The National Anthem and An Overdue Discussion

JT Brown

In 2017, I drafted an article for my prior publisher and it was rejected. The subject was the whether NHL players might kneel for the American national anthem. My publisher rejected the article because it delved too much into societal issues and was not enough about hockey.

My counter-argument, which failed to change minds, was that sports and society have always intertwined. Further, that suppressing discussion isn’t helpful. Instead of having a healthy discussion in years past which led to actions, many of these avenues were closed off. Now we are having an urgent discussion.

It turns out problems which get suppressed, they don’t go away.

Indeed, sports are playing a prominent role today. In some cases, leading. In other cases, leading from behind. The NFL’s commissioner offered a mea culpa for their response when the kneeling issue was first raised. The actions of two former players at Clemson led to a name change at their alma mater. And several hockey players announced the formation of the Hockey Diversity Alliance.

I keep draft copies of what I write, and so, unedited except for this preamble, I present these formerly suppressed thoughts from 2017.

Standing For The National Anthem

I first saw the Star-Spangled Banner when I was a young kid. I don’t recall how old I was. For all I know, I might have first seen it from a stroller. My recollections of the flag are quite clear. The flag was plenty tattered, with several holes and missing sections. It stood openly, hanging vertically. It was the first thing one would see entering the Smithsonian’s entrance hall (the building now called the National Museum of American History). The flag dominated the room, for all to see and photograph. Living less than 10 miles away meant frequent class field trips and plenty of family visits. I’ve seen the flag dozens of times.

These days, the famous flag is stored in low lights, under glass and in a climate-controlled room. Photography is prohibited. I’ve seen it this way just once.

Political Protests

The Star-Spangled Banner is, of course, not merely the nickname of a specific flag. It is a song; the national anthem of the United States of America. Protests during the anthem, which began in earnest a year ago, have become common. The most noteworthy cases have come at National Football League games, but these protests have occurred at a variety of other sporting events. The protests have taken a few different forms (a refusal to stand, specific gestures, etc).

There is plenty of historic precedents legitimizing these forms of protests. These current protest actions are, without question, legitimate forms of protest.

Coming To The NHL?

In the days ahead, it is possible we will witness the first protest during the national anthem at an NHL game. One player considering this is Joel Ward of the San Jose Sharks, as he recently explained to Paul Gackle of the San Jose Mercury News. Ward, one of the small number of black players in the NHL, calmly recounts his own history with racism, both inside and outside the game of hockey. Ward’s story is one of perseverance in the face of long odds. He is a role model for many. His manner of ‘giving back’ only adds to the respect he has earned across the NHL.

The NHL’s Twist And Further Shades of Gray

The NHL offers a different situation than what is found in the NFL, in that two national anthems are offered in many games. Team rosters often have players from half a dozen nations, sometimes more. It begs the question, how should Americans react to a Canadian national anthem? Or Canadians, which Ward is, to an American anthem? Canada, like the US, is hardly a perfect nation. Canada harbours no shortage of protest-worthy social problems. Even the anthem contains elements of controversy. Is the true north really strong and free? Is the phrase ‘in all thy sons command’ dismissive of the 50% of the population which is female? Others might not appreciate the overt religious reference. (Editor’s Note: This phrase was changed to “in all of us command” by the Canadian Government in 2018).

One can take it a step further. At each Olympics, there are opportunities to stand for numerous national anthems. Would one protest the American anthem but not the Japanese anthem? A close friend of mine has dealt with racial discrimination in the years she has lived there. How about the anthem of the most recent host nation, Brazil? Would one protest the Chinese anthem? How about the anthems of Russia, Zimbabwe or North Korea?

America’s Anthem

Long before these protests increased in scale, I had come to a simple but important (at least to me) realization when it comes to various patriotic moments. The two most common moments are the singing of the Star-Spangled Banner and the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. It was the latter which helped me most.

Finding Meaning

In the Pledge of Allegiance, there is this phrase: “and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” One can meaningfully argue with several elements in the phrase. I focus on the final six words, “with liberty and justice for all.” There has never been even a single day in American history when this phrase held true. Liberty and justice may have held for many, but it has never been held ‘for all’. The United States has never been this good. The phrase, as I interpret it, is not a statement of either history or life at it exists in the present. It is an ideal. It is an aspiration.

Our anthems and pledges, for me, are aspirational. They are neither a historic or current reality. Nor are they likely to become reality anytime soon. Is America the ‘land of the free and the home of the brave”? To many, it is, to many it is not. The hope of the nation is that someday, this will indeed be true for all, not just for some. Indeed, my belief is these patriotic devices encourage America to continue making progress in the unending task (expressed in the preamble to the Constitution) of forming “a more perfect union.”

Sports, Anthems and Progress

The phrase “liberty and justice for all” is a task with no end in sight. Each generation has an obligation to move the nation forward. In many cases, America helps to move the world forward.

Me, I stand for the anthem because I see what America aspires to be within these patriotic moments. I honour the progress made and accept the worthy goals represented. Yet, I also acknowledge the imperfect reality of the present.

I choose to be a part of moving my nation forward and sports have a role to play in this. Those who decide to kneel for the anthem also wish to move the nation forward. When I stand, it is in good faith. Those who protest, also do so in good faith. I have no fundamental conflict with those who protest, their methods or their worthy objectives. But I do have a problem with those who ascribe motives to the protestors which differ from the motives stated by the protestors themselves.

I want my nation to see better days, to continuously improve until our ideals are achieved. To be sure much has been accomplished in our 241 years of national existence. To be sure, much work remains. In over 88,000 days of America’s national existence, there has never been a day where meaningful protest has been unworthy.


Main Photo:

The Tampa Bay Lightning’s J.T. Brown protests during the national anthem before the start of a game against the Florida Panthers at the BB&T Center in Sunrise, Fla., on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017. (Matias J. Ocner/Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

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