San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the National Anthem before several pre-season games has set off something of a furor, one furious enough to have prompted a statement by the President, who averred, correctly, that Kaepernick is “exercising his Constitutional right” to protest what he has since revealed to be the unfair treatment of African-Americans in several areas of American society.
I’m not going to discuss the merits of Mr. Kaepernick’s gripe, nor am I going to say anything further about his right to behave as he did. (I’ve already agreed that his refusal to stand constitutes free “speech” (in the broad Constitutional sense of the term.)) There is no question that Mr. Kaepernick could do what he did, and I feel that too much of the debate has centered on what is, to me, an obvious point. For me, the issue lies, not with the could, but with the should: should Kaepernick have done what he did (or didn’t do)?
I would say that he shouldn’t have. Although the protest was appropriate, the means of the protest weren’t. You stand during the National Anthem before a football game. That’s how it’s done. It’s a custom. A tradition. And, I would argue, more important as a tradition than as a way of honoring the United States, Francis Scott Key, whomever it was who wrote that rangy tune, or, even, the flag or the military.
And it’s that Mr. Kaepernick gave a scarcely metaphoric middle finger to that tradition which makes his non-action inappropriate.
Protest is a key part of the American Way: we are allowed to argue with the status quo, and this arguing has brought about a great deal of highly beneficial social change. The thing, though, is that protest is meaningless if people don’t know what you’re protesting – which is precisely the trap into which Kaepernick fell. He did (actually didn’t do) something highly noticeable, making it obvious that he was trying to make a statement, but what that statement was didn’t become fully clear until he’d explained it in his post-game comments. That’s precisely the opposite of a meaningful protest – the act of protest itself contained no meaning. As such, the protest left itself open to a variety of interpretations, a great deal of them not intended by Kaepernick. Those imputed meanings are what set off the furor, which is thus a direct result of the inarticulate nature of Kaepernick’s act. He ought to have asked himself how the act of not standing might be interpreted by others, rather than assuming it would make the ideological statement he wanted to make. That assumption is what has gotten him into an enormous amount of trouble.
To appreciate the flaw in Kaepernick’s strategy, we need first to ask ourselves what the singing of the National Anthem before sporting events actually represents to us, as Americans and as sports fans (or as sports fans and as Americans.) From what I’ve read in the wake of the Kaepernick incident, the custom of singing the anthem at baseball games dates back only as far as World War II, when there was an obvious need to awaken every patriotic bone in Americans’ bodies. The custom caught on with other sports, and remains in place to this day. Even though I am extremely wary of jingoism, I find the singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” to be an enjoyable prelude to a hockey or baseball game. (It’s especially useful in baseball, as it’s a signal that the game is about to begin, something you can actually miss.) As a singer, I enjoy the chance to assess someone else’s singing of a technically awkward song (my hat would be off to the Ducks’ Dawn Wright were it not off already), and, as an American, I’m programmed to hear the song’s triadic major keyness as rousing.
Does that make standing for and listening to the National Anthem an act of patriotism on my part? By implication, yes. I may have problems with how this country is run (and where it’s moving), but I still think we have the most kickass constitution in the world, and stand up for my countrymen when I hear snarky things said about Americans. I am not sure, however, that my pride in the Constitution’s brilliant separation of powers is what I’m thinking about when Mrs. Wright is providing the musical prelude to Kevin Bieksa coming onto the ice to clobber someone.
Let me illustrate this by asking a single question: when the audience applauds the anthem singer for the high note on “land of the free”, are they applauding freedom…or the note? I’ve always gotten the impression that a lot of the applause was for the note.
I’d venture that a lot of sports fans view the anthem from just this perspective: a custom which is part of the ritual of a sporting event. (Sporting events include an enormous amount of ritual. Indeed, given that any given sport’s rules are, by definition, arbitrary, ritual is what makes sport into sport.) The anthem is a custom, and so are standing up and removing your hat while it is being sung. They’re all part of the experience of going to a ball game, and, yes, are on the same level as peanuts, Cracker Jack, high-fiving your neighbor when Ryan Getzlaf scores a goal, Dodger Dogs, and the seventh-inning stretch.
That said, there are certainly plenty of people at the sporting events I’ve attended for whom the singing of the National Anthem does represent an affirmation of patriotism. I’m not sure how insulting the military got mixed up in the criticism of Kaepernick’s non-action, but that is one of the charges being leveled at him, so I am going to infer that, for some people, adopting the customary deferential posture for the National Anthem is not only an act of patriotism, but an act of support for our armed forces. These people take the anthem more seriously than the average fan in the stands, and are, of course, free to do so. In taking it as seriously as they do, they’re actually coming closer to the reasons for which anthem singing was instituted at sporting events in the first place.
I have also observed a further group of fans, which views the singing of the National Anthem as an opportunity to demonstrate jingoistic, and even xenophobic sentiment. This unfortunate phenomenon can be seen at hockey games when the opposing team is Canadian. I have actually heard boos for “O Canada”, followed by excessive cheers for “The Star Spangled Banner”. Such behavior is wholly inappropriate: if you are a jingoistic xenophobe who views anything north of the 49th parallel as dangerous to our way of life, that’s fine. (Why are you at a hockey game, though?) But you don’t use the ritual of singing the national anthems as a means to express those sentiments. Booing “O Canada” is just plain bad form.
And so is not standing for “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Mr. Kaepernick is welcome to his opinions on the treatment of African-Americans in today’s United States. As a star player in the most visible of our national sports, he enjoys enormous privilege where the press is concerned, and his being a major quarterback gives him a platform from which to express his views. If Mr. Kaepernick feels as strongly as he does, he could easily arrange a session with the press in which he could, in articulate and intelligible fashion, express his beliefs to the world at large. Instead, he adopted the childishly inappropriate course of an act, which, while it did get a lot of people up in arms, got them up in arms for reasons other than Mr. Kaepernick intended.
Let me conclude by pointing out a further reason why not standing for the National Anthem is so inappropriate. Mr. Kaepernick was in an enormous stadium, filled with people who’d paid good money to show their support of their team and its quarterback. Those people chose to stand up for the anthem. For a player not to stand up shows contempt for his audience. He may have thought he was showing the middle finger to police violence towards African-Americans, but, bottom line, the people to whom he gave that finger were his own fans.