Anthem Protests Nothing New, But Little Guidance Exists

Paul Steinbach Headshot

The inescapable story in sports is how athletes — particularly NFL players — are treating the playing of “The Star Spangled Banner” before games. Ever since the 2016 NFL preseason, when Colin Kaeperknick, then a member of the San Francisco 49ers, did not stand for the national anthem as a protest against the treatment of people of color in the United States, the act of sitting or kneeling during the anthem has stirred debate among players and fans, and between professional leagues and politicians.

The inevitable trickle-down effect has been evidenced at virtually every level of competition. A Cahokia, Ill., youth football team of seven- and eight-year-olds knelt for the anthem at a game Sept. 17. A high school football team in Seattle, Wash., likewise took a knee for the anthem before a game Friday night.

No matter where administrators place themselves on the political spectrum, at least some are facing decisions regarding an appropriate response to such “social injustice” protests.

There may be little guidance to go by. The NCAA has no policy regarding national anthem protocol, and in fact doesn’t even require that the anthem be played. Most college football teams opt to remain in their locker rooms as marching bands play the anthem several minutes before kickoff.

In April, the National Federation of State High School Associations released an article by legal expert Lee Green, which concluded, “With regard to student-athlete national anthem protests, school and athletics administrators might be best served by using such demonstrations as a teachable moment to discuss the underlying issues and encourage lifelong political advocacy by students. And even those school officials who disagree with the protests might take note of the following quote. Commenting on his advocacy of freedom of speech and promoting the ‘marketplace of ideas” concept he first posited in the Supreme Court’s decision in Abrams v. United States (1919), Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. once stated to a newspaper reporter that “every American believes in free speech unless it’s speech he doesn’t agree with.’ ”

One antidote to sky-is-falling reactions regarding the nexus of sports and politics is the fact that anthem protests predate Kaepernick by decades. Prior to his Hall of Fame NBA career as Kareen Abdul-Jabbar, Lew Alcindor refused to stand for the anthem during a UCLA career that saw him lead the Bruins to three national championships in the 1960s. In response, legendary UCLA John Wooden kept the entire team in the locker room as the anthem played — an approach witnessed this weekend in more than one NFL stadium. The anthem — and the games — played on.

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