Jeffrey Bessen

In America, patriotism, politics and sports are forever intertwined


As Vice President Mike Pence’s post-national anthem exit from last Sunday’s NFL game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Indianapolis Colts made abundantly clear, the ripple effects of the protest that former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick started last season are only widening. Kaepernick and teammate Eric Reid began kneeling during the singing of the national anthem before preseason games last summer, and President Trump’s tweets of complaint about other kneelers as this season began moved many more players to take a knee, and ignited a national debate on whether sports are the proper forum for protests.

Before there was such a thing as professional football, “The Star-Spangled Banner” was first performed at a baseball game during the seventh inning of the first game of the 1918 World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs, 13 years before it officially became the national anthem. With the country embroiled in World War I, a military band took the field and began to play. Fred Thomas, the Red Sox third baseman, on leave from the Navy, quickly took his cap off and snapped to attention, according to reports of the day. The other players also removed their caps and placed their hands over their hearts. A symbol of patriotism was born.

The U.S. Navy had adopted “The Star-Spangled Banner” as its official song 19 years earlier, and in 1916, President Woodrow Wilson ordered that it be played at “military and other appropriate occasions.”

In 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first African-American to play for a major league baseball team in contemporary times. The move roiled American sports and society, but propelled integration forward in this country. Nonetheless, Robinson endured racial taunts almost everywhere he played, so perhaps he, as well as anyone, would have understood what has unfolded in the NFL over the past year.

Kaepernick, and all the players since who have kneeled, linked arms or remained in the locker room during the national anthem, say they are protesting racism and social injustice in the U.S. — and they weren’t the first athletes to do so before a huge television audience. At the Summer Olympics in Mexico City in 1968, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the gold and bronze medalists in the 200-meter dash, raised black-gloved fists as “The Star-Spangled Banner” played during their medal ceremony. Many Americans were outraged by that demonstration nearly 50 years ago, and fans who have voiced their disapproval of the NFL players’ gesture this season claim that they are disrespecting the flag and the soldiers who fought to protect our freedoms, and infringing on football fans’ escape from the concerns of the real world.

But we don’t live, or play or watch sports, in a bubble. Real-world events have always been acknowledged in our recreational lives. In 2001, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, three events made that vividly clear, and only strengthened the connection between sports and the world outside the stadium. That Sept. 21, just 10 days after the twin towers fell, the Mets hosted the Atlanta Braves in the first major sports event in New York City since the attacks. Future Hall of Famer Mike Piazza hit a two-run homer in the eighth inning that not only gave the hometown team its margin of victory, but also sent a cathartic, patriotic charge through the crowd at Shea Stadium, leaving many fans in tears.

Two days later, Yankee Stadium hosted a prayer service during which military, religious and political leaders tried to make sense of the tragedy. And on Oct. 20, a capacity crowd in “the House that Ruth Built” cheered thunderously as President George W. Bush threw the ceremonial first pitch before Game 3 of the World Series.

Despite our decades-old tradition of standing for the national anthem, there is no law stating that its performance must be accompanied by unquestioned respect and tribute. Indeed, the anthem’s words, and the flag it honors, are the very reminders of our right to protest what we see as wrongs.

The freedom to voice our opinions is what sets this country apart. We can argue about when and where such public speech is appropriate, but professional athletes, who are some of our most well-known citizens, are also some of our most well-known role models. If they cannot publicly express their concerns about society’s ills, many of their fans may never learn enough about those ills.

Having an opinion is free, but living in a country where that opinion can be stated without retribution comes at a cost. Soldiers have lost their lives to protect that freedom. For their sacrifice to have value, it would be more disrespectful for those in the public eye not to express their opinions. Civil discourse is the first step toward understanding and, eventually, resolving the issues that some of our star athletes are raising on the field of play.

Jeffrey Bessen is the senior editor of the Nassau Herald. Comments about this column?