NFL Anthem Policy Flies in The Face of American Ideals

Francis Scott Key was inspired to write the lyrics to The Star-Spangled Banner during a battle of the War of 1812.  Over one hundred years later, the first recorded use of the song during a sporting event occurred in the 1918 World Series the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs. First played during the seventh inning stretch, the song provided a much needed public relations boon to players criticized for being on the ballfield rather than the battlefield. Its presence at sporting events caught on and soon became a popular song to be heard in ballparks around the country.

Despite controversy over the violent lyrics of the song (“the bombs bursting in air”), it officially became the national anthem on March 3, 1931. Key himself was a slave owner and, as district attorney, was involved in many proceedings that upheld slavery and persecuted abolitionists. The rarely sung third stanza has been interpreted by some as Key taking pleasure in the deaths of freed black slaves.

The anthem at sporting events has provoked intermittent controversy over the years. But it reached a head during a preseason NFL game in 2016 when then 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, sat during the national anthem and took a knee throughout the season. While Kaepernick was certainly not the first athlete to use his platform to protest, the backlash he received was due in large part to the way he chose to protest.  However, forcing athletes, or anybody for that matter, to respond a certain way during the anthem is in direct violation of the freedoms our Founding Fathers sought to protect, especially when oppressors seek to silence the voice of the oppressed.

 The Founding Fathers sought to create a country free from oppression and tyranny (for most, but certainly not all, citizens). In fact, one of the defining moments of the American Revolution was the Boston Tea Party, a social and political protest against the taxes levied on colonials. This protest sparked the Revolutionary War and installed a system of government where everyone had a voice. Because protests helped create our country, it is one of the first rights  outlined in the U.S. Constitution—the right to “petition the government for a redress of grievances.” A staple of the Civil Rights and Women’s Suffrage Movements, peaceful protests have been conducted throughout American history to give a voice to the oppressed. By dramatically spotlighting racial inequality, Kaepernick followed in the footsteps of Martin Luther King, Jr. and sparked a movement of his own. Although Kaepernick was well within his rights as an American citizen, like many protesters before him, he faced repercussions for his decision to kneel during the anthem.

Because Kaepernick represented the NFL, an organization that outsources its labor to a largely African-American workforce but is controlled by Caucasian men (sound familiar?), he has not been signed by another team since his contract expired with the 49ers in 2017. Kaepernick chose to use his platform to bring attention to the mistreatment of non-whites by the police, but many felt he was disrespecting the flag and the military by doing so. He, of course, was not protesting the military or the flag, but bringing light to a situation that contradicts the very things they represent. As King once wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” If America truly stands for the freedom our Founding Fathers desired then that freedom should not be limited to the white man. Kaepernick, and players who followed in his footsteps, not only has the right to protest, but he also has the freedom to choose how he responds to the flag and the anthem.

According to U.S. code, standing in reverence during the anthem is not mandated. In fact, the letter of the law only states that one “should” stand during the anthem, facing the flag with their hand over their heart. The key word in this code is “should” not “must” which would have made Kaepernick’s actions illegal. While the code outlines what most people consider the proper etiquette for the anthem, it is merely a guideline. If the legal code of the United States does not force people to respond a certain way to the anthem then employers should not be able to either. Although employers have the right to expect certain actions from their employees, they cannot necessarily stop them from performing acts that do not hurt anyone while exercising their rights as citizens.

American citizens have the right to protest and to respond to the flag in whichever manner they choose. America was founded as a safe haven for Europeans facing religious persecution. Because of that, our Founding Fathers wanted to ensure a land where no one faced those same, or any kind of, persecution. Unfortunately, the ethos that created this country got lost in the mires of racism and slavery, making oppression very real for minorities. The freedom that defines America was not meant to be limited to the powerful white man; it should be enjoyed by all who live here. Part of that freedom means having the liberty to shed light on unjust situations wherever and however one chooses.

Even though Kaepernick was merely exercising his rights as an American citizen, there are people who disagree with his methods. Some people feel it is disrespectful to the military to not stand at attention during the anthem. But military members  did not fight for our freedoms so that those freedoms would be limited. Additionally, protesting during the anthem does not automatically equate to disrespecting the flag or the military.  If freedom is not enjoyed by all citizens, it cannot be truly enjoyed by any.

Some people also believe that athletes should stick to sports and not get involved in politics. However, the platform given to sport celebrities is exactly why they should get involved in politics. Athletes are not exempt from personal struggle because of their status, so they should be able to fight for justice and share their opinions just like everyone else. Their platforms give them a voice not awarded to the average citizen.

Although America was founded on the basis of freedom and a lack of persecution, it does not mean that it is always granted. In fact, freedom will never be granted to the oppressed but must be fought for by them. American citizens have a right to freedom and a right to protest that should not be taken away by the NFL, especially if their desire to quell the protest stems from their desire to not disrupt the status quo that benefits them so strongly. People have tried to stop Kaepernick’s protests by blackballing him from the NFL, but it is only making him fight harder for justice. Even if the protests do not occur during the anthem, the players would still find a way to make their voices heard. While the owners and employers may not agree, they cannot stop the mighty river of justice from flowing. The NFL should not be able to mandate what players do during the anthem—before the game even starts—because it takes away their voices and contradicts the very fabric of American ethos.