An American president, especially one with the media skills of Donald Trump, can politicize anything he wishes to. Over the weekend, his target was the National Football League and its players. Instead of ratcheting up this dispute, a better outcome would be to sever politics from sports. Rethinking the presentation of our national anthem is one place to start.
At a rally on Friday and on Twitter since, we have seen Trump taking pokes at NFL players who do not show what he considers sufficient respect for the national anthem, namely by kneeling in protest during the song (is it so bad to kneel in public on a Sunday?). On the other side, some NASCAR team owners have threatened to fire drivers and crew members who don’t show proper respect during the anthem. Such disputes won’t improve the quality of either our sports or our politics.
We live in a country where very often the concession stands don’t stop operating during the anthem, nor do fans stop walking through the concourse. We’re fooling ourselves to think that current practices are really showing respect for the nation or its military.
Anthem practices shouldn’t be viewed as sacrosanct, and no one would think the absence of an anthem unpatriotic if expectations were set differently. Professional sports don’t start their competitions with the Pledge of Allegiance, and that is hardly considered an act of treason. Nor do we play the anthem before movies, as is mandatory in India. Furthermore, “The Star-Spangled Banner” wasn’t sanctioned by Congress as our national anthem until 1931. Earlier in the history of baseball, the anthem was played during the seventh-inning stretch. It was only during World War II that the anthem was played regularly at the beginning of each game, rather than for special games alone, such as the World Series.
Might we consider moving back to some of these earlier practices? To play the anthem before the players are present or during a mid-game break, or perhaps to cease the practice altogether?
Competitions shouldn’t be political events, most of all because athletics is increasingly multinational and globalized. It’s not like the baseball of the 1950s or ’60s when virtually all of the players were Americans, with the exception of a few Latino athletes. What if they start playing the anthem and you are a foreign national? Must you show full submission? Or what if you only signal halfway acquiescence, not intended as rudeness but say you are a citizen of Russia or China? Must you then worry that your home government is watching too?
Because audiences don’t always know who is an American citizen, this is a situation rife with possible misunderstandings and grudges. What if you’re an athlete who appears Arabic, or who has a dress style or hair style associated with Islam? Do you have to hold your hand on your heart especially hard? Or should you just forget about the possibility of shoe endorsement contracts and being a fan favorite? This can’t possibly be a level playing field, if I may use that metaphor in this context.
Do we really want a world where professional sports leagues compete for which can put on the most stringent or most demanding patriotic loyalty test?
About 200 NFL players responded to the anthem Sunday in nontraditional ways. You can debate whether this was an embarrassment to them or to Trump, but the point is that many people won’t agree. Ultimately, such disputes distract from the football, and the NFL doesn’t want politics to become the main story of the sport. Nor should sport be the main story in politics.
The main argument for the anthem is that a disproportionate share of professional athletes are black, and the ceremony gives them a necessary chance to protest. In an age of social media, however, this no longer seems like a compelling enough reason to push the song.
The awkward, hard-to-admit truth is that the American national anthem is a form of right-wing political correctness, designed to embarrass or intimidate those who do not see fit to sing along and pay the demanded respect. I’ve been at sporting events where I’ve seen some people not sing along, and not put their hands over their hearts, only to hear that they will be punched in the face. Whether or not the threat was serious, this is classic “snowflake” behavior from the threat-makers, and should be recognized as such. For all of the right-wing complaints about left-wing political correctness, the right has long had its own version of the practice. It is time to dial it down.
In these polarized and globalized times, surely a shift in the anthem convention should be entertained. There are many other ways of showing respect for the American military.
Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include “The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream.”