Watching National Anthem Pageantry as Closely as We Watch the Game (Column)

Over the past three days, Americans have been put in the surprising position of analyzing body language in order to understand politics. Since Saturday night, National Football League players have responded to President Donald Trump’s unhinged tirade against quarterback Colin Kaepernick — a tirade that called the player a “son of a b—tch” — by adopting various permutations of kneeling, linking arms, or sitting out the traditional singing of the National Anthem that opens each game.

With Puerto Rico in shambles, health care under debate, and North Korea threatening war, the stance that men who play with a pointy ball do or do not take toward a rectangle of fabric should not be such a major news story. And yet it has dominated the news, and Trump’s own thoughts. (Since Saturday morning, Trump has tweeted 17 times about professional sports and/or what he deems a lack of respect for the flag. This does not include three retweets, including one that exploits the death of army ranger and NFL player Pat Tillman.) Don Lemon turned over the entirety of his show, from 10 p.m. to midnight, to the NFL teams’ demonstrations; MSNBC anchor Chris Hayes asked his guest Hillary Clinton about it.

Some of the team’s statements have been quite clear: More and more players have chosen to kneel, often linking arms or holding hands with their teammates who have chosen to stand; nearly the entirety of the Oakland Raiders stayed on the bench for the anthem. Others have been, fascinatingly, a bit more open to interpretation. The Pittsburgh Steelers, Seattle Seahawks, and Tennessee Titans all opted to stay off the field for the National Anthem — a strong but ambiguous statement that almost reads as avoiding the issue entirely. Several other teams, such as the Arizona Cardinals, opted for linking arms during the anthem — which was interpreted by some, including Trump himself, as an expression that was critical of kneeling. And then on Monday night, the Dallas Cowboys — along with owner and Trump supporter Jerry Jones — opted to “pre-kneel”: taking a seconds-long knee before the flag was unfurled, and then standing to link arms in solidarity as the anthem was sung.

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These gestures mean something, but it’s hard to tell what. Kaepernick began to sit out the anthem as a protest of how unfairly black people are treated by the police in America. Critics responded that disrespecting the flag was disrespecting the armed forces. Trump, characteristically, has inflated the issue to be both much bigger and much less meaningful. Now, the demonstrations from NFL players have gone beyond what Kaepernick first intended, to a muddled hash where linking arms either means unity or protesting kneelers or supporting the flag, and kneeling means protesting Trump or showing solidarity to players of color or genuflecting to the flag.

Kudos to the president for making medieval symbolic pageantry vital and relevant again; we are trying to measure meaning through ceremonial gesture. The situation is so heated that Alejandro Villanueva, a Steelers player who stood and observed the flag from the tunnel leading to the locker rooms, held a press conference to explain how his exact movements neither disrespected the flag nor repudiated his teammates’ expressions of peaceful protest. CNN devoted an entire segment to breaking down the logistics of the Steelers’ protest, in an unconscious parody of the way a sports commentator might break down the mechanics of a defensive play. 

We have been reduced, as a nation, to a game of patriotic charades. It would be absurd if it were not otherwise so vital.

It’s difficult to sum up all of the ways in which Trump has mangled public debate in his racially inflected sports tirade, but at the very least, his divisive flag-waving praises loyalty to America’s symbols without any understanding of what the symbols really mean. He has singled out Kaepernick and his fellow protestors just weeks after dismissing neo-Nazis waving Confederate flags as not all bad.

Which is why it is those very symbols that need defining, or redefining, now. We are not, as a nation, equipped to handle the biggest issues confronting us, because we are stuck on these most basic ones: The flag. The anthem. The sport. The role of the player in the game. The role of the protester in the country. The competing narratives of America are being forced to confront each other, and unlike political debates (which are both rare and no fun at all) and awards shows (which require a strong stomach for grandstanding) the live and on-the-field drama of football is the whole reason to tune in. Now, though, the tactical game has extended to a few minutes before kickoff. 

It’s been said before that Trump is the reality television president, a soundbite-spouting provocateur whose policy proposals are all punctuated with exclamation points. It seems as if the Trump era requires us all to be television critics — close watchers of the people on screen, and what their actions signify, and what those gestures mean in relation to the symbols they are interacting with. We are watching National Anthems like we are reading tea leaves. Donald Trump is not much of a uniter, except perhaps when it comes to bringing together those who oppose him. But because he came from TV, and watches so much of it, he has unerringly pointed us toward what really unites us.

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