A Proper Place For Sports and the Anthem

Is there a way to resolve the hoopla over national anthem protests before sporting events without driving everyone even crazier than they may have been driven already? Maybe. It might depend on what your definition of "crazy" is, of course, but there's also plenty to be said for the precept that patriotism and respect can't, and shouldn't, be compelled officially, whether by the government or by an employer.

Once such employer, the National Football League, whose former employee Colin Kaepernick started the whole take-a-knee anthem protest business in the first place, has now made it compulsory for players and team personnel to stand for "The Star Spangled Banner," unless they elect to remain in the locker room during its playing.

There's one school suggesting President Trump has the NFL scared to death, considering his fumings over the protests. (Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, "Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he's fired. He's fired!") There's another suggesting the falling attendances at NFL games since Kaepernick first took his knee had the league and its lords scared to death.

The truth may be somewhere in the middle. Even if, when the NFL announced its new policy, Trump couldn't resist opening his big trap yet again: You have to stand proudly for the national anthem, or you shouldn't be playing, you shouldn't be there, maybe you shouldn't be in the country. (The thought that there are far more grotesque ways to protest than kneeling doesn't seem to occur to him.)

What hath baseball wrought?

Baseball, you say? You must have missed when I wrote a few days ago about the national anthem tradition beginning somewhat organically, during Game 1 of the 1918 World Series, when Red Sox third baseman Fred Thomas (himself a Navy man on furlough to play in the Series) heard the U.S. Navy band begin to play "The Star Spangled Banner" (which wasn't yet our official national anthem), faced the American flag, and saluted, all spontaneously, prompting others in the dugouts, on the field, and around the ballpark to do likewise.

Today, baseball still has no official policy regarding "The Star Spangled Banner," which may have been the wisest course even if the song's playing before games remains a tradition. (Only one known major league baseball player, Oakland catcher Bruce Maxwell, has ever taken a knee as an anthem protest.) And perhaps professional sports might step back, think twice, and ponder whether it's time to modify the national anthems tradition. Mandatory patriotism is antithetical to the sound idea that loving your country springs properly from your heart alone.

There's an argument that playing national anthems before every last game or race ("O Canada" features, too, at competitions involving Canadian teams) actually dilutes the anthems' meaning. American military services begin and end each official duty day with a flag raising ceremony and a playing of "The Star Spangled Banner." Professional sports, many fans' rhetoric notwithstanding, aren't exactly businesses that become matters of life and death, if you don't count the occasional NASCAR race crash. A foreign adversary wishing to start a war with the United States won't do it because they think the Astros are imperialist dogs.

I've loved baseball since boyhood. I've been a Mets fan since the day they were born, a Red Sox fan since that remarkable 1967 pennant race, an Angels fan from living for a time in southern California, though I thought Vin Scully's retirement should have been declared a national holiday (day of mourning?) in its own right. I've never flinched from hearing and saluting when "The Star Spangled Banner" was played before a game I attended in person.

And I still find it touching that Casey Stengel, in 1975, dying of cancer in a hospital bed, watching a game on television, may have slid out of bed, picked up his old Mets cap from his hospital nightstand, stood with the cap held over his heart as the broadcast began with one and all risen for "The Star Spangled Banner," and said to himself, "I might as well do this one last time."

We might suggest American (and Canadian, for that matter) professional sports leagues can it with national anthems before every last game or race but save it for games played on significant national holidays. Would it be terribly un-American if "The Star Spangled Banner" was saved for opening baseball games played on Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day, to name the three major such holidays occurring during baseball season? Before football, basketball, and hockey games played on Veteran's Day, Thanksgiving Day, and Presidents' Day? (Codicil: the NBA and the NHL, with their protracted, everyone-gets-a-cookie postseasons, often enough play on Memorial Day.) Before NASCAR races run on most of those holidays? (For that matter, would Canada consider it terribly unpatriotic if its home sports teams limited "O Canada" to their home games played on Canada's national or provincial holidays?)

Restoring real meaning at the same time you honor the sound precept that real patriotism is not induced at gunpoint, metaphoric or otherwise, in the centennial of Fred Thomas's spontaneous salute and its spontaneous inspiration, would be wisdom for a country founded by uncommonly wise men, one of whom ended the nation's first presidency in part with a warning against "the postures of pretended patriotism." Wisely.

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