Francis Scott Key, a lawyer from Maryland, wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner” after witnessing the British attack on Fort McHenry in Baltimore during the War of 1812. The song, originally a poem, officially became the country’s national anthem in 1931, and it has been performed at sporting events dating back to the 19th century.
Some believe that Americans have such an intense relationship with the anthem and the flag because the U.S. wasn’t created on a common platform of religion or ancestry, unlike many other countries. Instead, Americans are bound by ideas and concepts—that all people are created equal, for example. Consequently, something that represents those ideas, like an anthem, can come to seem vitally important, even sacred.
That may be partly why Americans feel so strongly about the current protests. According to a recent Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll, 53 percent
of Americans say it’s “never appropriate” to kneel during the anthem, while 42 percent say it’s sometimes appropriate.
Kaepernick, who has not been signed on an N.F.L. team since the 2016 season, and the other players who have protested are not the first athletes to be criticized for demonstrating during the anthem. At the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, for example, African-American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised gloved fists in a “black power” salute while on the medal stand during the playing of the national anthem. They were then thrown out of the Olympics.