Stop play­ing the an­them at pro sports games

The Beacon Herald - - OPINION - Ottawa-based writer Ben Woodfinden holds an MA in po­lit­i­cal sci­ence from Car­leton Univer­sity. BEN WOODFINDEN SPE­CIAL TO POST­MEDIA NET­WORK

One of the more de­press­ing con­se­quences of the in­creas­ing po­lar­iza­tion of our po­lit­i­cal and so­cial land­scape is the way this po­lar­iza­tion is seep­ing out of the realms of par­ti­san pol­i­tics, and more and more into our daily lives.

There’s no bet­ter ex­am­ple of this than the con­tro­versy around an­them protests in the NFL.

In 2016, then-San Fran­cisco 49ers quar­ter­back Colin Kaeper­nick, in a protest against racial in­jus­tice, re­fused to stand dur­ing the pre-game na­tional an­them. Other play­ers joined Kaeper­nick, and the protests con­tin­ued into 2017, but had largely died down by the end of the sea­son, with fewer than 20 play­ers protest­ing.

The NFL re­cently reignited the con­tro­versy by an­nounc­ing a new pol­icy that will fine teams if play­ers on the field fail to stand dur­ing the an­them; how­ever, the pol­icy also gives play­ers the op­tion of re­main­ing in the dress­ing room.

Then, last week, U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump can­celled a visit by the Su­per Bowl cham­pion Philadel­phia Ea­gles to the White House, cit­ing the is­sue of an­them protests.

Re­ac­tion to the NFL’s de­ci­sion has been un­sur­pris­ingly mixed and may well restart the an­them wars. How­ever, there is a much sim­pler so­lu­tion to an­them con­tro­ver­sies, which should be adopted across all pro­fes­sional sports leagues: Stop play­ing the an­them en­tirely.

The an­them tra­di­tion seems to have started at base­ball games dur­ing the First World War, a time of un­der­stand­ably height­ened pa­tri­o­tism.

But it wasn’t un­til more re­cently that the an­them be­came a fixed event at pro­fes­sional sports in North Amer­ica. Even in the NFL, teams only started com­ing on to the field for the an­them in 2009.

The an­them is a rel­a­tively re­cent tra­di­tion that can be re­moved with­out vi­o­lat­ing any time­less norms. Out­side of North Amer­ica, plenty of leagues don’t have this tra­di­tion. Turn on any English Premier League game and there are no an­thems.

And norms sur­round­ing the an­them aren’t clear.

Con­ces­sion stands are of­ten still open dur­ing the an­them and peo­ple are still us­ing the bath­room. Surely this is just as dis­re­spect­ful as kneel­ing?

Be­fore the glob­al­iza­tion of sports, vir­tu­ally no player was for­eign-born. But to­day, play­ers come from all around the world. How are these play­ers sup­posed to be­have? Are they be­ing dis­re­spect­ful if they don’t fully par­tic­i­pate?

Per­haps we should re­serve the an­them for games that ac­tu­ally in­volve na­tional teams, such as the Olympics or the World Cup.

We don’t play the na­tional an­them be­fore movies or con­certs, so what makes sports dif­fer­ent? Per­haps it’s be­cause, as psy­chol­o­gist Jonathan Haidt has ob­served, “Sport is to war as pornog­ra­phy is to sex.” Sport is a rel­a­tively harm­less sub­sti­tute for our tribal in­stincts.

But to play the an­them at what es­sen­tially amounts to mock war games in which there is very lit­tle ac­tual danger doesn’t seem like a fit­ting place to hon­our those who have made real sac­ri­fices. Doesn’t it triv­i­al­ize these sac­ri­fices to at­tach the an­them to ev­ery game? It seems strange to at­tach pa­tri­o­tism and hero­ism to a late-sea­son game be­tween two teams out of play­off con­tention, even within the con­text of the sport it­self.

It’s an un­for­tu­nate re­al­ity nowa­days that there are fewer things that unify us as a so­ci­ety, and more that di­vide us. In­stead of let­ting the cul­ture wars sub­sume ev­ery as­pect of our lives, the best al­ter­na­tive might be to re­move en­tirely some of the things that have the po­ten­tial to gen­er­ate out­rage.

End­ing the an­them at sports games would end the po­ten­tial for con­tro­versy, and help us hon­our our coun­try and armed forces at ap­pro­pri­ately mean­ing­ful events, not sports games.

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