“O say does that Star – Spangled Banner yet wave // o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”
These words are from “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the national anthem of the United States of America. The song is based on the poem “Defence of Fort M’Henry,” written by thirty-five-year-old attorney Francis Scott Key on September 14, 1814.
According to Title 36 § 301 of the United States Code, certain conduct is required during the playing of the anthem. When the song is played, those in the Armed Forces and veterans should hold a salute during the entirety of the music. Everyone else should stand at attention, facing the flag (or the source of the music if a flag is not present), with their right hand over the heart. However, there is currently a movement among many in professional sports to disobey this mandate. While there have been anthem-related protests in the past, the current movement began on August 14, 2016, when Colin Kaepernick, who was at that time the starting quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers of the National Football League (NFL), knelt on one knee during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” By September 1, he was joined by other teammates. Within weeks, NFL players from other teams and athletes from other sports, including Megan Rapinoe of the United States women’s national soccer team, took up the protest.
Fast forward a year to September 22, 2017. President Donald J. Trump, a former owner of the New Jersey Generals of the short-lived NFL rival, United States Football League, enters the fray. In a speech, he criticizes those taking a knee and encourages team owner to dismiss such players from the team. In reaction to the speech and in a show of solidarity with protesting athletes, players kneeled, linked arms, and even stayed in the locker room during the playing of the song.
The question among many of those who oppose the protest isn’t, “What are they protesting?” It’s “Why do these well-paid athletes disrespect America, disrespect those who fought and died for this country?” This misframes the issue and detracts from its message. This has never been about disrespecting the United States. This has always been about shining a light on injustices and inequalities directed at African Americans and other minorities. In fact, there have been active duty military personnel and veterans who have come out in defense of the protestors.
The American ideal of equality has always been unfulfilled. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights which among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” When these words were written in the Declaration of Independence, slavery was a rampant evil in the United States. When Key penned “The Star-Spangled Banner” in 1814, the Emancipation Proclamation was still nearly fifty years away. While the words in the Declaration of Independence and “The Star-Spangled Banner” are noble ones, they are more goals than reality. These goals can only become reality, we can only see true equality when people challenge the status quo when they have a message of justice and refuse to be silent. While things are better than they once were, those seeking true equality will not rest until better is replaced with best. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”