Colin Kaepernick (at right, kneeling), joined by teammate Eric Reid in San Diego on September 12, during Kaepernick’s third national anthem protest

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP Images

Star-Spangled Protest

Why an athlete’s refusal to stand for the national anthem has sparked such intense debate

When the national anthem played before an NFL preseason game in August, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick remained seated on the sidelines instead of standing like almost everyone else in the stadium.

Kaepernick expected some criticism for his protest—carried out, he said, to call attention to police brutality and racial injustice in the U.S.—but what followed was a firestorm. Many accused him of thumbing his nose at America by not joining in a patriotic ritual that’s long been a fixture at sporting events.

“There’s ways to make change w/o disrespecting & bringing shame to the very country & family who afforded you so many blessings,” read one of thousands of angry tweets. It came from Kaepernick’s biological mother, Heidi Russo, who gave him up for adoption as a child.

Others praised him for taking a principled stand, and even President Obama seemed to sympathize. 

“I think he cares about some real, legitimate issues that have to be talked about,” Obama said during a press conference while visiting China. 

The debate over Kaepernick’s actions raises two questions: How did the national anthem become so integral to organized sports, and why do Americans have such strong feelings about it? 

“It’s part of our national religion to believe in the flag and Betsy Ross and the national anthem,” says Orin Starn, professor of cultural anthropology at Duke University in North Carolina. “When these national symbols are called into question, it makes people angry.”

The War of 1812

Francis Scott Key, a lawyer from Maryland, wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner” on Sept. 14, 1814, after witnessing the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore by British ships during the War of 1812. Key was inspired by the tattered American flag that remained flying above the fort during the battle, and wrote a poem about it. The poem was later set to the tune of a popular English song and became the national anthem by an act of Congress in 1931. 

It was first performed at baseball games in the mid-1800s, and it became more widespread in baseball in the period of intense patriotism that swept the nation during World War II (1939-45).

Pat Courtney, a spokesman for Major League Baseball, said that the national anthem has been performed before all MLB games since 1942 and that “it remains an important tradition that has great meaning for our fans.”

Other sports also incorporated the song into their pregame rituals. Today, all four major sports leagues ask fans and players to stand and remove their hats while the anthem plays. But no league does it with more pomp and circumstance than the NFL, which often stages elaborate displays featuring a giant flag and jet-fighter flyovers.

An American Tradition

Mark Rightmire/The Orange County Register/ ZUMAPRESS.com/Newscom

Most other countries don’t have similar rituals. For example, national anthems aren’t typically played before Japanese baseball games or German hockey games. Why the difference? According to Starn, it probably lies in America’s history.

Unlike most nations, the U.S. wasn’t created on a common platform of religion or ancestry. Instead, Americans are bound by ideas and concepts—that all people are created equal, for example—and something that represents those ideas, like an anthem, can come to seem vitally important, even sacred. 

“We’re the most sports-obsessed society in the history of the world, and we’re also a nation that’s obsessed with patriotism and pride in identity,” Starn says. “You can’t be a politician who doesn’t wear a flag lapel pin, and you can’t go to an NFL game and not hear the anthem.”

Kaepernick isn’t the first athlete to be criticized for slighting the anthem, whether intentionally or not. In 1968, U.S. sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos were expelledfrom the Olympics in Mexico City for raising gloved fists in a “black power” salute while on the medal stand during the playing of the national anthem. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf of the Denver Nuggets was suspended by the NBA in 1996 for refusing to stand during the anthem. And at the Rio Olympics this summer, gold medal gymnast Gabby Douglas was lambasted on social media for not placing her hand over her heart while the anthem played—even after she explained that as a member of a military family, she had learned to stand with arms at her sides.

Given how strongly many Americans feel about the anthem, it’s not surprising that protests like Kaepernick’s have been relatively rare. When he repeated the protest during a second preseason game, however, he was joined by a teammate. And during the first week of the NFL season, players from several teams chose to kneel or raise fists during the anthem. In early September, Megan Rapinoe, an American soccer player, knelt during the anthem before a women’s pro soccer league game in support of Kaepernick.

Following his second protest, the 49ers announced that Kaepernick had lost the starting quarterback job to Blaine Gabbert. The team said the decision was based solely on performance, but others wondered whether Kaepernick had been harmed by the outcry over his actions. 

“It’s the step off the cliff that most athletes aren’t going to take,” says Starn. “You might have LeBron James wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt, but the national anthem has always seemed sacred, and you would just put your hand over your heart and stand up like everyone else.”

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