The “Star-Spangled Banner” has long been a flashpoint for the activism of black athletes. In 1968, Olympic runners John Carlos and Tommie Smith famously used the anthem as a backdrop for their statement on civil rights. Gymnast Gabby Douglas accidentally made a political statement by not putting her hand over her heart during the anthem at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. And, most recently, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick made the song a point of protest by refusing to stand for it during a preseason game.

Political groups, NFL players, and countless football fans have heaped derision and scorn on Kaepernick, some going so far as to burn his jersey. His own birth mother has even scolded him via Twitter. These critics say they’re upset with Kaepernick for not being appropriately patriotic. They’re angry that he’s rebuffed a national symbol of America’s greatness and strength while participating in a national pastime, but why? What's so sacred about the anthem and what, if anything, does it have to do with athletics?

Colin Kaepernick Portrait

As a nation, we rarely question the supposed sanctity of the national anthem or why it's played at sporting events. We should, though, especially if we demand that people like Colin Kaepernick honor it. What we’d find if we dared to look is that the “Star-Spangled Banner” is a deeply problematic song that was never intended to be an anthem for all Americans. Its place in sports is capitalist at best and, at worst, the song is played at sporting events to manipulate Americans’ quiet substitution of sports for war.

There have been entire books and a litany of research written on the ways nations subconsciously use team sports as a stand-in for war. Football culture, for example, mimics military culture in many ways; strategic plays are named after military maneuvers, players like Kaepernick are often depicted—and sometimes self-identify—as soldiers. It’s also not uncommon the stadiums where the game is played are characterized as battlefields.

As thinly-veiled war games, team sports undoubtedly get the patriotic juices flowing and the powers that be in professional sports have played on those misguided instincts for nearly a century.

 

There was a time when the “Star-Spangled Banner,” Francis Scott Key’s ode to America’s greatness in a war of aggression, was only played occasionally at public events. The turning point was the 1918 World Series when Chicago, still recovering from World War I and the bombing of a federal building, needed to boost morale. A decision was made to play the national anthem during the seventh inning, and it worked. The anthem was in fact so useful at bringing the crowd to attention that its playing became commonplace in baseball stadiums and eventually a ritual throughout sports.

To be clear: We’ve had Snickers bars longer than an official national anthem, yet many Americans treat standing for the “Star-Spangled Banner” as an immutable tradition. The anthem when used this way is not about sacrifice or respect for one's country; it’s a litmus test for determining who’s a good American and who’s not. And for those who demand fealty to it, Kaepernick is not just a football player choosing to not honor a national symbol; he’s a soldier refusing to pledge his allegiance before battle.

It should go without saying, but Colin Kaepernick is not a warrior; he’s quite simply a professional athlete and free to form his own relationship to his country and its anthem. And as a black man in America, there are plenty of reasons why he might object to the rituals around the “Star-Spangled Banner,” and the song in general.

Francis Scott Key was a slave-owner as well as a poet and he injected his staunch anti-abolitionist sentiments into the forgotten third verse of the “Star-Spangled Banner.” In lyrics that most Americans probably don’t know, the anthem gloats over the death and terror visited on escaped slaves fighting against the U.S. for their freedom alongside the British in the War of 1812:

“And where is that band who so vauntingly swore

That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion

A home and a country should leave us no more?

Their blood has wiped out their foul footstep's pollution.

No refuge could save the hireling and slave

From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:

And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave

O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

Learning this is unlikely to stop some from demanding that black athletes toe the line when it comes to public displays of national loyalty. It should, however, because actually honoring a country means meeting its history with open eyes and regarding its symbols with measure and context.

Ultimately, our national anthem has nothing to do with sports. As written, it glorifies the killing of slaves who preferred British freedom to American torment. It sings of liberty, but not for all. It sings of triumph over those who could no longer shoulder the burden of America’s freedom, it sings of victory over traitors. It’s somewhat poetic then that misguided patriots conflating sports with war are burning Kaepernick jersey in effigy. For them, his protest is apparently treason akin to the actions of the enslaved people whose death Key celebrated in the first place.