The Anthem Debate Is Back. But Now It’s Standing That’s Polarizing.


A strange thing happened while most professional sports were away, shuttered by the coronavirus.

The stand-or-kneel debate, sparked by Colin Kaepernick’s posture during the national anthem in 2016 and smoldering since, has reignited — bigger than before, and this time with an unexpected twist.

Today, athletes may have to explain why they chose to stand, not kneel, during “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

“I would have found it hard to believe a year ago,” said Charles Ross, a history professor and director of African-American Studies at the University of Mississippi. “I would have said something has really happened in America to cause that. Clearly what’s happened in America and in Minneapolis on May 25 fundamentally changed people’s perspectives as it relates to racism in this country.”

The protest movement that grew after George Floyd’s death while in police custody has a deep connection to Kaepernick. People are protesting racial inequality and police brutality, just as Kaepernick had done. And many, including some police chiefs and officers, are kneeling in gestures of unity and respect.

Now the issues, and the gesture, have volleyed back to the sports world. The past couple of years, most athletes avoided getting caught up in it. They could blend into the background, behind league protocols for standing or amid the quiet comfort of others.

Even most of those considered leaders and allies to Kaepernick, in places like the N.F.L. and the N.B.A., found reasons not to kneel.

The difference in 2020, as sports begin to emerge from their pandemic suspensions, is that nearly every professional athlete will be forced to choose a posture.

“You cannot sit around now in this post-George Floyd period we’re in and say, ‘We’re going to continue to take this safe position,’” Ross said. “No. Either you have an issue with racism or you do not.”

Rachel Hill, a soccer player, found out first. When the National Women’s Soccer League started its season last Saturday night, Hill’s Chicago Red Stars and their opponents lined up for the pregame national anthem. Most players took a knee.

Others appear to be bracing for the issue to return, but without a firm stance.

In the N.B.A., which is planning to quarantine itself at Disney World in Florida this month to complete its season, Commissioner Adam Silver has been noncommittal about how the league will handle the likelihood of players kneeling for the anthem. The league has had a stand-only policy for decades, he pointed out to Time magazine recently.

“I also understand the role of protest, and I think that we’ll deal with that situation when it presents itself,” Silver said.

Major League Baseball, which hopes to begin a shortened season later this month, had only one player kneel in 2017. It took no clear stance then. Its abstinence may be tested this month.

The N.F.L., which found itself at the center of the controversy, banned kneeling in 2018, opting instead for a stand-or-hide (in the locker room) choice. But Commissioner Roger Goodell recently showed support for the Black Lives Matter movement and, in his own pivot, for player protests.

“We, the National Football League, admit we were wrong for not listening to N.F.L. players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest,” he said.

It all promises to make the anthem must-watch television again this fall.

And with bleachers and bar stools still mostly off limits, the patter will ricochet mostly through social media. That is what happened with the N.W.S.L., where the anthem threatened to overshadow the league’s season openers last weekend.

“It’s so interesting, the importance that kneeling has assumed,” Burin said. “Why this particular gesture? Why is that so important, as opposed to putting your hand on someone’s shoulder or bowing your head?”



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