The issue with Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (born Chris Jackson) is the initial step in a long process that will take decades to sort out. Abdul-Rauf is an NBA player and he refused to stand for the National Anthem. Consequently, he was suspended for it. Someday, the question will be, “Daddy, why did they used to play the National Anthem at sporting events?” The answer will be, “Son, it was a process that began in 1918 and took until 1945 to complete - and that's just for baseball. Other sports followed. But, since they couldn’t figure out the logic between the National Anthem and sports, they finally stopped.”
When you step back and really objectively look at the issue, the reality is that it is plainly ridiculous for any organization to require that any member stand for the National Anthem. I don’t have to do it at my workplace. You don’t have to do it at yours. Your mother and your sister don’t have to do it. Do you know anyone who has to do it? No, you don’t. Professional sports players are the only people in our society who are required to do it and if we didn’t know that before Abdul-Rauf stayed seated, we know it now!
Even in sports, fans are not required. Owners are not required. Broadcasters are not required. Although most do stand, no one else is required. But, let’s say that you are not convinced of that – that you believe anyone would get the stink eye if they did not stand up for the National Anthem at a sporting event. Then, how do you justify the fact that you’ve probably watched hundreds of times the playing of the National Anthem from your living room and I’ll bet you never stood up once. Do you only respect the country and the flag if you are in the company of others? If so, isn’t that hypocritical?
Abdul-Rauf argued that standing for the anthem was a form of nationalistic worship forbidden by his religion. Abdul-Rauf is, of course, Muslim. He doesn’t claim an allegiance to the United States of America and (Edit: later added) when his NBA career was over, he played elsewhere in the world. From his perspective, it might be hypocritical for him to stand at attention – even if it was to appease others. Someday, the NBA is going to be loaded with foreign players who have zero allegiance to the U.S. What then?
Requiring sports players above all others to stand for the National Anthem is simply a tradition. That’s all. And, like all traditions, sooner or later someone asks the question, “Why?” You can’t argue that a money-making event in this country requires standing for a National Anthem or everyone at every gathering from movie theaters to music theaters would have to do it – yet no one does. You can’t argue that sports has some inherent marriage to patriotism which cannot be separated. That’s nonsense. The reason it exists is pure and simple tradition.
The NBA already requires standing for the U.S. National Anthem and the Canadian National Anthem. It prides itself on its rapid movement toward being the number one international (which really means “non national”) sport. What happens 30 years from now when there is a team in Berlin or Rome or yes, even Havana? And, what happens when some player refuses to stand for the Cuban National Anthem because his relatives were tortured there? We’ll applaud. It will happen someday. You can bet your life on it. And, that means that eventually we will come to realize that non national sports have nothing whatsoever to do with nationalism.
So, until the day comes that the NBA realizes it can’t play 25 different National Anthems for 100 different teams and a thousand different players from all over the globe, we’ll just have to live with the snail’s pace of change. And, we’ll just have to accept the fact that the very flag we pay homage to during the National Anthem, which is supposed to be the very symbol for the right of all of us to choose to sit during its playing… is instead being used as a symbol of coercion. And, that is the ultimate irony.