Sports, the flag and the national anthem are so interlinked that an old gag has it that the last two words of the “Star Spangled Banner” are “play ball.”
Furthermore, ignoring the rituals associated with the anthem – singing, standing, saluting or placing hand over heart are viewed in many quarters as a sign of disloyalty to the USA – especially for minorities.
Yet some of these perspectives change. Back during the 1968 World Series singer Jose Feliciano was roundly booed for vocalizing a few jazz-like variations on the anthem. Since then it has become almost obligatory for prominent singers to perform their own variations, which generates wild applause. (The original melody is an old English drinking song.)
Muhammad Ali was stripped of his title and almost jailed for refusing to be drafted, saying he had no quarrel with the Viet Kong–but today honor him as a hero.
A few weeks ago, Olympics gymnastics champion Gabby Douglas was the only member of the women’s gold-medal team who stood at attention on the podium with her hands at her sides instead of over her heart. No protest intended–but she drew hundreds of poison tweets. Meanwhile, a couple of white guys, Ryan Crouser and Joe Kovacs, gold and silver medalist shot-putters, failed to place their hands on their chests during the anthem, but no one noticed.
Consider the 1968 Olympics debacle when gold and silver medalist runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised gloved fists in the “black power” salute and were banned from the rest of the games. Today we honor their act as legitimate protest against segregation.
During his first presidential campaign even Barack Obama was criticized for not holding his hand over his heart for the anthem–and for not wearing a flag lapel pin. But he quickly pivoted on both.
Which brings us to San Francisco back-up quarterback Colin Kaepernick–who is biracial–staying seated during the anthem, drawing huge criticism, but explaining it was his personal protest against racism in America.
The athlete was totally within his rights to register that protest. He was performing that most patriotic of acts, expressing himself against injustice, protected by the First Amendment. Neither he nor Douglas nor Smith nor Carlos broke any laws. Their gestures were far less scandalous than burning the flag, which also happens to be legally protected “speech,” thanks to a 1989 bipartisan Court ruling. Even Antonin Scalia concurred.
Kaepernick’s wearing “cops-are-pigs” socks was stupid, but other football pros have joined his sit-down. It’s healthy that more big-time athletes are taking part in social protest–following the lead of Ali and the outspoken Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. LeBron James wore an “I can’t breathe” sweatshirt and several men’s and women’s basketball teams wore shirts or made other gestures protesting police killing unarmed blacks.
Kaepernick was not fired – that would have been a genuinely un-American act, because he is the true patriot (not the New England kind).
Had he been cut, however, maybe the Bears could have signed him because they really need a backup quarterback of his capabilities – and convictions.