The National Football League is about big names, big plays and big hits. The entire game or even an entire season can come down to five seconds on the clock, a last-ditch attempt to get the ball down the field, into the End Zone, and score a touchdown. Recently, however, the focus has not been on these crucial five minutes at the end, but on a routine, ceremonial, 1 minute and 56 seconds (on average) at the beginning.
I am, of course, referring to the singing of The Star-spangled Banner, the incredibly rousing and emotional anthem of the United States of America; telling the heroic story of the American flag still standing after intense British bombardment during the War of 1812. Unlike in the United Kingdom, where patriotism is reserved strictly for royal engagements and the occasional international football match, the American national anthem is played before every single NFL game. In a stirring display of national pride everyone inside the stadium traditionally stands up, if they are able, puts their hands on their hearts, and either mutters along diligently or stares defiantly into a swarming sea of red, white and blue.
On the 26th August 2016, a quarterback by the name of Colin Kaepernick did something different, he sat down. He had actually done this in the two previous pre-season games, but had not been in uniform and simply no one had noticed. Two days later he met with the media and explained his actions:
“I’m going to continue to stand with the people that are being oppressed. To me, this is something that has to change. When there’s significant change and I feel that flag represents what it’s supposed to represent, and this country is representing people the way that it’s supposed to, I’ll stand.”
The problem of racial injustice in the United States of America is one that has never gone away despite great leaps forward, it is not even 20 years since Alabama became the last state in the country to overturn its ban on interracial marriage in 2000. In recent years the focus has been largely on police shootings and brutality towards young African American men. This has lead rise to organisations such as the Black Lives Matter movement which has sent shockwaves resonating throughout American society.
There has been an even greater American tragedy in response to Kaepernick’s actions from none other than the President of the United States, Donald Trump. In the year after Kaepernick first sat down during the national anthem there have been dozens of cases of athletes kneeling, linking arms and generally showing some kind of reaction to perceived injustices. At the beginning of the 2017 NFL season this was taken to new levels with dozens more players across the sport from many different teams choosing to not stand for the national anthem. This produced a response from the 45th President at a rally in Alabama (same state that was the last to ban interracial marriage), during which he said that NFL owners should fire players who knelt; describing them as “sons of bitches”, to which Kaepernick’s mother tweeted: “I guess that makes me a proud bitch!”. Over the weekend of 24-25th September there were huge protests across the NFL with scores of athletes and coaches linking arms, kneeling, or in some cases even staying in the locker room for the national anthem, against Trump’s comments.
The role of President is the most powerful of any single one person in the United States and very possibly the world, but as an actual institution it is also meant to be a symbol and representation of the country, able to bring it together during times of trouble and strife. Trump is very untraditional in this respect as he displays none of the nuance or basic courtesy that is expected of the man in his position. These would be considered rude even if an everyday citizen were to say them, from Trump, as the representative on the world stage of all Americans, this is unprofessional and inflaming racial tensions. Even if we forget how this is completely unacceptable behaviour from a President and how this avoids a very clear issue of racial inequality; it still attacks an American tradition that was part of the country’s very founding and is in the very first amendment to the constitution, that of free speech and right to freely protest.
The USA is no longer under British rule because the founding father viewed the tyranny of George III as unacceptable and so they protested. Initially they tried peaceful means, even disposing of tea in the Boston harbour (essentially blasphemy to those in the British Isles), but eventually this culminated in a bloody war for independence where they fought and died for their freedom. As such, protest is a tradition older than any other, and occurred four decades before the words to The Star-Spangled Banner were even written and centuries before it would become tradition to sing it at every NFL game. So, by condemning and childishly insulting players protesting in the way that they wish, Trump is actually guilty of undermining one of the greatest American traditions as well as desecrating the nobility of the Oval Office.
Compare this to his predecessor, the 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama, who commented on the original Colin Kaepernick protest in 2016. When asked about the incident on CNN he indicated how he felt that the national anthem was something that should bind the nation together, and appreciated what it and the flag meant to those that have served in the armed forces abroad. However, he called back to those intrinsic values of America by saying: “…we fight sometimes so that people can do things that we disagree with, but that’s what freedom means in this country”. No matter your opinion on Obama or Trump, it is clear who is demonstrating greater presidential abilities, who tried to unite the country and who tried to divide it.
This latest display by president Donald Trump is undoubtedly one of the best examples of hideous governance in modern history. As a president, he has brought forwards policies that have been xenophobic, alienated the country on the global stage and pursued an American ‘Great Wall’ that will never see the light of day. But this is a blatant attack on one of the cornerstones of American tradition and the American constitution, and as such he could be the worst president the United States has ever seen.