1) Hi, I’m going to lead with this: I think the playing of the national anthem before sporting events should not be mandatory in any way whatsoever. It should not be mandatory for employees, for fans, for mascots, for anyone to stand and listen to it. If someone reads this and disagrees, that’s cool. It’s great, actually. It is super American in the best possible way, even better than Whitney Houston singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” in a white warmup suit in 1991. It’s hard to get more massively American than that, but civil disagreement is there.
2) I know making this argument in 2018 is madness. But I am going to try it anyway, because 2018 is about personal growth, bigger biceps, and not yelling at strangers or friends on the internet. I will and have failed already at all of these, but trying is what matters first and most here.
3) So I’m not going to yell. Instead I’d like to point out that the NFL floated a clumsy trial balloon of an idea yesterday through the NFL’s professional cut-and-paster Albert Breer: that home teams could decide on whether teams come out for the national anthem, and if they do come out then there would be “potential” for 15-yard penalties for kneeling. That is just an idea, but it is one the NFL wanted their fans to see in order to test the waters of public opinion — a little balloon, released into the wind to see which way people were feeling.
4) This particular balloon flew straight into the power lines with an audible sizzle and then exploded. Like the death of all doomed trial balloons, it was glorious to watch. Little kids made ‘OOOHing’ noises and everything. This very bad, very clumsy did not become NFL policy, but another bad, clumsy idea did.
5) I’ll admit this much: The entire anthem debacle is kind of fun for me at this point. That a simple thing like playing a song — and some players kneeling during that song — has the NFL owners so flummoxed, so confused, and so incapable of unified action that the situation has become light farce for anyone paying attention to the story.
6) This is basically watching giants trip on their own shoelaces, and is the best free entertainment ever because in no other part of life will any of these people lose or struggle. They have billions, except for Mark Davis of the Raiders, but I don’t think any man who loves driving a 1997 minivan in the year 2018 as an adult can be harmed. Davis is only worth like, $500 million, and is by NFL terms practically a peasant. A PEASANT, WE SAY.
7) The dispute is, at its heart, a workplace issue. Fans attending the game are there for fun. Players are there to work, and making them appear for the anthem puts players — those with a conscience and/or real issues with the United States — in a real bind. To put it in terms marketing people might understand: The NFL has brazenly co-branded with a particular strain of half-assed but very loud patriotism. They have done it so completely that when the U.S. government becomes even more super-racist and bad than it usually is, the NFL can’t easily disassociate itself from the bad parts of that co-branding. This becomes doubly bad for the NFL when players protest on the field to point out their discomfort with that partnership and everything it implies.
8) There’s irony here, because the thing that enabled this cheap kind of patriotism — the kind where just standing for the anthem matters more than actually exercising your rights as an American — was the anthem itself becoming cheaper. Around the end of World War II stadiums got huge P.A. systems, and the anthem became a consistent, uniformly embraced pregame ritual. Before the P.A. system, teams had to hire a band, and thus playing the anthem was expensive. In other words, enforced, ritualistic sports patriotism wasn’t cool until it was cost effective.
9) I’d like to point this out again because it is so sad, and funny, and American: The anthem wasn’t a consistent pregame phenomenon for over 40 years or so because teams were too cheap to hire a band to play it. Ask a musician and they will tell you: They’re not expensive. They’re cheap, especially if we’re talking about drummers.
10) In short: If leagues back in the day had to pay a dollar for the anthem every time they played it, they wouldn’t have. Their patriotism was literally as cheap as it gets. The part in Team America in “Freedom isn’t free” when they quantify freedom as costing exactly a dollar and five cents? We’re there.
11) The NFL already went into parody territory by taking money from the U.S. government for “patriotic displays”, so spare everyone a convincing argument that this is a matter of patriotism. This entire debacle over the anthem is a labor dispute, and some in the NFL will go so far in trying to win it that someone in the room at least considered the idea of writing a demented variation of compulsory patriotism into the rulebook itself.
12) This also gets to another point, and an important one: We don’t do this anywhere else in American society. Outside of some school functions, no one plays the anthem before embarking on something important. We don’t play it before movies, mostly because that time could be sold for previews or an ad. We don’t generally play it before concerts, or before church starts, or before any other large assembly of people.
13) We don’t even play it before big personal events, either. I didn’t play the anthem before the birth of either of my children in the delivery room, for instance. Now that I’m thinking about it, though, that would have been metal as hell in a very Team America-patriotic way, particularly if I’d lit some sparklers and ripped my shirt off. Hospital security couldn’t arrest me for this, because patriotism is not a crime even if it sets the sprinkler system off. Yes, I live in Georgia, and yeah, this might actually be on the books?
14) And I’m not immune, because I mean that. The idea of playing the anthem in your backyard is to me both hilarious and kind of touching. My favorite HELL YES AMERICA image on the internet is Bill Dauterive from King of the Hill, shirtless and standing in front of a waving American flag. The caption reads: inarticulate yelling. At a bone-deep level I love that brand of patriotism, a spontaneous celebration of red state America’s sunburned, shirtless love for bald eagle iconography; flyovers that go way, way too low over the stadium; and in the best of situations, a spectral Dale Earnhardt giving a thumbs up from the clouds. I love it because it is mine, and because it’s deeply felt and offered on its own — usually with a long, loud ‘WOOOO!’, because there’s always got to be a ‘WOOOO!’ in there. I feel it because I am Bill Dauterive, and Bill Dauterive is me, and we both love big, loud, spangly shirtless Americana at a level that at its best can even make sense to an outsider watching it.
15) I also hate the idea of it being mandatory at any level. As an American and someone whose basic civic education came from repeated childhood viewings of Smokey and the Bandit and supplemental adult viewings of its spiritual successor — the entire Fast and the Furious franchise — I was raised to believe Americans should have a healthy distrust of authority at every level. This goes for the government, but also for my employer, and for anyone telling me when and how to engage in a theatrical and often cynically pitched act of patriotism. The celebration shouldn’t be confused for being a value in and of itself. It is a celebration of those values — of freedom, of individuality even when the exercise of those freedoms might make you uncomfortable.
16) I was also taught by these films that all decisions should ideally be made by a loose, attractive, and charismatic multiracial alliance of people talking over CBs while fleeing the police for the right reasons. This may not be the best or most accurate education, but it’s the one I got, and that’s why the judge is going to have to acquit me when I say I robbed that delivery truck for family, your honor. For family. The point here is relevant, though, in this sense: Patriotism can’t be dictated from the top down in any context, but especially not when dealing with a diverse, multicultural group of people.
17) Requiring people to be patriotic in any situation at all is a bad, bad sign, anyway. Healthy countries with people who are happy to live there do not do this. In fact, it’s deeply un-American to make me do anything at all, especially at work where the idea is that I am exchanging something for compensation, not because I am following orders. Putting the anthem as a required reverence in the workplace puts “The Star-Spangled Banner” on the same level as mandatory H.R. training, and the minute something becomes mandatory it dies on an emotional level. Y’all really want the anthem to become that? Really?
18) And frankly, it’s not like a lot of you are putting in work during the anthem anyway. I sing it a lot of the time: Loud, embarrassing, and tone-deaf, but I sing that shit because it is a song, and songs are meant to be sung. Americans on the whole sing about as often as they vote: Around 56 percent of the whole crowd seems about right. Some of you are as cheap with your singing as you are with your patriotism. It’s the kind of cheap patriotism that is so thin-skinned it sees a player kneeling as a threat to existence, but doesn’t bother to be brave or curious or honest enough to ask why we do any of this in the first place — or whether we have to, at all.