UConn fans asked to pledge allegiance

HARTFORD, Conn. -- Connecticut women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma can't remember saying the Pledge of Allegiance out loud since the day he became a United States' citizen in 1994.

But Auriemma, a native of Italy who moved to the United States as a child, and everyone else attending UConn basketball and football games this season has been asked to put hand over heart and recite those familiar words just before the national anthem is played:

"I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

"I'm old enough to know when we said it in school. I think we said it right before we hid under our desk in case of nuclear attack," said Auriemma, the coach of the U.S. Olympic team for the 2012 London Games. "It kind of caught me by surprise. I didn't know we were doing it."

The idea came from interim athletic director Paul Pendergast, who was looking for a unique way to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks during a UConn football game, and got the idea after attending a chamber of commerce breakfast, where the pledge was recited.

"It made me think, 'Why aren't we doing this routinely?' " he said. "So we've done it at all the basketball games, the football games and my hope is that we will do it wherever we're playing the anthem. We will do it at field hockey, at soccer and so forth. It will become part of who we are."

Pendergast has invited members of the military, veterans, and others to lead the crowd in the pledge.

Linda Schwartz, the commissioner of Connecticut's Department of Veterans Affairs, led the pledge at the UConn women's Nov. 13 game against Holy Cross. She said it was a moving experience, and one she believes focuses the attention of the crowd on the meaning of what has otherwise become just a routine pre-game ceremony.

"It was very heartening," she said. "We don't think enough about what is going on in the world today with our people serving. For me to look around and see all the people standing, it's like reminding ourselves what America stands for."

The policy has not come without some controversy. Some fans have posted on message boards that it has made them uncomfortable, other say it has politicized what should just be a fun event. Some don't like the idea of endorsing the religious notion, "one nation, under God," a line that was added to the pledge in the 1950s.

"I will stand and I will pledge, but I will never pledge to anything under God," said David Silverman, president of the group American Atheists. "I will pledge to one nation, indivisible all the time. And we urge all people at the University of Connecticut to do the same."

Pendergast said the reciting of the pledge is voluntary, and they have not told those leading the pledge which version to recite.

"We ask them to say the pledge the way you say it, and that's it," he said. "It's very similar to the anthem. We have kids on the soccer team, for example, from Senegal, Trinidad and Jamaica and other countries. They've been very respectful. I think it's a respect for the flag of wherever you are playing or whatever the situation may be."

Women's basketball player Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis said she and other players have had no problem with the new tradition.

"It makes us realize that there's a lot more going on out there than what we're doing on the court," she said. "There's still people out there fighting for our country. And definitely saying the Pledge of Allegiance gets us a little more ready for the national anthem."

Auriemma said he has another idea. He would rather see UConn get rid of guest singers who come in to perform the national anthem. Instead, he said, UConn should have the band play the anthem, while everyone sings along.

"When I go to Europe with the U.S. national team, you can't hear anything other than every voice in the building singing their country's national anthem," he said. "That would be way more meaningful, for me personally as an American, to have everybody in the building sing the national anthem at the top of their lungs, like they really, truly believe in what America stands for. I think sometimes the Pledge of Allegiance becomes kind of rote."