When I was a boy growing up in a Reform Jewish family, the prayers spoken in temple on Shabbat included one that translated thus: “Unto Thee alone every knee must bend and every tongue give homage.” In that context, to kneel is to humble oneself before a greater power, as indeed do church congregations around the world.
Two Scientific American writers, Jeremy Adam Smith and Dacher Keltner (whose surname is also that of the infielder who helped stop Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak), once observed that first-glance research indicated “nothing threatening about kneeling.”
Instead, kneeling is almost always deployed as a sign of deference and respect. We once kneeled before kings and queens and altars; we kneel to ask someone to marry, or at least men did in the old days. We kneel to get down to a child’s level; we kneel to beg.
While we can’t know for sure, kneeling probably derives from a core principle in mammalian nonverbal behavior: make the body smaller and look up to show respect, esteem, and deference . . . Kneeling can also be a posture of mourning and sadness. It makes the one who kneels more vulnerable. In some situations, kneeling can be seen as a request for protection.
But kneeling during the playing of “The Star Spangled Banner” at the beginning of a sports event became a trigger of outrage when then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick did so in a gesture of protest against real police killings of real, unarmed African-American men.
The kneel before the anthem has revived in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer. It still is the kind of trigger that got Kaepernick into hot water, most recently when several San Francisco Giants including their manager did so before an exhibition game. “I see nothing more patriotic,” said Gabe Kapler to reporters, “than peaceful protests when things are frustrating and upsetting.”
During the initial outrage, a fire onto which a certain president poured gasoline by demanding publicly the firing of Kaepernick and anyone else of similar mind and gesture, it seemed too simple to see the gesture as equivalent to grinding the American flag under the heel.
Smith and Keltner noticed something to which nobody else paid much mind if at all: “[W]ith a single, graceful act, Kaepernick invested it with a double meaning. He didn’t turn his back as the anthem was played, which would have been a true sign of disrespect. Nor did he rely on the now-conventionalized black-power fist.”
The fist first raised in tandem by Olympic gold medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Games, even as both men kept their heads bowed on the medal podium. And a thought is provoked: Would those screaming bloody murder over a knee taken during “The Star Spangled Banner” prefer the raised clenched fist as a protest? A flag burning on the field? A riot, with or without looting and plundering included?
Of course they wouldn’t. Neither would you. Neither would I. We should acknowledge that the Giants didn’t turn their backs as “The Star-Spangled Banner” played, either. Neither did Joey Votto and several fellow kneeling Cincinnati Reds teammates before an exhibition against the Detroit Tigers. It’s not impossible to consider that a gesture of quiet protest before the anthem and the flag is not the exactly same thing as a protest against the anthem or the flag.
You’re not required to subscribe to every last clause of the social-justice-warrior’s indictments to concur that rogue police attacking if not killing black people is not what the land of the free and the home of the brave is supposed to acknowledge or support. But you’re not out of line, either, if you want to say that perhaps the time is long enough due to re-consider whether playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” before every last sporting event everywhere renders it meaningless.
“By choosing to make standing for the anthem a matter of coercion rather than a voluntary act of patriotism,” wrote John Hirschauer of The Daily Wire—a conservative news and opinion Website— at that time, “it (quite wrongly) suggests that (sports) executives and the kneeling movement’s many malcontents in the country are unable to provide a coherent reason why America is worth honoring in spite of its flaws. Worse, it furthers the very narrative that drives protests like Kaepernick: The established authorities are afraid of the message they bear, and it is the established authorities’ ill-reception of this message that perpetuates the ‘systemic racism’ that threatens the lives of black men in America.”
“Saying that simply kneeling for the national anthem is so offensive that it must be confined to the locker room or banned outright,” wrote Robby Soave of Reason around the same time, “reflects the same hypersensitivity that plagues the social justice left.”
I don’t write all this lightly. I’m an Air Force veteran and the paternal grandson of a New York police officer who would have been appalled at rogue cops doing murder. I’m only too well versed in the knowledge that there are and have been countries too abundant where citizen patriotism is coerced upon the merest occasion and to the point of promising death to those who resist the coercion.
And I continue to wonder as I wondered originally: What’s the big deal? Why on earth does the national anthem need to be played before every game, match, race in creation? Doesn’t that really render the anthem meaningless? If we can (should) agree patriotism properly defined must come from the heart and not from external pressure, what should be done in this instance? My answer is the same as two years ago at first, and last year in the revisiting.
Stop playing the anthem before every last event every time.
Save it for the games, races, matches that coincide with genuine national holidays such as (thinking from today forward) Labour Day, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day, Presidents Day, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birthday, Memorial Day, Flag Day, the Fourth of July.
Save it, too, for the truly significant games, races, matches: Opening Day games, the Super Bowl, Game One of the NBA Finals, the WNBA Finals, Game One of the Stanley Cup Finals (assuming they begin in the American team’s arena), the Indianapolis and Daytona 500 races, the Kentucky Derby, the Belmont Stakes (if the race will indeed crown a Triple Crown winner), Day One of the Masters Tournament, each sports league’s All-Star Game, the MLS Cup Championship Game (Major League Soccer), Games One and (if there is one, as last year) Seven of the World Series.
If nothing else, you’ll have far fewer times to trouble yourself over players kneeling during the anthem’s playing for this or that protest. You’d also remove a sufficient coercive weight from the patriotic impulse that now makes the anthem too much a matter of habit and not enough a parcel of the heart.
As major league baseball’s coronavirus-delayed Opening Day is about to begin as I write, be reminded gently that, before you fume, froth, or flame over any players in tonight’s games taking a knee as “The Star-Spangled Banner” plays, they could exercise far, far more destructive ways to protest a wrong or make a point against it. As too many among us do.