It is mystifying how every sporting match in the US has to proceed from the benediction of the national anthem
Cosmopolis column for the Hindu Business Line, published 6 October, 2017
A year ago, an American football player called Colin Kaepernick took a stand by bending his knee. During the ritual playing of the American national anthem before a game, he knelt down in protest of police violence and racism towards African Americans. This quiet, peaceful gesture raised the hackles of many people, as if the protest itself was worse than what the player was protesting. Kaepernick was supposedly disrespecting the flag, “the troops”, and the entire history of the US by expressing his right to freedom of speech.
Donald Trump revived this issue in grotesque fashion recently (he called Kaepernick a “son of a bitch”), and American football players have responded by echoing the protests from a year ago. The President has been roundly attacked for trying to weaponise the symbols of American patriotism against his own citizens. But his modus operandi is such that even when his statements and behaviour are being dismantled in the media, he wins. This national anthem row has opened another front in the culture war that Trump uses to galvanise his mostly white, conservative supporters. Falling into the trap, American TV networks are likely to fixate every Sunday on athletes who kneel down or raise their fists in protest during the anthem.
Nevertheless, players should have the right to peacefully dissent at the playing of the national anthem. Conservatives decry the insertion of politics into sport by these athletes, but the playing of the national anthem itself — along with the invoking of support for institutions such as the army and the police — already amounts to an intrusion of politics into sport.
Growing up in the US, my brother and I were removed from football (real football, played with your feet), the sport we loved ever since we were toddlers. The closest equivalent we found was ice hockey. Despite the differences — being played with sticks on ice, for example, or the eruption of rather ungainly bouts of fighting — ice hockey shared with football a basic structural similarity: the game aimed to put a round object into a net. My brother and I became fans of our local team, the New York Rangers, who played walking distance from our home on the east side of Manhattan.
Tickets were reasonably cheap then (they have at least quadrupled in price now) and the arena was nearby, so as young teenagers we would often go to Rangers matches by ourselves. It was my first experience of entering the wonderful, unthinking collective of sports fandom. Even though the Rangers were a mediocre team in those years, they became my tribe, their history my lore, and their home stadium the gathering place of a community I believed in.
But I remember being perplexed from a young age by one American sporting ritual: having to stand piously and listen to the national anthem before every match. The anthem was always accompanied by soldiers or policemen, often carrying the flag. Even if the anthem was sung with gusto and clearly roused the crowd around me, what did it have to do with this game? I had been to Ranji trophy matches in Kolkata where nobody so much as breathed the national anthem in advance of proceedings. I knew that football matches in the English Premier League didn’t begin with God Save the Queen or anything like it. And why should they? Clubs such as Arsenal in London represent cities, towns or neighbourhoods, not countries. The hymnals were left to the fans to chant their love for the team or their disdain for opponents.
When the New York Rangers played the New Jersey Devils, for example, what on earth did that clash of two local rivals have to do with the nation-state? I remain mystified by how every sporting match in the US had to proceed from the benediction of the national anthem.
I accept that sporting events are among some of the larger gatherings of people that take place within a society. They provide an occasion to remind us that we belong to a community larger than ourselves. But that’s all the more reason for us to highlight other agents that sustain a collective beyond representatives of law and order, the forces that monopolise violence on behalf of the state. I would love to go to a Rangers match that began with a note of reverence for teachers or construction workers or nurses, all people who contribute so much to the life of a society.
There’s no reason for a New York Rangers ice hockey game (or, for that matter, a trip to the cinema in Kolkata) to be a pageant for the celebration of the nation-state.
A few weeks after the 9/11 attacks, my brother and I sought refuge in a Rangers game from the chaos of the city. New York was still grappling with the shocking destruction at the World Trade Center, the huge loss of life, the trauma of that terrible day. As our tickets were checked, an attendant handed every fan a little American flag. I clutched it awkwardly. I wasn’t an American citizen, after all, and while America was the target of the al-Qaeda terrorists, I struggled to accept the nationalisation of an atrocity that seemed to me at once personal, local and cosmic. This tragedy belonged not just to Americans, but to the world. The national anthem was sung and the assembled Rangers fans waved their small flags. I felt suddenly estranged from my tribe, an alien in my own land.
Kanishk Tharoor is the author of Swimmer Among the Stars: Stories, a collection of short fiction