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Guest Post: The Ballpark Anthem Ritual, Me, and My Kids

Mark Kissling, an assistant professor of social studies education at Penn State, prepares future teachers to tackle subjects like patriotism and dissent in their classrooms. Here, he reflects on those conversations as they relate to the National Anthem.
Guest Post: The Ballpark Anthem Ritual, Me, and My Kids

Mark Kissling

August 28, 2018

Mark Kissling, an assistant professor of social studies education at Penn State, prepares future teachers to tackle subjects like patriotism and dissent in their classrooms. Here, he reflects on those conversations as they relate to the National Anthem.

Two weeks ago, my five-year-old son and I attended a Single-A baseball all-star game hosted by the State College Spikes, our local team.  A half hour before the first pitch, we hopped on our bike and trailer and were in our seats shortly thereafter, catching most of the player and coach introductions.  Then the umpires were introduced.  Then the announcer asked everyone to stand. 

It was a moment I’d been imagining for months, especially as President Trump has continued to mischaracterize the motivations of athletes demonstrating during the national anthem. What would I do—and what would my kids do—during the anthem ritual?

For starters, I don’t believe the national anthem should be played before sporting events—the games have no direct connection to the nation-state, the ritual is troublingly authoritarian, and the history of the “Star-Spangled Banner” is entangled in white supremacy—but I don’t envision it being removed from the pre-game line-up any time soon.  However, all people at the game can control how they respond to it.

At a red light on our way to the game, I turned back to my son and said, “When the national anthem is played, I’m going to stand and bow my head, and I want to hold your hand.  What do you think?”

I’d been considering three possible actions.  I—a white, 6’9” man—could:  

  • stand with my head down, eyes closed, one hand holding my son’s and the other behind my back.  
  • take the same position but move my hand from behind my back to the air above my head, clenching it into a fist, in solidarity with medalist sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 Olympics and their cause of ending racial oppression.  
  • kneel, with lowered head and eyes closed, holding my son’s hand, in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, the NFL quarterback who in 2016 began sitting during the anthem, then kneeling, to speak out against racial injustice and police brutality.  

While the first action is relatively common behavior, the latter two—which would be noticeable to any onlookers and likely received as intentionally defiant—are not.  

When talking about these possible actions with my son several days before the game—I haven’t yet begun talking this through with my two-year-old daughter—he asked if I might remain seated.  While some people do that, including current NFL players, I told him that I didn’t consider it a good option as I view sitting as dismissive of a ritual that has significant meaning for so many people.  Their actions—e.g., standing, facing the flag, hand over heart, perhaps singing—are patriotic.  And so are my three outlined actions.

My thinking, here, is shaped by my work as an education professor.  I teach, research, and write about how patriotism isn’t straightforward but politicians and cultural institutions (like schools) often frame it as such.  Relatedly, I am guest-editing a special issue of Bank Street College of Education’s Occasional Papers Series titled “Am I Patriotic?: Learning and Teaching the Complexities of Patriotism Here and Now.”  The issue will be freely accessible online here in late September.   

Also contextually important is that when I used to teach social studies at a large, public high school in Massachusetts, I did not say the Pledge of Allegiance alongside the school’s student announcers.  I have deep concerns about the Pledge starting each school day.  Teachers and students need to study the Pledge in schools, not uncritically recite it.  My students and I considered the legal precedents: we needed to show respect for the ritual but we did not have to partake in it.  Some participated and some did not.  

Before I became a teacher, I stood for the national anthem prior to playing in hundreds of high-school and college basketball games.  I began standing with my hands behind my back, head bowed, eyes closed.  I prayed for my good health and the good health of my teammates and opponents.  I also prayed about matters that concerned me in the moment (like playing to my fullest potential, surviving impending exams or bus travel home amid a winter storm, and peaceful resolution to unrest in the Middle East). 

Importantly, I can’t recall a coach or teammate or teacher or anyone else ever saying something to me about the anthem ritual.  It simply registered no scrutiny.  With my daughter and son, I don’t want the anthem ritual to go without scrutiny.  I want them to think critically about it, talk with others, and then make decisions for themselves about how to proceed.   

Back at the red light before the game, after a few seconds of silence, my son responded, “I’m going to stand but I don’t want to bow my head.”

“That sounds great, bud,” I responded.  Then the light turned green and we were off.  Minutes later, standing, we held hands.  I bowed my head; he looked around at the enactment of the ritual.

I can’t say what we’ll do at future games.  I do know that I’ll hold my kids’ hands and stand (or kneel) in solidarity with all who seek racial, social, and ecological justice.