When you go to a sporting event, what do you think about when the national anthem is played? Do you feel patriotic? Do you feel thankful? Do you think of those serving in the military? Do you think of the War of 1812 and the bombing of Fort McHenry, which inspired Francis Scott Key to pen his lyrics?
Do you even know where Fort McHenry was located? Did you even know Francis Scott Key is the author of the "Star-Spangled Banner"? Do you know who we fought in the War of 1812? Did you know the actual music to the song was adapted from a British song? Does any of this matter?
Until a few weeks ago, when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeled before the anthem at a football game to protest racial injustice in this country, none of that did matter much. We stood, we took off our hats, we contemplated what to order at the concession stand or why Terry Collins would take out Addison Reed for Josh Smoker.
That all changed. Suddenly, the anthem means ... something. It has become another way to further divide this country, symbolic, in some fashion, of this entire political season. There seems to be little room for discussion or nuance: You're either with Kaepernick and others who have followed his lead across different sports, or you're against.
"Maybe a sporting event should simply be a sporting event. If we want displays of patriotism, we should be volunteering in our communities, helping our neighbors, and trying to understand the plights of those different from ourselves. Then we can all be proud to stand."
Against this background, there was a silly little stunt on Wednesday afternoon following the anthem at the Cardinals-Rockies game in Denver. Cardinals outfielder Jose Martinez and Rockies reliever Carlos Estevez had a post-anthem standoff. To what means and point? I have no idea, though I seem to remember this happening earlier this season in another game. As their teammates dispersed to get ready for the game, Martinez and Estevez remained in front of their dugouts, standing like the Queen's Guard in front of Buckingham Palace. At one point, Estevez donned a catcher's mask, I guess in case the game started.
The delay lasted long enough that the umpires had to tell the managers to get their players off the field.
Look, I'm sure the two rookies thought they were just having fun. Maybe Martinez, from Venezuela, and Estevez, from the Dominican Republic, were feeling especially appreciative on this night to play major league baseball.
Even if that were the case, this is not the time for such behavior. Kaepernick says he has received death threats as a result of his protest. Charlotte was burning. Seattle Seahawks star Richard Sherman had spoken earlier in the day about how players are being misunderstood. "I think you have players that are trying to take a stand and trying to be aware of social issues and try to make a stand and increase peoples' awareness and put a spotlight on it, and they're being ignored," he said. "Whether they're taking a knee or whether they're locking arms, they're trying to bring people together and unite them for a cause."
In the middle of all this, of an issue of vital importance, we get this ridiculousness at a baseball game.
I don't mean to sound so harsh. I'm sure Martinez and Estevez had good intentions. But that gets to the bigger picture: Maybe it's time to stop playing the anthem before sporting events. What impact does the song actually serve if it's as ubiquitous as James Taylor playing in the background while you're getting your teeth cleaned? As Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Bob Ford wrote in late August:
But it could also be suggested that the national anthem should be bigger than football, too, at least bigger than an August exhibition game of no particular meaning. What exactly about that trivial event is worthy of being introduced by the playing of a song that commemorates a moment in which the nation's independence was in the balance?
Still, it is played. It is played before nearly every game, in nearly every sport, at nearly every level where there is a public address system. Why is that? "Habit" is the best answer. That and the unspoken belief that the two minutes it takes to perform the anthem is less trouble than dealing with the blowback were the anthem not played to consecrate each game, no matter how insignificant.
There's a bit of an uneasy relationship sports has developed here, with the anthem, with "God Bless America" during the seventh-inning stretch, and, related, with the military. I'm all for honoring our servicemen and women, but many of the tributes or presentations we've seen (such as the National Guard unfurling a big flag before a game) were actually paid for by the military itself. Which means paid for by U.S. taxpayers. The Department of Defense paid pro sports teams $53 million in marketing contracts between 2012 and 2015. (After Arizona Republicans John McCain and Jeff Flake prepared a report on this, the DOD reportedly banned the practice and the NFL called for teams to stop taking payments.)
So maybe a sporting event should simply be a sporting event. If we want displays of patriotism, we should be volunteering in our communities, helping our neighbors and trying to understand the plights of those different from ourselves. Then we can all be proud to stand.