You can always tell what the sacred cow is… Colin Kaepernick is getting crushed for his (rather tame) symbolic act of civil disobedience. The timing is interesting for me because an article I’ve written for The Other Journal, in which I write about my own experience of the national anthem at a football game, went live this morning. It’s called “We’re Number One: Sport as the Liturgy of Empire.” In it I talk about the way sport habituates us into the myth of American exceptionalism. Below is an excerpt from the article. You can read the full text here.
Last year I returned to my alma mater, Kansas State University, for a football game. Manhattan, Kansas, floats on a sea of prairie grass at the junction of the Big Blue and Kansas Rivers, a good ten miles from the nearest interstate. K-State was the first land-grant institution west of the Mississippi. Under the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862 (signed by President Lincoln), the US Government gifted federal land, once part of the Kansa Indian reservation, to the state of Kansas. The state sold off the land to finance the building of a school. My wife and I drove our two boys around the campus, tailgated with family, and walked into the stadium just in time to witness a K-State pregame tradition called the Ceremony of Allegiance.
Fans were asked to stand and remove their hats, and then the public address announcer began the ceremony with a dramatic reading of lines from the preamble to the US Constitution and Declaration of Independence. A marching band underscored the sense of reverent patriotism by accompanying the man with iconic themes of Americana—“Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “My Country ’Tis of Thee,” “America the Beautiful.” The reading culminated in a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. I don’t mean that the announcer read the pledge; I mean that the entire stadium recited the pledge to flag and country in unison and with gusto, like a massive classroom of buzzed elementary kids. I remember wondering if I was the only one thinking, Why the hell are we reciting the Pledge of Allegiance at a football game? I suppose that if any descendants of the Kansa people were in attendance that day, they might have had a similar thought.
The music swelled and then faded to the staccato of a single snare. The crowd stood fixed in rapt attention. It struck me like something out of a war movie—the climatic drum roll before the drop of the gallows or the command to charge the enemy. Finally, the announcer broke his silence and invited us to join in singing the national anthem.
In case you didn’t catch my cynicism, I must confess that I’m somewhat conflicted about my American identity. It’s not that I don’t love my country. I do. But I don’t go in for the sentimental God-and-country shtick. I don’t sing the national anthem or say the pledge. I stand and take off my hat mostly to avoid being harassed, but I don’t put my hand over my heart. When my sons are next to me, I whisper, And now for a moment of forced patriotism. I’ve taught them to insert don’t after the word I in the pledge, although I’m pretty sure they ignore me. Patriotic rituals of this kind are my least favorite part of attending a game.
And yet there was something compelling about that moment. Over fifty thousand corn-fed red-state football fans, decked out from head to toe in purple and white, belted the national anthem in full voice. It was stunning. I turned my head to listen to the front and then behind. Everyone was singing.
As if on cue, when we reached the line about the rockets’ red glare, the colossal choir seamlessly shifted into two-part harmony, a good twenty thousand altos demonstrating this wasn’t their first visit to Bill Snyder Family Stadium. The sound brought tears to my eyes. It was aesthetically beautiful. It’s a rare treat to hear such a substantial choir singing with such passion. But it was also unnerving and ominous in a Leni-Riefenstahl-Triumph-of-the-Will kind of way.
The Ceremony of Allegiance, which concluded with the singing of the K-State “Alma Mater” and fight song, had all the elements of public worship: standing in reverence, removal of hats, reading from the sacred texts, recitations of liturgy, and hymns of praise. It was all there—a civic worship service meant to consecrate the game. The message of this worship was that we are exceptional. Our school is exceptional. Our state is exceptional. We are Americans, and America is exceptional.