When the national anthem played before today’s NFL season opener at FedEx Field, Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins raised his fist in quiet protest while teammates Chris Long and Rodney McLeod stood alongside him in solidarity. Viewers at home didn’t see any of this, however, because Fox kept its cameras away.
Jenkins’ gesture was one of the few anthem protests during Sunday’s early slate of games. In Cleveland, where Browns players knelt en masse during a preseason game, nobody took a knee. The Cleveland police union had thrown a tantrum in response to the Browns’ protest, and threatened to protest the players’ protest with a protest of their own. This M.C. Escher-esque demonstration against demonstrating didn’t come to pass, however, as the players and the cops opted for a Kumbaya moment instead.
In Houston, no players protested, the field was draped beneath an enormous flag, and a bald eagle named Challenger flew around the stadium during the anthem.
There was a humongous flag in Nashville, too, where the Raiders’ Marshawn Lynch spent the anthem sitting on the bench.
This is where we are a year after Colin Kaepernick took a knee during “The Star-Spangled Banner.” With Kaepernick’s political stance having made him a jobless pariah, a few of his peers have chosen to carry on his protest. The NFL’s broadcast partners are doing whatever they can to make sure you don’t know that players like Jenkins exist, while the league and its teams—which took money from the Department of Defense as recently as two years ago to enact choreographed patriotic displays—blanket their stadiums with the stars and stripes.
It’s worth noting that while Kaepernick may have started the movement, he was not the first player to protest the national anthem last regular season. That honor goes to Denver Broncos linebacker (and former Kaepernick teammate at the University of Nevada) Brandon Marshall, who took a knee during the NFL’s Thursday night opener in 2016. Marshall didn’t lose his job like Kaepernick did, but he did lose two endorsement deals. He also received some truly repugnant racist hate mail.
Protesting the anthem is not an easy thing to do. In the very best case, you subject yourself to tough questions, ones Jenkins answered in a thoughtful video for Sports Illustrated.
The players who make lavish overtures to Old Glory, meanwhile, are never asked about how the flag and the military are used to burnish the NFL’s image. It’s a shame, because if that were to happen, the resulting conversation would be pretty interesting, and it might even result in Pat Tillman’s memory being served appropriately for once.
It’s also a shame we can’t ask Francis Scott Key about all this, because he would probably be very confused. He didn’t write his lyrics as an anthem—he didn’t even write them as a song. What eventually became “The Star Spangled Banner” started out as a poem titled “The Defence of Fort M’Henry.” Key, a full-time lawyer and amateur poet, wrote its purple stanzas about the British Navy’s bombardment of an American fort during the War of 1812 (a war that was completely avoidable and needlessly destructive). Key’s brother-in-law put the poem to music, and the tune he selected for it was from a British drinking ditty. “The Star Spangled Banner” is an incredibly ironic tune, and it didn’t become the United States’ official anthem until 1931.
But we wouldn’t have to go back to the 1800s to confound people with our modern tales of anthem protests and the frenzied news cycles that follow. We could just talk to any NFL player circa 2008. That’s because, until 2009, it wasn’t standard for players to be on the field during the national anthem. They often stayed in the locker room, where they could do whatever they wanted until it was time to run out for kickoff.
If you want to be cynical, the league’s reverence for the anthem could be read as a branding decision, one made to align the NFL with patriotism. No matter how a player behaves during the anthem, he’s participating in a relatively new tradition, and one that, like the league itself, deserves our scrutiny. Players who kneel for “The Star Spangled Banner” will continue to get attention in 2017. So should those who stand for it.
Update, 4:55 p.m. ET: Seattle’s Michael Bennett, who has said he’s considering filing a civil rights suit after being detained by Las Vegas police last month, sat on the bench during the national anthem before this afternoon’s game between the Seahawks and Packers. Justin Britt placed his arm around his teammate, while Michael’s brother, the Packers’ Martellus Bennett, raised his fist on the opposite sideline. The gestures from both Bennett brothers made the Fox broadcast.