed the Vietnam disaster. I didn’t, for the record, agree with the student criminals who set off bombs and robbed banks as a gesture of protest.
The tradition of opening each game with the national anthem at baseball games dates back to the 19th century but became more popular during World War I and then a regular part of each game beginning in 1942 as the United States entered World War II. From baseball it spread to other sports as a way to honor those fighting and dying to protect the nation. The National Hockey League, while mandating the anthem since 1946, has since the ’70s also permitted using God Bless America.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that burning the flag is protected by the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech, and refusing to stand up for the anthem, to me, seems to fit the same constitutional definition. Therefore, sponsors of athletic events, professional and amateur, can only request that those attending rise.
Simply put, while you may not like Kaepernick’s actions, he has stayed well within his rights. In fact, he’s actually doing what every citizen does — using the freedom the anthem represents to make a silent gesture of patriotism, one that has effectively expressed his anger. What he’s done has taken considerable courage, given his position as a public figure.
The Olympic authorities in 1968 kicked out track stars John Carlos and Tommie Smith for making a political statement. The Olympic committee’s actions remain controversial today. One can only hope that the National Football League will recognize the need to preserve the freedom the anthem represents — a symbol of all things patriotic, pro and con.
Dan Thomasson is a former vice president of Scripps Howard Newspapers. Readers may send him email at: email@example.com.