BUCCAMENT BAY, St. Vincent -- Jurgen Klinsmann said it's up to his players whether or not they want to sing the national anthem, while adding he does think the Star Spangled Banner is the "most beautiful in the world."
Speaking ahead of Friday's World Cup qualifier against St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Klinsmann weighed in on the recent controversy over athletes and how they observe the national anthem prior to games. The U.S. national team boss said: "It's everyone's own decision," and that he wouldn't force a player to stand up or sing the national anthem if they didn't want to.
The issue has come to the fore after San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem prior to a preseason game against the Green Bay Packers.
Afterwards, Kaepernick told NFL.com: "I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder."
Kaepernick has since received support from some quarters, but also considerable criticism for his stance. At the Olympics, gymnast Gabby Douglas was criticized for not putting her hand over her heart during the anthem.
At a roundtable with reporters, Klinsmann indicated he takes a flexible approach to players and the anthem.
"I understand everyone jumping into that discussion, and everyone has his own opinion, everyone has his own feelings when he listens to the national anthem," he said. "I wouldn't force any player to do whatever, but I kind of asked them to enjoy this moment, to sing the anthem, to be thoughtful about who you represent."
One U.S. player who doesn't put his hand over his heart during the anthem is striker Jozy Altidore. In a 2015 interview, Altidore explained his religious faith is at odds with him doing so. "I was raised as a Jehovah's Witness," he told Goal.com. "My mom is a Jehovah's Witness and there's just certain things we don't do. Birthdays, holidays, stuff like that, so [not putting my hand on my heart] has nothing to do with me being against the country, or being any less American.
"I love my country. I'm very American. I love playing for the U.S., and I hope people understand that that's why I don't do it."
Klinsmann added that in Germany, a player who declined to sing that country's national anthem would find himself on the front cover of the tabloid Bild, and not in a positive way.
"To [people in Germany] it shows that pure commitment," Klinsmann said. "We had that 20 years ago when we were playing, and the public urged athletes to sing the anthem, and slowly they grow into that feeling, and say, 'Alright, everybody sings it.'"
But having lived in the U.S. now for nearly 20 years, Klinsmann understands that the U.S. is different, though he has a special fondness for the U.S. anthem.
"I respect everybody's approach to it," he said. "For me, I've said it many times, especially to the German media, I think the American anthem is the most beautiful in the world, really. There is so much in that anthem. I love to sing it. I really feel good about it, and I don't have an American passport. I think it's a very special anthem, but if an athlete decides [not to], that's his decision. That's fine, I'm not criticizing."
The U.S. team has often been represented by players born elsewhere -- such as John Brooks, Fabian Johnson and Timothy Chandler -- who are children of U.S. servicemen and women, and grew up mostly in Europe. Klinsmann noted that he had given out copies of the anthem in order to build a deeper bond between those players and the country they represent.
"Everybody builds a different connection to it, but I think it also needs a little bit of help," he said. "If you take John Brooks or Timmy Chandler, who didn't grow up [in the U.S.], born in Europe, they don't have that connection to the American anthem like an American-born player here in the U.S.
"We handed it out. Sometimes we had the anthem in the meal room with a big text and a really cool design. I think it's a cool feeling, and the players love it. And I'm not telling the players, 'You have to sing it.' Feel it in your own way. I sing it because I think it's a gorgeous anthem."