The significance of the national anthem in sporting events— and what individual players should and should not do while it plays — has fueled a feverish debate in recent weeks.
The latest front: DuPont, Washington, where mayor Mike Courts canceled a city-sponsored Seahawks rally over an indication players were planning to demonstrate during the national anthem on Sunday.
The spark was San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick taking a knee while the anthem played before the team’s preseason game against the Green Bay Packers. While Kaepernick sought to draw attention to the oppression of people of color in America, that intent has largely been overshadowed by the debate over the act itself.
Other athletes have joined Kaepernick; one of them being Seattle Seahawks cornerback Jeremy Lane, who sat for the anthem during the team’s last exhibition game and said he intends to continue doing so this season. Receiver Doug Baldwin tweeted Thursday that the team planned a “demonstration of unity” before Sunday’s game.
To express a desire to bring people together, our team will honor the country and flag in a pregame demonstration of unity.
— Doug Baldwin Jr (@DougBaldwinJr) September 8, 2016
Baldwin also said he was considering joining Lane in sitting during the anthem. That was enough for Courts, a retired Army colonel, who canceled the town’s third annual Seahawks rally scheduled for Saturday, telling the Seattle Times he couldn’t go forward with an event supporting “53 millionaires planning to publicly dishonor the American flag.”
In a Facebook post, Courts wrote, “While I respect the right of NFL players to express themselves, they must also respect the fact that their actions are hurtful to the community.”
According to actual members of the Seahawks organization, however, the team was engaged in a discussion and never indicated they were planning to protest.
“I don’t know who did (call it a protest), but we never said there was a protest,” Baldwin told the Times. “We never said we were kneeling, we never said we weren’t kneeling. We just said we were having a discussion. I want to be clear about that — we just said we were having a discussion.’’
Head coach Pete Carroll told the Times he “couldn’t be more proud” of the process his players have engaged in as a team. “They’re going to be very thoughtful, very respectful, honoring that which should be recognized,’’ Carroll said. “They have a conscience about what they’re doing, and they really want to do the right thing and be right.”
The Seahawks aren’t the only sports figures to have their attempt at activism marred by an assumption regarding how it will be perceived. Soccer star Megan Rapinoe took a knee during the national anthem last week in solidarity with Kaepernick, and intended to do so again this week when her Seattle Reign played the Washington Spirit.
Instead, Spirit owner Bill Lynch decided he wouldn’t give her the chance, directing the anthem to be played while the two teams were in the locker room. “To willingly allow anyone to hijack this tradition that means so much to millions of Americans and so many of our own fans for any cause would effectively be just as disrespectful as doing it ourselves,” Lynch said in a statement.
Rapinoe called the move “fucking unbelievable.”
Like Courts, Lynch is a veteran and has strong personal feelings about the national anthem and what it conveys. Where both misstep is letting those personal feelings dictate broader decisions — preventing fans from deciding for themselves how they will choose to internalize an athlete’s actions during the national anthem and distracting from the conversation those athletes are trying to start.
“Bill Lynch does not speak for me,” Melissa, a vet and Spirit season ticket holder told ThinkProgress’ Lindsay Gibbs. “His ridiculous statement is not what veterans fight for. Veterans go out and fight for everybody’s rights. If you don’t do that, then this isn’t the country he fights for.”
In the wake of Kaepernick’s protest and the intense backlash it spawned, #VeteransForKaepernick became a place for vets to express their feelings about his right to protest and the merits of his desire to draw attention to the numerous injustices people of color continue to face.
#VeteransforKaepernick I never signed up to protect a song, but I signed up to protect the right to protest and free speech.
— Dylan Bennett (@sakurakuroineko) August 31, 2016
DuPont has a substantial military population and the response Courts has received has been predictably polarized. “Some people say I’m a bigoted racist, that I’m a fascist,” he told the Seattle Times. “And I’ve had people hugging me.” The scheduled barbeque and dog park opening will go forward as planned on Saturday.