On May 27, Gabe Kapler announced that he would no longer attend the national anthem ceremony that traditionally begins each Major League Baseball game. Some fans supported this decision, while others took to their social media avatars to voice strong disagreement and virtue signal to their virtual friends and online strangers.
Some may ask if this is appropriate for a sports website. This author contends it is. A manager of one of the 30 MLB clubs has chosen to use his platform for political purposes, and it is fitting and proper that baseball writers chronicle and report on this news. Before forming an opinion on another person’s solitary political action, baseball fans should consider the context.
Recent Mass Shootings in America
The San Francisco Giants manager took this position after the recent string of mass shootings in America. Coming out of a relative lull in gun violence due to the pandemic’s impact on limiting social gatherings, lone shooters motivated by White racism, mental illness, and other factors have perpetrated 214 mass shootings so far in 2022, leaving hundreds of Americans dead. Using a more stringent definition of mass shootings, the phenomenon is clearly on the rise over the last two decades.
The two most deadly massacres this month took place in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas. The former was carried out by a reactionary White supremacist militant who shot and killed ten unarmed people, targeting Black Americans specifically. The latter was perpetrated by what appears to be a severely mentally unstable individual who targeted elementary school children, killing 21 people in all. In both cases, lax gun laws allowed these young men to obtain firearms with ease.
The United States is nearly unique in its rate of gun violence, though not alone. America ranks among the worst countries in deaths by gun. Firearms, of course, are the preferred weapon of our age. They are easier to use, more efficient, and typically deadlier than alternatives like knives, swords, hammers, rope, or other means of inducing death. The murderers in Buffalo and Uvalde used particularly dreadful versions of firearms.
Purpose of the National Anthem
Nearly every country on Earth has a national anthem. The United States went without an official one for most of its history, adopting the Star Spangled Banner only in 1930. Governments elect to adopt an official song for many reasons but primarily to provide a symbol and ritual for citizens in an effort to foster community, a sense of a shared society, and cultivate a national identity among its residents.
The Star Spangled Banner owes its origin to a poem coined by Francis Scott Key during the War of 1812, fought by America against Britain as part of the larger revolutionary wars engulfing Europe and North America. The thrust of the anthem celebrates the freedom promised by the American Revolution and the hope that Americans will be brave enough to defend and preserve that liberty.
Playing of the song at baseball game"s predates its official adoption as the country"s anthem. As early as 1862, the Star Spangled Banner was played in Brooklyn at a National Association game. In 1897, the Philadelphia Phillies included a rendition as part of Opening Day festivities. As is often the case for national symbols during times of war, the song began a more regular feature of big league games during the Second World War.
Notably, the national anthem is not intended solely as a method by which to honor American war dead, active-duty military members, veterans, or the branches themselves. Rather, the Star Spangled Banner serves as a national symbol intended to provide a moment of unity from which Americans can start as they seek solutions to the country"s problems or become divided on other fronts. In baseball, the anthem is played as part of the celebratory festivities kicking off a game. Sometimes, such as on Memorial Day, the opening ceremonies feature a deliberate honoring of American war dead, and fans understandably link the anthem on these days to those who died in the name of the United States.
Sports History and the National Anthem
All American teams in the Big Four play the national anthem to start their games, choosing to make a political statement regarding unity and nationalism. The vast majority of athletes and fans typically make the take the same political act, choosing to stand and remove their hats in celebration of the country.
Protests during the national anthem have occasionally occurred in the sports world. Gold and silver medalists Tommy Smith and John Carlos raised their fists and bowed their heads in silence as the national anthem played to call attention to the tens of thousands of Black Americans who were killed by White racists, bring attention to the continued discrimination against and plight of living Black Americans, and in solidarity with working-class Americans. In response, the United States Olympic Committee suspended them and barred them from entering the Olympic Village.
More recently, Colin Kaepernick took a silent knee during the national anthem. Like Smith and Carlos before him, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback hoped to draw attention to the ongoing issue of police brutality toward Black Americans. The National Football League has essentially blacklisted him from joining a team since the end of 2016.
Similar protests have rolled on sporadically since through the Big Four leagues. This author was present at when Oakland Athletics catcher Bruce Maxwell took a knee at a Texas Rangers game in 2017. Fans responded by booing him, with one individual yelling, “Get up, n*****." Like Kaepernick, Maxwell intended his respectful protest to call attention to police brutality against Black Americans and not as an insult to veterans or the military.
Kapler’s Delayed Reaction
After taking time to process the slaughter of children in school yet again, Kapler thought back to lessons taught to him by his father:
“When I was the same age as the children in Uvalde, my father taught me to stand for the pledge of allegiance when I believed my country was representing its people well or to protest and stay seated when it wasn"t. I don"t believe it is representing us well right now…I wish that I could have demonstrated what I learned from my dad, that when you’re dissatisfied with your country, you let it be known through protest. The home of the brave should encourage this."
"I’m often struck before our games by the lack of delivery of the promise of what our national anthem represents. We stand in honor of a country where we elect representatives to serve us, to thoughtfully consider and enact legislation that protects the interests of all the people in this country and to move this country forward towards the vision of the "shining city on the hill." But instead, we thoughtlessly link our moment of silence and grief with the equally thoughtless display of celebration for a country that refuses to take up the concept of controlling the sale of weapons used nearly exclusively for the mass slaughter of human beings. We have our moment (over and over), and then we move on without demanding real change from the people we empower to make these changes. We stand, we bow our heads, and the people in power leave on recess, celebrating their own patriotism at every turn."
Impact of Kapler"s Protest
As nearly all of us are, Kapler was influenced by his recently-departed father. His dad taught him that one of the true values of being an American is to call attention to times when our country is engaged in hypocrisy. Kapler sees the confluence of a moment of silence for the victims of yet another mass shooting followed immediately by the national anthem celebrating our country for its perceived greatness while simultaneously doing little to nothing to stop this epidemic as simply too much to bear. Moreover, he calls his opponents out for their hypocrisy in condemning him for being free and brave while demanding that he follow their orders to stop being free and brave.
This author disagrees with the particular form of protest chosen by Kapler but agrees completely with the point he is making and supports his ability to exercise his rights. There is meaning and value in certain collective actions, such as standing during the national anthem. This symbolism provides our society a starting point of shared values and actions from which we can understand and engage with each other when we do have issues or disagreements.
However, America, and any society for that matter, is best when citizens are allowed to choose how and when they will honor a flag or anthem and choose when to refrain in order to call attention to an injustice, real or perceived. Some baseball fans, while professing to be proud patriots, have attacked Kapler with vile. Examples include those from Kapler"s very blog"s comment section:
- “F****** communist if you can’t stand for the anthem get the f*** out of america and the MLB no one wants your communist *** here anyways"
- “Over 10,000 people died last year in drunk driving crashes. Where’s the outrage b****? Where’s your cry to ban cars? You f****** knuckle dragger… LETS GO BRANDON"
- “What do you expect form a merchant jew?"
These atrocious responses reveal a real hatred by some baseball fans for dissent as well as sexist and anti-Semitic prejudices. These attitudes speak to the extreme partisanship that increasingly manifests itself in all kinds of destructive ways in our country, from the erosion of the capacity for civil discourse to multiple politically-based murders.
Kapler’s Protest Successful in Calling Attention to Mass Shootings
Reactionary fans may type what they will, but Kapler’s decision comes from a sincere place. Moreover, his cause is true: mass shootings are occurring regularly, little to nothing is being done to prevent them by the United States Government, and, for whatever baseball fans have to say about this particular form of protest, Kapler has called attention to this tragic issue.
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