When President Donald Trump said he’d like the NFL to fire any “son of a bitch” player who kneels during the national anthem, political pundits, NFL owners, and sports commentators were outraged. The problem with Trump’s comments, many said, was one of “tone.” Trump’s rhetoric was “divisive.”
But for anyone in sports truly bothered by negative tone and divisive rhetoric, a further step is necessary: Let’s just discontinue pregame performances of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at all sporting events.
Always an arbitrary practice, it was played out long before quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s protest last year. Walk around any stadium during the song, and you’ll see some people standing at attention, hands over their hearts — and thousands of others chatting, milling about, and buying beer. NFL teams actually remained in their locker rooms during the anthem until eight years ago.
And now that the ritual has come under closer scrutiny, we can see that the pregame anthem is not above reproach. All major sports leagues have been caught accepting taxpayer money to fund manufactured acts of patriotism, and the song’s full lyrics are uglier than Trump’s rant.
Every time you take your kid to a ballgame, you begin by belting out an ode to white supremacy. Francis Scott Key was a slave owner who described blacks as an “inferior race of people.” As professor Jason Johnson wrote in The Root last year, Key was strongly opposed to the Colonial Marines, a unit comprising escaped slaves who fought for the British in the War of 1812. That unit absorbed casualties during the battle of Fort McHenry in Baltimore, which Key wrote about in the poem that became “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Here’s the third verse:
And where is that band who so vauntingly swore,
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion
A home and a Country should leave us no more?
Their blood has wash’d out their foul footstep’s pollution.
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.
Key was celebrating the mass deaths of black men who sought freedom. This is not an anthem for people of color.
Granted, not every historian agrees with this reading of Key’s life or lyrics, and no record survives of the poet explaining his intent. Some note that the word “slave” had a broader meaning in the 19th century. This is an awfully charitable gloss, though.
I prefer Johnson’s version. A professor in the School of Global Journalism & Communication at Morgan State University, he told Public Radio International last year that Key “was happy to see former slaves, who had joined the British as part of their Colonial Marines, getting slaughtered and killed as they attempted to take Baltimore. … The entire song sort of leads up to this point where he’s essentially saying to these terrible, ungrateful, black people, this is the consequence of standing up against the United States. So it’s clearly racist; it’s clearly pro-slavery, but it’s pretty much in line with the kind of man that Francis Scott Key was.
There’s a reason someone recently spray-painted the words “racist anthem” on a statue of Key in Baltimore. In an era when Confederate flags and statues are finally starting to come down, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” a relic in that same vein, should follow.
Not that it would be easy to end the practice. “The Star-Spangled Banner” has been played at ball games stretching as far back as 1862, according to baseball historian John Thorn. In 1918, during World War I, the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox introduced it first in the seventh inning of a World Series game, and then before the first pitch. A ritual was born before the song had even become, by an act of Congress in 1931, our official national anthem.
After a new rite has been fully integrated at sporting events, it becomes nearly impossible to undo. What begins as a provisional upswelling of patriotic good feeling becomes a tradition before the week is out. (Just ask anyone standing for “God Bless America” during a seventh-inning stretch, 16 years after it was introduced as a temporary response to 9/11.)
For all of Trump’s anger about Kaepernick ― and, in his wake, others ― taking a knee during the anthem to protest police brutality, it turns out that, before 2009, NFL players had typically remained in the locker room while the anthem was played. A league spokesman confirmed this, but the NFL has never commented on the reasons behind the shift.
The change came six years before a scathing report issued by Republican Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, both of Arizona, that found that the Department of Defense had paid pro sports leagues $6.8 million in taxpayer money from 2012 to 2015 for on-field displays of patriotism. The New York Jets took $20,000 to “recognize one to two New Jersey Army National Guard soldiers as hometown heroes,” and the DOD gave the Milwaukee Brewers $49,000 for a performance of “God Bless America.”
The Pentagon also paid teams for stagings of the national anthem, the report revealed. In 2013 and 2014, the Atlanta Falcons received a total of $429,000 in taxpayer money from their contract with DOD. Part of that deal included payment for a national anthem performance by members of the Georgia Army National Guard. In 2012, the Buffalo Bills received $250,000, which included an unspecified amount for members of the New York Army National Guard to perform the anthem. And so on.
In the NFL and other pro sports, patriotism that can be bought is hardly worth its name. The anthem is far from sacred, and it’s time to ditch the entire ritual.