Take a knee? Hell yeah. Given the provocations, I’d say take both of them. Aside from the issues first raised about 14 months ago by poor Colin Kaepernick — remember police brutality and cops killing black guys and getting away with it? — there’s no shortage of reasons to drop to a half-kneel during the national anthem. Let’s start with the song itself, “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It can’t be hummed. It can’t be sung. And the words — aside for a few snatches here and there — defy memorization. If America is to be made great again, perhaps a new and improved national anthem is a good starting point.
Francis Scott Key took an old English competitive drinking song and gussied it up with new lyrics about bombs bursting in air. It didn’t become the national anthem, in fact, until 1931. Its insertion into sporting events dates back to 1918, when it made its way into a Major League Baseball game as a way to brainwash unwitting fans who had nothing better to do during the seventh-inning stretch. The United States had only recently dragged itself into World War I and the military propaganda machine was swinging into full gear. (After the war was over, that same machine would morph into what became Madison Avenue.) Even so, the song’s introduction was problematic. First, no one could sing it. Second, it was expensive to even try. Ballpark owners, it turned out, had to hire bands — orchestras — to play the thing, modern sound systems still being a few years away. As a result, the song didn’t catch on until later, and the seventh-inning stretch would remain forever the domain of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” an irresistibly infectious ditty that adheres — like lint — to brain cells linked to memory function. By the time World War II was over, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” however, had become the musical parsley twig that adorned the plate of every sporting event. Even then, this was not without controversy. Some die-hard patriots thought the song’s lofty sentiments were sullied by their association with lowbrow sporting events at which beer was consumed by the oceanful. And President John F. Kennedy (an actual war hero) opined that since no one outside the Metropolitan Opera could sing it, maybe we should consider switching to Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” That didn’t go anywhere.
The rah-rah connection between sports and nationalism is no doubt inevitable, but only very recently have professional football players taken to the field before the national anthem was played. Before that, they hung out in the locker rooms, pummeling each other’s pads and smacking each other upside their helmets getting ready to wreak havoc. It’s well and good to insist now that politics should be kept out of sports, but they never have. Really, the only question has been what kind of politics and whose? Remember fighter jets flying over NFL football stadiums right before the national anthem was sung? Turns out the Pentagon paid millions of taxpayer dollars to make those stirring photo ops happen. Only after Senator John McCain (another actual war hero) exposed such expenditures was the military shamed into stopping. Who can forget how egregiously the military manipulated the 2004 death of Pat Tillman, who quit the Arizona Cardinals and enlisted as a Ranger after 9/11, for recruiting purposes? Back then, the war was still fresh, having not yet become the longest and yet most forgotten military quagmire in the nation’s history. There being no draft, military recruiters were desperate for young bodies. Tillman’s death provided heroic narrative fodder until it was revealed that our own side had accidentally killed him while he was on patrol in Afghanistan. The true circumstances of his death were initially covered up by military brass, until Tillman’s widow, Marie Tillman, pushed back. Not only was he a casualty of friendly fire, she disclosed, but Tillman had serious doubts about the war as well. Donald Trump — eager to keep the cultural war fires burning — just used Tillman’s name and photograph in his ongoing tweetstorm about all the sons of bitches who should be fired for not standing at attention during the national anthem. “He fought 4our country/freedom,” Trump tweeted. Tillman’s widow, roused into action yet again, is asking that Trump please leave her husband out of it. It should be noted that Kaepernick — who started this — opted for the knee upon the advice of a Green Beret who said it was the most respectful protest gesture.
The utility of this debate for Trump is obvious. The nation doesn’t have to worry about such things as North Korea and whether he accidentally declared war by tweet. Or what we’re going to do about Puerto Rico, which one full week after Hurricane Maria still looks as if North Korea bombed it. Or why we are saddled with a Republican Congress that can’t find its own ass in the dark. With such scary questions looming, I’d much rather argue about taking a knee and why quarterback Colin Kaepernick still can’t get a job throwing the rock. In the meantime, America’s a great country in spite of — and because of — ourselves. We are — after all — the country that gave the world Hank Williams, James Brown, and Dr. Seuss. We don’t need to wrap ourselves in no stinking flag. And we don’t need to stand up and salute. But maybe in the meantime, if the French have “La Marseillaise” — a truly bomb-ass national anthem — maybe we can do better than “The Star-Spangled Banner.” In the current context, maybe “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” would be a good start.