Public comments by New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees have reignited the controversy over NFL players and others kneeling while the national anthem is played as a means of protesting racial injustice. In fact, the issue probably never went away, and important questions remain, including whether kneeling is disrespectful and should be forbidden or whether trying to forbid it disrespects and infringes on free speech rights.
Reasonable minds might differ as to the answers. While once seeming to support players’ right to express their views, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell later stated publicly that “Everyone should stand for the national anthem.” Perhaps his reversal was related to President Donald Trump’s Twitter tirades that seemed to threaten the many tax breaks that the NFL and its owners receive. Perhaps not.
An overlooked element in the controversy
More recently, in the wake of George Floyd’s killing, Goodell has stated that the NFL condemns racism and the systematic oppression of Black people, was wrong in not listening to NFL players earlier, and encourages all to speak out and peacefully protest. It remains unclear whether that encouragement extends to kneeling for the anthem, and Goodell’s statement was widely criticized for its failure to mention, let alone apologize to, Colin Kaepernick. Regardless of the NFL response, though, I would argue that there is an overlooked element involved in the whole controversy – that we have, in fact, cheapened the national anthem’s significance by playing it in places and at times that are quite unnecessary.
By way of disclosure, I am a naturalized American citizen. I stand and remove my cap whenever the national anthem is played at any sports or other event I attend. I know and sing the words – perhaps distressing those immediately around me – even when the performer inserts their own personal riffs. I regard this as an achievement because our national anthem is notoriously difficult to sing and not necessarily a great piece of music. Some, though perhaps not many, will know that the tune originated as an English drinking song and that the lyrics have historically been used extensively for overtly political purposes. In that sense, we should rejoice that the anthem has once again become the centerpiece for political controversy because it reinforces how vitally we value our commitment to rights of free speech and free expression.
But many, including now Brees, who admittedly later apologized, have criticized NFL players and others who have used the anthem as a protest vehicle, claiming that their actions disrespect the anthem and all that it embodies. I have no doubt that the anthem deserves respect and that it reflects the values that we, as Americans, hold dear, even if those values often remain aspirational. I would argue, however, that if we want the anthem to resonate with those values, we should ensure that we do not cheapen it by playing it at every conceivable opportunity. For instance, why is it necessary to play the anthem before every regular season game of every professional sport? Indeed, why is it necessary to play the anthem before every minor league game?
In this respect, we differ from all countries with which we compare ourselves where the anthem is reserved for the most significant of occasions. In Australian football, with which I am most familiar, the national anthem is played before two major games: the Grand Final (the equivalent of the Superbowl) and on Anzac Day (Australia’s most sacred national day) and not before every regular season game. This is by no means unusual. Other countries reserve their national anthems for undeniably special occasions.
Of course, some will argue that it is playing our anthem at so many gatherings that differentiates America from the rest of the world and that it is another example of American exceptionalism. America fought the revolutionary war and fought Britain again in 1812, and I believe the flag – but not the anthem – profoundly symbolizes the rights and freedoms that were hard won but often taken for granted, including the right to be united and the right to dissent. However, if we want to treat the anthem with the same deep respect that we show the flag, then we should not play it on every conceivable occasion. By doing so, we actually cheapen and hollow the message that the lyrics are meant to convey.
Playing the anthem less does not convey any diminished patriotism and respect. Rather, it elevates the anthem to the special place it deserves in the hearts of every American.
Stephen Arnott is an associate professor of legal studies at Hamline University. Originally from Australia, he has lived in St. Paul for 29 years and is the first umpire to be inducted into the United States Australian Football League Hall of Fame.
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