On Sunday, Vice-President Mike Pence walked out of an Indianapolis Colts – San Francisco 49er football before the game even started. Apparently Pence was directed to leave by President Trump who tweeted “I asked @VP Pence to leave stadium if any players kneeled, disrespecting our country.” Following his leader, Pence tweeted “I left today’s Colts game because @POTUS and I will not dignify any event that disrespects our soldiers, our Flag, or our National Anthem.” Without Pence, the former Governor of Indiana, in the stands to cheer them on, the Colts and 49ers went into overtime tied 23-23 before the Colts pulled out a victory.
NFL players have repeatedly explained that they are not protesting the flag, the nation, or American service men and women. They take the “knee” during the national anthem to highlight racism and institutional violence against Black men in the United States. Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49er quarterback who started the current round of protests, refused “to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins explained during a CNN town hall, “This is us, as concerned citizens, trying to play our role in a bigger conversation about race in America, a bigger conversation about our criminal justice system, and our law enforcement.”
Political protest has often been connected to athletics and athletes. Jackie Robinson, who is celebrated for the quiet and dignified way he desegregated Major League baseball in 1947, was put on trial while in the military during World War II for refusing to move to the back of a military bus when ordered to by a white bus driver. In 1965, twenty-one 21 African-American football players refused to participate in an American Football League all-star game scheduled to be held in New Orleans because of racial discrimination they faced in the city. A number of white players supported the protest and the league moved the game to Houston. One of the most prominent athletes of the 20th century, Mohammed Ali, was stripped of his heavyweight boxing title and threatened with prison when he refused to be drafted to fight in a Vietnam war that he opposed.
Protests and displays by athletes during the national anthem have a long history in the United States. At the Mexican Summer Olympics in 1968 track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised fists in a Black Power salute during the medal ceremony. At the 1972 Munich Olympics track stars Vince Matthews and Wayne Collett refused to stand at attention when the anthem was played. Smith, Carlos, Matthews, and Collett were all expelled from the Olympics. Too avoid controversy, Madison Square Garden was not going to play the anthem at the 1973 Olympic Invitational track and field meet, but reversed itself after a media uproar. The track meet’s media director defending the original decision. He said playing the anthem was not obligatory because “its purpose and relevance to sports events has never been established.” In 1996, the NBA suspended the Denver Nuggets’ leading scorer Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf for refusing to stand during the national anthem. The league’s deputy commissioner accused Abdul-Rauf of violating a league rule requiring players, coaches and trainers to “stand and line up in a dignified posture” during the playing of the United States and/or Canadian anthems. In this case an editorial in the New York Times defended Abdul-Rauf, arguing “It was the N.B.A.’s blindness to the fact that trying to force participation in a patriotic exercise undermines democratic values.” Donald Trump and Mike Pence probably consider a Times editorial “fake news.”
The first time the national anthem was played at a sporting event was probably during World War I, when it was not yet the official national anthem. It was sung during the 7th inning stretch of a baseball game by a Red Sox player who was on furlough from the Navy and became a regular feature of Red Sox games. During World War II the anthem, officially the national anthem after 1931, became a common feature at sporting events. However, in the 1950s, there was discussion of suspending the practice, because it was being ignored by fans.
Current veneration of the flag and the anthem are political as well. Patriotism at the ballparks and arenas was in style after 9/11 and used to rally public support for questionable military invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Prior to 2009, NFL players remained in their locker rooms until after the national anthem was finished. This changed when the Department of Defense decided to pay the NFL millions of dollars to endorse unquestioning patriotism and promote military recruitment during games and pre-game ceremonies.
The American flag is definitely not a religious symbol. There are American flag hats, shirts, and napkins. Men can buy American flag underpants online through Kmart, Walmart, and Old Navy. Women’s low-rise flag panties are available at Bloomingdale’s. Patriots can purchase American flag toilet paper on Amazon.com.
Pence and Trump tweets led to an avalanche of critical online responses. New Yorker satirist Andy Borowitz posted on Facebook “Poll: Americans Hope Trump Follows Pence’s Example and Leaves Early.” Political commentator and urban rap artist Reeces Pieces sent Trump and Pence a meme on twitter asking “Will Trump and Pence promise to leave the country if we all take a knee?”
Follow Alan Singer on Twitter: https://twitter.com/ReecesPieces8