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Protests against National Anthem Growing

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September 12, 2016

In the last days of summer and the first days of autumn in America in 2016, a growing number of athletes are calling attention to social issues by refusing to go along with expected practice in regard to the playing of the national anthem at sporting events.

The first well-publicized event of this kind was the refusal of Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback for professional football’s San Francisco 49ers, to stand while the anthem was being played at an exhibition game. Instead, he dropped to one knee, while his teammates stood at attention; the following week, he remained seated while his teammates stood. When asked why he was doing that, Kaepernick responded that he wanted to call attention to police violence against people of his color. He is African-American.

Other athletes have followed suit. Jeremy Lane of the Seattle Seahawks sat during the playing of the national anthem during an exhibition game; his teammates vowed to join him at the next game, and the team’s coach canceled a team really in response. Megan Rapinoe, of the professional soccer team the Seattle Reign, dropped to one knee during the playing of the national anthem at one of her matches; in response, the owner of Rapine’s opponent decreed that the national anthem be played while the players were still in the locker room, eliminating any chance of a during-the-anthem protest by Rapinoe or any other player.

The stance of these players is provoking discussion across America as to the appropriateness of the playing of the national anthem (which, itself, was written as a call to arms during a war) during sporting events. This is not new.

The song, which has been the national anthem only since 1931, came to prominence in the 1918 World Series, baseball’s crowning event. That demonstration was in the shadow of World War I, which was still going on at that stage. The song was played in the seventh inning of a nine-inning game. The practice continued for each game of the six-game series but did not continue as an everyday playing for many years.

It took the outbreak of another war, World War II, for the same kind of patriotic fervor. By that time, Congress had named “The Star-spangled Banner” the national anthem, and many baseball and football games featured the anthem, usually at the start of the contest. Other sports, professional and amateur, followed suit, in growing numbers as the century progressed.

Protests against this practice were rare but noteworthy. Some baseball teams discontinued the daily practice, as a protest against the Vietnam War or because they thought that the playing of the song at a sporting event cheapened it. In the early 1970s, members of a Michigan track team did not stand and salute the anthem but, instead, completed their warmups; they were disqualified. An Illinois high school football player did not remove his helmet during the playing of the anthem, and he was suspended from school.

Two American sprinters chatted during the playing of the national anthem at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich and were banned from the Games. That followed by four years the most famous (and perhaps most infamous) protest.

During the medals ceremony of the men’s 200-meter race at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, gold medallist Tommie Smith and bronze medallist John Carlos, both African-American, raised their black-gloved fists in a Black Power salute during the playing of “The Star-spangled Banner.” (They were also wearing black socks and no shoes.) The United States Olympic Committee barred both Carlos and Smith from staying in the Olympic Village and suspended them from the national Olympic team.

In 2003, as a protest against the Iraq War, Toni Smith, a basketball player form Manhattanville (N.Y.) College, turned her back to the flag (and to the rest of her teammates) during the playing of the national anthem. Her action sparked controversy, but she finished out her senior season without turning back around.

Not all protests got noticed immediately, however. Chris Jackson, a player for the National Basketball Association’s Denver Nuggets, had convered from Christianity to Islam and changed his name to Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. In 1996, he stopped standing during the playing of the national anthem, but his refusal didn’t draw significant attention for several weeks; in the end, he was suspended and allowed back on the team only when he agreed to the compromise that saw him stand and pray silently during the playing of the anthem.

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