Saturday, September 10, 2016

Football and the Flag: A Discussion Worth Having

Jeremy Lane of the Seahawks and Colin Kaepernick of the 49'ers
San Francisco 49'ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has started a protest movement. During a pre-season game with the Green Bay Packers he refused to stand for the national anthem. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” he said in an interview after the game. He has since been joined in his protest by Jeremy Lane of the Seahawks, and others. There are rumors that the entire Seahawks team will join in the protest in their game against the Miami Dolphins tomorrow afternoon.

In the United States, at the start of every professional league sporting event, we play the national anthem. It's an American thing; other countries don't do this. The song was played at baseball games starting mid 19th century. It gained a big boost from World War I fervor, Babe Ruth, and the 1918 World Series. Congress declared the song our national anthem in 1931 and after Pearl Harbor major league baseball began to play the song before every game. It's now an entrenched custom that spans all professional leagues. Athletes stand at attention,  hand on heart. Patriotism inflates the significance of the event. Fans expect it; athletes' egos are lifted. Singers are challenged by the 1.5+ octave range peaking with "rockets red flare."

Even when it was performed by Whitney Houston, all dressed in white at the 1991 Super Bowl, this song is a marshall affair. The lyrics come from Francis Scott Key's war poem glorifying the bombardment of Fort McHenry by British ships during the war of 1812. We stole the melody from the British. Each year the Pentagon approves several hundred requests for fighter-jet fly-overs following performance of the song. As Luke Cyphers and Ethan Trex noted for ESPN right after 9/11: "Our nation honors war. Our nation loves sports. Our nation glorifies winning. Our national anthem strikes all three chords at the same time."

Today we sing only the first verse of Key's original poem, but the poem has roots in our history of slavery and racism. In reference to former slaves who fought with the British attackers, Key's third stanza includes the following:
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave,
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
In 1813 the "land of the free and home of the brave" excluded slaves and native Americans. The song referred to white Europeans. Today we ignore this history and we stick to the first stanza of the poem. And black athletes reverently salute the flag and place their hands on their hearts while they listen to the anthem.

The flag has both divided and united us from the start. During the civil war it was prominently displayed by northern citizens as a sign of pride. The South had their confederate flag, a symbol of racism to this day. The American flag united us after 9/11. During the Vietnam war it divided us.

The flag has served as a tool of patriotism and protest alike. During the Vietnam war the flag was stomped on, burned, hung upside down from University dorms bedecked with peace symbols, and sewn onto jean pockets. In 1968, after a flag was publicly burned during an anti-war protest in Central Park in New York, Congress reacted by passing a broad statute prohibiting desecration of the flag. The statute made it a criminal offense to knowingly cast contempt on the U.S. flag by mutiliating, defacing, or defiling it in any way.  The following year, Sidney Street burned a U.S. flag to protest the attempted murder of civil rights worker James Meredith. Specifically, Street protested inadequate police protection  for civil rights workers: "Yes; that is my flag; I burned it. If they let that happen to Meredith, we don't need an American flag," he said.

Street's message is Colin Kaepernick's message. It is the message of Black Lives matter. If we are going to continue to shoot minorities and incarcerate them in disproportionate numbers, is it right for well paid football players (68% of whom are Black) to venerate the flag before every game? In a year when the Republican party has come out of the closet as a racist party of whites, and in a time when this racist white party has attempted to appropriate patriotism and the flag for itself for the past 30 years, should black football players meekly venerate this flag before every game? Kaepernick thinks not.

Sidney Street was convicted of a misdemeanor and given a suspended sentence. In 1969 the United States Supreme court overturned his conviction, finding that Street's verbal protest "I burned it; if they let that happen to Meredith we don't need an American flag" was protected speech under the First Amendment. (Street v. New York, 394 U.S. 576) In 1989 the Supreme Court followed up and held that flag burning was protected symbolic speech. (Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397) Finally, in 1990, the Court held that all flag desecration for political purposes was symbolic speech protected by the First Amendment and could not be prohibited. (U.S. v. Eichman, 496 U.S. 310).

A helpful summary and timeline of the flag desecration issues in the United States can be found HERE.

"The extreme right is extremely patriotic," said Michael Kimmel in a portrait in Salon (Nov. 2013):
"They love their country, their flag, and everything it stands for. These are the guys who get teary at the playing of the national anthem, who choke up when they hear the word America. They have bumper stickers on their pick ups that show the flag with the slogan “These colors don’t run.”
Kimmel' portrait was of the radical right fringe, but much of this resonates with Donald Trump's GOP.

At their convention this year the Democrats fought back and embraced their patriotism as much as any Republican convention of the past. Chants of "USA, USA, ..." were in part opportunistic, meant to drown out rowdy Bernie Sanders supporters. Nevertheless, Democratic politicians have appropriated patriotism. No longer are they cowed into wearing the flag on their lapel as a defensive measure: they have embraced their patriotism loudly and proudly.

It's been a decade since we've heard talk of a constitutional amendment to permit jingoistic legislation prohibiting flag desecration. But as we drove the lonely roads of Highway 6 through Nevada last week, beautiful and desolate landscape so memorably described by John McPhee, we encountered muscular pick-up trucks, driven by white men, streaming large American flags.

Ashton Pellum/WBTV South Carolina
This photo is from a school incident in South Carolina, but pick-up trucks in Nevada looked just like this.  I did not speak with these men, but I surmise they are not Hillary voters.

Is there a connection between these flags on pick-up trucks and the patriotic display at our professional sporting events? Does the racist right's embrace of our flag present a challenge to what we are doing when we salute the flag with our anthem at football games? Colin Keapernick and his supporters challenge us to consider these questions. It's a discussion worth having.