Max Kellerman, co-host of ESPN’s scream-fest “First Take,” likes him some attention. Therefore, I wasn’t too surprised when he tried to make the point back in 2017 that playing the national anthem before games was “injecting politics” into sports.
This, of course, was in the early days of the Colin Kaepernick kneeling controversy. During a segment on the show, Kellerman said the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback “did not go looking for a protest. It came to him.”
“He was asked to stand for the national anthem,” Kellerman said. “You do not have to stand for the national anthem. And even if it was a rule that you did, is that Colin Kaepernick injecting politics into the NFL? No. That’s the NFL injecting politics by playing the national anthem and putting pressure on you to stand for it in the first place.”
Kellerman has had plenty of hot takes since then, so why did this one stick in my craw so long? Part of it is the gall of it — the idea that merely asking someone to stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner” or playing it at games was inherently problematic and making a point. This was a curious argument, one that I was sure wasn’t going to get revived by anyone who didn’t have a daily show for which to fill up air time.
Alas, this is 2020 and I’ve been proven wrong yet again in a deeply unpleasant way.
“Tulsa Athletic’s mission is to create an inclusive community through the game of soccer,” the news release read.
“After carefully reviewing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ lyrics and meaning, including the third verse which mentions ‘No refuge could save the hireling and slave / From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave…,’ Tulsa Athletic came to the decision that the song does not align with the club’s core values.
“While this verse is rarely sung, Tulsa Athletic does not believe ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ represents or unites their diverse players, fans and community.”
Official Club statement regarding our announcement of playing Woody Guthrie’s “This Land” before home matches.
— Tulsa-Athletic (@TTownSoccer) June 24, 2020
It’s worth noting there’s some controversy over what this verse even means, but more on that anon. Sonny Dalesandro, co-owner of Tulsa Athletic, insists that the national anthem just isn’t a fit for the current moment.
“From our beginning, we have developed a culture of inclusion and acceptance at Tulsa Athletic,” Dalesandro said in the news release.
“We utilize this right as a club to continually try and improve our team and community. We believe ‘This Land Is Your Land’ not only captures a powerful patriotic sentiment, but that it does so in a far more inclusive way. The song speaks to this country being built and shared by every person of every race, ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation. It represents a future Tulsa Athletic is committed to striving for.”
The club now describes “This Land is Your Land” as its “song of patriotism” and says “players and fans can sing along if they are comfortable.”
“As always, all forms of patriotic expression are welcomed and respected at Tulsa Athletic’s matches,” the news release said.
Just not, you know, that one. The one with the verse that mentions the word “slave” in a verse.
Well, as choices for replacements to “The Star-Spangled Banner” go, I suppose it beats “Alice’s Restaurant” by Guthrie’s son, Arlo. After all, that’s 18-and-a-half minutes long and you’ll have to explain that whole part about “… excepting Alice” to the kids.
I suppose the whole point behind this, much like Max Kellerman’s hot take on the anthem being political, is that it gets them some much-needed attention. After all, they’re not exactly the best-known soccer team in the nation, or even in Oklahoma.
However, let’s not pretend this is about the word “slave” being in the national anthem. For one thing, that part is never sung before sporting events. And in fact, no one’s even sure that Francis Scott Key even meant “slave” as we usually interpret it.
“To some critics who believe the reference to be racial, it’s significant that among the British troops Key fought against in Maryland during the War of 1812 were the Corps of Colonial Marines, free persons of color who had formerly been slaves,” Walter Olson wrote in National Review in 2017.
“But there are other possibilities to consider, too.
“At the time Key was writing, the word ‘slave’ … had long functioned in English as a wide-ranging epithet, hurled at persons of any and all colors, nationalities, and conditions of servitude or otherwise.”
Olson notes that of the over 180 times that the word was used in Shakespeare’s writings, only one third were used in his Roman and Greek plays — in other words, to refer to literal slaves.
Instead, it was often used like this line from Hamlet: “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I!”
Instead, this is the Max Kellerman argument: The national anthem is now political to Tulsa Athletic and they’re going to do away with it. “The Star-Spangled Banner” is now a political document, and whether you embrace it is indicative of whether you’re a Republican or Democrat.
This is Tulsa Athletic’s right, I suppose, but one wishes the team would drop the pretense of this being about “a culture of inclusion and acceptance.” It’s about division.
The reason they chose Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” — as opposed to, say, “America the Beautiful” — is that Guthrie was a leftist. (Who, by the way, used words much worse than “slave.”)
This isn’t to say that the song isn’t any good; it’s a classic.
It’s just not a replacement for the national anthem, nor in the running for it. This is about Tulsa Athletic’s identity as a left-leaning organization — and about “injecting politics” into sports.
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