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A Star-Spangled Controversy: Exploring the National Anthem Debate at Greenhill

Assistant Head of School Tom Perryman’s voice echoed across Brinkmann Field before the start of Greenhill’s home football game on Thursday, Sept. 28, just like it has for over 20 years.

“Please rise, remove your hats, and join us in the singing of our national anthem,” he told the crowd.

Almost all in attendance at Brinkmann Field that night –players, coaches, fans, and officials– obliged, rising from the bleachers to stand as they’ve grown accustomed to doing all their lives.

Ten Greenhill cheerleaders did not oblige. They instead chose to kneel during the anthem, joining a growing number of athletes from across the country who, inspired by former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, have chosen to kneel during the anthem.

Kaepernick drew national attention last year when a photo of him sitting during the national anthem of the San Francisco 49ers third preseason game went viral. Kaepernick explained his decision to sit in an interview following the game.

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick said. “To me, this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

After Kaepernick spoke with Nate Boyer, a Seattle Seahawks player and military veteran, he switched his form of protest from sitting during the anthem to kneeling. Boyer told Kaepernick that he thought kneeling would be a more respectful gesture to the flag than sitting.

The protests have ignited a nationwide debate, with athletes, celebrities and politicians weighing in on the controversy.

President Donald Trump has criticized those who have kneeled for the anthem. At a political rally in September, he referred to NFL players who knelt during the anthem using vulgar language.

Vice President Mike Pence has shown strong support for standing during the anthem as well. On October 8, Pence walked out of an NFL game after kickoff when several San Francisco 49ers players took a knee during the pregame signing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has said players who disrespect the flag during the anthem will not play for the team.

Still, many NFL players continue to kneel or sit for the anthem before games. Colin Kaepernick remains a free agent, leaving people questioning if he would have a job had he refrained from protesting.

The simple request, “please rise” by the announcer of a big sporting event or leader of an assembly has long been accepted by the public. The anthem, meant to be a national unifying source of patriotism, is now mired in controversy.

The History of the Anthem and Sports

First, a history lesson.

In 1814, Francis Scott Key, a British slave owner and lawyer, wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The original song consists of four verses, but only the first is sung as the country’s modern national anthem.

According to an article in the “Washington Post” “The Star-Spangled Banner” is reported to have been played at various sporting events in the mid-1800s. It cemented its place in the American sports world when it was played during the seventh-inning stretch of Game One of the 1918 World Series.

The song was played in each of the following games of that World Series, and became a hit among baseball fans across the country. It soon became ingrained in the sport’s culture and pre-game festivities, and became a standard in baseball in the 1940s.

Ninety-nine years after that World Series game, the national anthem has become commonplace at professional sporting events. Singers like Whitney Houston, Beyoncé, and Mariah Carey have sung the anthem prior to games. A sporting event can earn prestige by the amount of effort (prominence of singer, military jet flyover) put into the pre-game anthem.

“Other countries don’t play the anthem as much as we do,” said Upper School History teacher Genie Burke. “It’s a very American thing, intended to stir up patriotic fervor at truly American events. It’s meant to get people excited for this American sport that’s about to be played.”

Senior Max Pidgeon, who said he disagrees with the decision to kneel during the National Anthem, takes strong pride in the singing of the national anthem before sporting events.

“I think of two big things when I think of the national anthem. First, I see it as a unifying thing that all Americans can come around and support and [is a moment to] get away from divisiveness. No matter race, religion, or political opinion, we can all get under this anthem before the game and unite in song,” he said.

“Second, I think about the military and I sing it to honor those who have fallen for, built and are currently serving the country.”

Senior Curtis Dorsey said the anthem takes on an individual meaning for everyone in the country.

“I think [the national anthem] is different for every person,” he said. “For some people it represents freedom, equal opportunity, and chance, but at the same time, to other people, it can represent the exact opposite.”

The Legality of the Protest

Congress adopted “The-Star Spangled Banner” in 1931 as the country’s official anthem. Since then, Title 36 of the U.S. code has been modified and explains how citizens should conduct themselves when the anthem is played.

Title 36 says that during a rendition of the anthem where the flag is displayed, “individuals in uniform should give the military salute”, and “all other persons present should face the flag and stand at attention with their right hand over the heart, and men not in uniform, if applicable, should remove their headdress with their right hand and hold it at the left shoulder, the hand being over the hear.”

Although the law does not state if or how people should be punished for not standing during the anthem, many critics of the protest, including President Donald Trump, believe the NFL should punish players who protest while the anthem is being played.

At a political rally in September, Trump referred to players who kneeled with vulgar language and, on Twitter, has called for those who protest to be fired by NFL owners.

On October 10, the NFL sent a letter to league owners explaining their stance on the controversy. The letter stated that the league views the protests disrespectful to the country and the flag, but would continue to allow the protests in support of players’ freedom of speech rights. 

“Does the NFL have the power to stop them and the power to restrain free speech? To some extent I would say yes because if you read the first amendment, it doesn’t say free speech is absolute, it only says that the congress cannot pass any law that restrains free speech. The NFL however, is not congress, the NFL is just a private organization that technically speaking can limit free speech,” said Upper School History teacher Adrian Martinez.

Despite disagreeing with the protest, Alex said people should be free to express themselves in whatever way they want.

“I don’t think there is anything that can or should be done to people who are protesting the national anthem,” he said. “Anyone has the right to take a knee during the anthem just as someone has the right to say you should not be doing that, but no one has the right to say you can’t do that,” said Alex.

Curtis disagreed with the president’s comments that players who kneel should be fired, defending people’s right to express themselves freely without the interference of politicians.

“Trump wants the football players to stick to football. I think he should stick to politics,” he said.

The Decision to Protest

Senior co-cheer captain Karis Thomas was one of the ten cheerleaders who knelt at the Thursday night game in September.

Karis said her decision to protest was motivated by recent events outside and inside the Greenhill community. She and some of the other members on the team wanted to bring Colin Kaepernick’s original intentions to the Greenhill community. By protesting, she aimed to bring light to the fact that Greenhill is not immune from the problems society faces as a whole.

“We can’t deny that the things that go on in society don’t go on here,” Karis said.

The cheerleader’s protest was not directed at the national anthem itself but rather at racial injustice—Karis said the history of the national anthem isn’t seen as patriotic for some.

“The people who wrote the national anthem also enslaved my ancestors, so for me, the national anthem stands for the good, the bad and the ugly of the country,” said Karis. “You can’t necessarily highlight the freedom and the prosperity of this country without acknowledging that not everyone got to experience that freedom and some are still being oppressed for asking for that freedom.”

Senior Alex Rose said he respects any person’s right to protest the anthem, but finds the protests “extremely and intentionally disrespectful.”

He said people wouldn’t choose to kneel as a form of protest if they didn’t think it would offend people.

“I understand the motive is that people don’t agree with some of the opinions of this country and [they’re] saying ‘I’m not going to support them’ [by kneeling], but at the same time you’re saying I’m not going to support the people who are fighting for me to live here and fighting for me to even have the right to protest the anthem,” Alex said. “It’s disrespecting all the people who risk their lives every day to serve our country.”

The Purpose of the Protest

Although Kaepernick used the national anthem as the platform for a protest, he has said his protest is not directed at the content of the “Star-Spangled Banner” or the playing of it before games. According to senior football captain Kassidy Woods, Kaepernick’s original intentions for protesting have been skewed.

“People are calling this a national anthem protest when that is not what [Kaepernick] is doing this for. This is a protest against racial injustice and police brutality,” he said. “He has already made that clear and so did many other people in the NFL who are taking this knee. It just so happens that they are doing it during the national anthem.”

Kassidy said that at the Greenhill football game on Thursday, September 28, the team decided to divert away from the trend of kneeling during the national anthem as a form of protest, and take a united stand instead.

“We took a different approach and just put our hands on each other’s shoulders, saying ‘We’ve got each other’s back’,” he said.

Senior football player Curtis Dorsey said he wasn’t entirely committed to kneeling in protest, and felt there were more effective ways to protest at Greenhill.

“I had a conversation with teammates and they helped me realize that if I wasn’t so set on doing it, I shouldn’t be doing it at all because it’s a powerful thing to do and I didn’t want it to be washed away,” he said. “I thought a show of unity could be more powerful than the team being divided.”

The Effectiveness

Outspoken critics of Kaepernick have said they do not necessarily disagree with his motives for protesting, but don’t think kneeling during the national anthem is the best way to go about it. Colin Kaepernick’s original motivation of protesting racial injustice has been overshadowed by the “is kneeling disrespectful?” and “should he be signed by a NFL team” narratives.

Max said the protests have started a conversation, but not the conversations protestors are trying to bring to light.

“I get [that the protests] are for racial injustice and I think that’s so important and it is a problem in our country, but I don’t see the protests having a major effect in helping the issue,” he said. “All I see is news organizations talking about is if it’s right to stand or not, not racial injustices.”

Karis said the protests have been influential in the sense that they’ve inspired her, among others across the country to take a stand for what they believe in. She said she’s unsure as to whether the protests have brought about tangible change.

“My question is when do you stop kneeling, and start having these conversations? When will I stop having to protest? When will I stop having to bring these things up,” Karis said. “If kneeling leads to the same inaction that there’s been there is no point to kneeling.”

Story by Joseph Weinberg, Jeffrey Harberg, and Hayden Jacobs

Photo by Alice Zhang

Originally published in the November 2017 print issue

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