Standing on ceremony

My 10-year-old daughter doesn’t stand during the national anthem at baseball games.
It’s not because she’s following my lead. These days, I tend to stand, not out of any sense that doing so is honoring my country — I’ve never felt that connection — but more to join in a communal ritual, a kind of pre-game seventh-inning stretch.

But this season, I’ve noticed her sitting during the anthem and, as a parent, I have conflicted feelings. On the one hand, I feel the impulse to pull her up, not because I feel she’s being disrespectful, but because I worry someone will say something nasty. I worry her choosing to sit while thousands around her stand will single her out as a target. On the other hand, I’m glad she’s doing her own thing rather than unthinkingly following the crowd.

I asked her the other night, while all this Colin Kaepernick furor is in the news, why she doesn’t stand during the anthem, and she shrugged and told me she can hear the song perfectly fine from her seat. And besides, standing is so boring.

I tried to explain how some people believe standing during the national anthem is a way to honor the ideals of our nation and pay respect to those who have fought for it. She looked at me like I was crazy. She seemed unconvinced, and frankly, I didn’t really have the heart to keep pushing an argument I don’t believe in.

As a teenager and into my 20s and 30s, I used to adamantly remain seated during the anthem at the dozen or so baseball games I went to each season — believing that an obligatory rite of obedience to country was anathema to the very principles the United States is supposed to represent.

Mostly, I was left alone, but not always. My friends would sometimes lean away from me in embarrassment and gently try to goad me to stand. I was hit in the back with peanuts more than a few times; I had beer thrown at me. Once, someone ripped the cap off my head and stuffed it into my hands. More than a few times, strangers yelled at me to stand. It’s not that I wanted the attention — I never wanted to needle others or anger them. I really just wanted to be left alone. The reactions upset and unsettled me.

That is partly why, perhaps, in recent years, I’ve stood — because I didn’t want to make those with me or around me uncomfortable. Not the most courageous reason, I know, but really, the whole thing just doesn’t matter that much to me. I stand to be polite — to not appear to be showing anyone up.

This past week, the issue was thrown into stark relief with the decision by Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback, to remain seated during the pre-game anthem. His comments, citing racial inequality and police brutality as among the reasons, provoked alarming levels of emotions — both in opposition and support — around the country.

The litany of accusations leveled at Kaepernick from those outraged by his protest have been fascinating and varied. People burned Kaepernick jerseys. It has been as if a black athlete speaking his mind about the treatment of black and brown people in this country was some profound betrayal.

In social media posts and in scathing comments on news stories and letters to the editor we received, Kaepernick has been vilified for disrespecting the military, for dishonoring the flag, for betraying his white parents who adopted him, and called out for talking about oppression despite his privileged upbringing. Critics demanded to know what he has personally done with his millions to help disadvantaged youths or contribute to end the injustice he condemned. Others suggested he should find another country to live in. Some have suggested he go back to Africa, or, following the bizarre rumors that he converted to Islam, that he decamp for the Middle East.

Others pointed to his troubled on-field performance as a reason why he concocted the whole thing, questioning how genuine his sentiments really are. Others, alternatively, said his lackluster play made his words meaningless — the implication being that only black athletes who dominate their sport should dare speak out in ways that make their mostly white fan base uncomfortable. Only a rare few will be revered for their social conscience — the Jackie Robinsons, Muhammed Alis and Curt Floods — and even then, maybe only when they are retired or dead — as if an athlete’s level of play has any bearing on their right to speak as human beings living in this astoundingly troubled and complicated world. We give them millions of dollars and expect them to be content to throw balls around and keep their heads down. We talk about wanting them to be role models, but not the kind that have opinions about social issues. That’s disgraceful.

In the past week, we have witnessed an astounding amount of contempt expressed toward a man who decided to sit — or kneel, as he did Thursday night in San Diego — during the national anthem because he is upset about equality of justice in this country.

I have complicated feelings about the United States. I suspect most do, whether they are citizens or not, whether they live here or not. This place has an oversized effect on the rest of the world and such a mixed record both at home and abroad. Being honest and open about those feelings — the ambivalence and contradictions — seems the best way to be an American. It’s at once a terrible and a great place that has done such good and has spread such suffering.

Those who insist on a knee-jerk, automated response — such as standing with uncovered head during a song prior to a sporting event — as an authentic display of one’s feelings about one’s country have a terribly reductive and narrow view of patriotism. Kaepernick’s sitting down may be defiant, but it’s not giving up — to the contrary, saying that we as as country are not living up to the ideals we espouse is an affirmation of those ideals. In this light, it is the complacent ones, those who stand automatically, or those hoping to not rock the boat — to just be polite — it is they who could be accused of giving up, of losing faith that the country can become what it aspires to.

I don’t begrudge anyone who feels that standing is a meaningful act — rituals and symbols are powerful — but it should be a choice for everyone to make for themselves. The act is obviously meaningful for Kaepernick; that’s why he’s going through this trouble in the first place. Neither do I blame those who feel offended by his actions. Patriotism is a charged and emotional issue, but it’s also a complicated and private one — and maybe it’s OK to differ from one’s neighbor about the right way to do it without causing a crisis.

So, these days, when I see my daughter sitting during the anthem, I feel a mixture of pride and worry, and the last thing I would do is tell her to get on her feet.

Truth is, I’m happiest when we get to games late and miss the whole thing.

Michael Howerton is editor in chief of the San Francisco Examiner.

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