By Ryan Signorino
Every four years, the world’s best athletes come together for the Olympics. The best of the best stand on the podium, their countries’ flags waving over their heads, with respective national anthems playing for the world to hear as they receive their medals.
The regality of the Olympics makes hearing a national anthem a special moment. It represents a moment for athletes to be proud of their nations.
Sometimes, however, hearing a national anthem too often lessens its patriotic significance. You’ve heard the saying, “Too much of a good thing …”
The American national anthem is played before every game in the National Football League, the National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League, and other professional sports league in the United States. Even at the college level, the anthem is played before games begin.
Before I recount the history of the anthem being played and the recent actions in the NFL, I’ll note that playing the national anthem before sporting events is just plain weird.
I like soccer, so I’ll begin there. The anthem is played before Major League Soccer matches, and players stand on the field for it. On Sept. 24, Atlanta United played the Montreal Impact, and 22 players stood while the anthem played. Only six of those players were American.
In professional hockey, the Pittsburgh Penguins were congratulated by President Donald Trump for being willing to visit the White House. Only 15 of the 39 players are American; 16 are Canadian.
Even in the NFL, 23 of the 32 teams have a player born outside the United States. These players stand during the national anthem before games, but that anthem isn’t theirs.
America prides itself on its diversity and openness. Why do we play the American national anthem before sporting events when that anthem doesn’t have any meaning to a significant portion of the athletes that compete in our country?
The tradition began with MLB games during World War II. As some players were drafted into the war, their teams played the national anthem to show their patriotism. The practice has continued, and players have stood with their right hands over their hearts for every major sporting event.
But in 2017, what’s the point? The draft ended in 1973, so athletes are no longer being drafted into the Army. Playing a song before a sporting event today doesn’t prove someone’s patriotism. Kneeling during the national anthem doesn’t prove someone is unpatriotic.
Donald Trump disagrees with me. To him, a player kneeling or sitting during the anthem is a direct attack on the anthem and the flag and shows the player doesn’t respect military veterans or their service to the country.
Veterans and active-duty military don’t fight for the flag or the national anthem. They fight for the United States to remain free. One of those freedoms is freedom of speech, which also means symbolic speech.
Symbolic speech is making a statement using actions, not words. Kneeling is an action, and the players doing so are making a statement. They are free to do so, especially after last season. The NFL made a statement saying players are “encouraged but not required to stand during the playing of the national anthem.”
Now I’m not suggesting kneeling during the national anthem is a legal issue. However, players who choose to demonstrate are not disrespecting the military. They’re using their freedom of speech the military fights to protect.
Trump’s other issue with kneeling during the anthem is that it is disrespectful to the flag and the anthem itself for players to kneel, a topic he’s tweeted about more than 20 times during a recent weekend. His comments just show his ignorance regarding why players are doing what they are doing.
Colin Kaepernick has made it abundantly clear that he does not stand for the national anthem because the United States continues to oppress people of color, and he cannot support the flag of this country.
So yes, Donald Trump, the protest does have to do with race. It’s not people being upset by a song or by a flag. It’s people being upset they feel unsafe and discriminated against in the United States.
The entire point of recent actions around the NFL was to raise awareness of police brutality and the oppression of people of color. The national anthem had nothing to do with it.
Often when professional athletes make comments on current events and social issues, they are told to stick to sports and stay out of politics. If athletes need to stay out of politics, maybe Donald Trump should stay out of sports and stick to being a reality TV host – I mean, stick to tweeting about politics.
Ryan Signorino, a Division I NCAA cross-country athlete, is a junior journalism major at St. Bonaventure University and the sports assignment editor of its student newspaper.