The paths of progress and politics seldom run in straight lines, and in the midst of protests and argument over police brutality, we are back to Colin Kaepernick and his famous kneeling during the playing of the National Anthem at a 49ers game in 2016.
Drew Brees, the Saints quarterback with a Super Bowl ring from 2009-10, got into some hot water over the weekend for his comments about that famous act.
“I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country,” he said. Brees was immediately hit by criticism at a time when hundreds of thousands of people were rallying in anger over the death of George Floyd, a black man who died at the hands of Minneapolis police.
Brees apologized twice, but then took a shot from President Donald Trump for backing off.
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Symbols are slippery things that can be employed to contrary ends and are often misused, especially in sports. The playing of “The Star Spangled Banner” before a sporting event didn’t start until the World Series of 1918, during American participation in World War One.
The tradition grew to the point where the song was played not just at major events, but at every sporting venue you can imagine.
During World War Two, it was played before movies, and in the Cold War era, TV stations played it when they signed off, usually at midnight.
For a lot of people today, the playing of the anthem is merely the thing that happens before “Play ball!” instead of being a reverent paean to the successful defense of Fort McHenry from British invaders during the War of 1812. Now, it’s fallen into the hands – voices, really – of self-centered divas who think hitting that HIGH note is the whole point of the song.
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Kaepernick and his supporters have argued that no disrepect to the flag is meant in the kneeling, and – however unlikely,* – maybe he didn’t. Many Americans don’t even know that the song is about a specific flag at a certain time; they just sing the words without fully understanding what they mean.
There was a famous and ironic tale from World War Two in which American troops caught a German infiltrator dressed in a G.I. uniform.
He revealed his true identity by knowing the words to all four verses of the National Anthem. Most people, we’ll bet, don’t even know the song has more than one verse.
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And yet, it remains a national touchstone for many. Some see the song and the flag as symbols of broken promises of freedom and equality for people of color; some of us prefer to think of them as representing the Union soldiers (of which 180,000 were “colored” troops) who ended slavery, as well as Dr. Martin Luther King and other civil rights heroes who marched under the Stars and Stripes to convince the Congress to pass the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which ended all forms of legal race discrimination.
But the controversy alone is so very American. You have the freedom to choose which brand of patriotism, or symbol, you prefer.
* The quote goes like this: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”
“Wild World of Sports” is posted on Mondays.