WASHINGTON, September 10, 2016 — Seattle Seahawks players are planning to do something during the national anthem before their home game on Sunday. What exactly that something is, they won’t say, but it won’t be simply to stand with their hands over their hearts.
Seahawks defensive back Jeremy Lane has joined Colin Kaepernick’s protest of police brutality and racial inequality. The San Francisco 49ers quarterback has refused to stand for the national anthem for the last two weeks, and Lane refused to stand last week.
Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner told the Seattle Times that while he doesn’t know whether he’ll sit through the anthem, whatever the team does is “not going to be individual. It’s going to be a team thing. That’s what the world needs to see. The world needs to see people coming together versus being individuals.”
The Seahawks will be playing the Miami Dolphins on Sunday. Dolphin players held a closed meeting to discuss what they might do during the anthem. Like the Seahawks, they’re keeping their plans quiet. Dolphins cornerback Byron Maxwell told the South Florida Sun Sentinel, “Some guys might do some things. I’m not sure what they’re going to do, but they might do some things.”
Kaepernick’s protest has drawn widespread criticism from fans and on social media, but it has also drawn support, including from current and former members of the U.S. military. After initial burnings of Kaepernick’s jersey and ritual demands that he be fired, soldiers and journalists noted that the freedom not to stand during the anthem is one of the freedoms that members of the armed forces have fought and died for.
The right to engage in political speech, especially unpopular political speech, is one of America’s most cherished freedoms. When that protest involves symbols as potent as the flag and the national anthem, its unpopularity is guaranteed.
But if the symbolism of protesting during the national anthem is potent, it will be more so on Sunday. This Sunday marks the fifteenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. In the aftermath of those attacks, the United States seemed as united as it’s ever been.
That unity is broken.
Standing during the national anthem doesn’t prove loyalty to the United States. By itself, the act is just a ritual. But many of the ritual things we do have meaning, from raising the right arm to the square for taking an oath to removing one’s hat for prayers and anthems to placing hand-over-heart during anthem and Pledge.
Rituals have their own logic and their own beauty. They bind communities together. Even non-believers can find themselves swept into the sense of tradition and belonging at a wedding, a baptism or church communion. Even the rituals of football, the Olympics and other sporting events can briefly silence cynics and strengthen social bonds.
To protest the national anthem draws attention like almost no other act of speech can. Kaepernick could give press conferences every week for a year about police brutality and racial inequity, and they would fade into background noise, his fans un-offended, as long as he stood for the anthem with hand over heart. The simple act of sitting has turned him into a hero and a villain.
But Sunday will be different.
Almost everyone who’s old enough has vivid memories of September 11, 2001. The day possesses its own powerful symbolism. It was a day of heartbreaking tragedy, extraordinary courage and inspiring sacrifice. It was a day when America experienced a terrible blow, then displayed the greatness that so many love. For some, the day rises very nearly to the level of sacred.
The Seahawks couldn’t choose a better day to get attention for their protest, nor a better day to ensure the wrath of their fans when they do it.
For all its flaws, and it has many, America remains a nation bound to its ideals. There is racial inequality, the police are sometimes brutal and our justice system is not always just, but as a nation we strive to do better and be better. For every step back, there are two steps forward. If minorities are still treated unfairly, they have more opportunities than ever before in a nation that gives equality under the law more than lip service.
America isn’t perfect, but it is great. If the chest-beating patriotism sometimes goes over the top, and if there are things of which we should be ashamed, there is still much of which to be proud.
September 11 is a reminder of that and of what unites us, which is why it’s a poor day for a protest over the things that divide us. But whether or not there is a protest, the possibility of one is something in which we can take some pride.
We should no more expect everyone to join us in standing for the anthem than we expect them to kneel with us in prayer. The ritual helps bind a community, but people have the right to withdraw from the community and to criticize it if they wish. They love the community no less when they protest its failures. But if they do it on Sunday, it will strike a nerve.
The Seahawks and Dolphins should consider how they might protest and still let their fans know how much they love America. Squaring that circle will be a neat trick, but with magnanimity all around, not an impossible one.