The home team helps hold an enormous American flag.
The home team helps hold an enormous American flag. Credit: Keith Allison on Flickr / CC 2.0

A little less than three hours before the kickoff of Monday night’s opener at FedEx Field, the field was mostly empty. A few players jogged, a handful of coaches and team representatives milled about, the ESPN studio show was set up on the sidelines, and a few fans had already made it in to watch. And over the loudspeaker the national anthem boomed, a full rehearsal run-through ahead of the evening’s official performance.

No one reacted. The people milling kept milling. The players who were stretching and skip-stepping just kept at it. Basically, no one noticed.

Which is striking, because in a stadium context, team and fan reactions to the anthem are heavily scrutinized. San Francisco 49ers backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick received criticism for remaining seated for the pregame anthem. He has since begun kneeling instead, a deliberate and carefully chosen critique of “a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” as he put it in a postgame interview.

Kaepernick’s demonstration has resulted in the best possible outcome: starting a conversation and engendering emotional responses from people on both sides of a heated debate. Some athletes have staged similar protests—kneeling, locking arms, or raising their fists—in solidarity with Kaepernick. Others have responded emphatically that all of this is disrespectful to the flag and to the people who fight and die for it, and is grandstanding outside the purview of a football quarterback.

To his credit, Kaepernick has gone out of his way to emphasize his support for American troops and the sacrifices they make, and to separate that from the aspects of America that he is protesting. Similarly, a number of veterans have stepped forward to support Kaepernick’s right to make a statement with which they emphatically disagree.

The issue made its first major impact locally at the National Women’s Soccer League, with a showdown between Washington Spirit ownership and Seattle Reign midfielder (and longtime USWNT star) Megan Rapinoe. Rapinoe had previously stated her intention to kneel during the anthem in solidarity with Kaepernick. So Spirit owner Bill Lynch, a veteran, shifted the pregame schedule to play the anthem before the players emerged from their locker rooms.

The protest has continued to spread throughout all levels of football, including Watkins Mill in Gaithersburg, and in the first week of the NFL regular season, individual players—in some cases whole teams—were emulating Kaepernick.

It’s a fascinating intersection of sports and politics, and even the most heated conversations about it explore the nature of free speech loyalty, the flag and what it represents, or the country and its ideals.

Meanwhile, the Wizards have unveiled new alternate uniforms—patriotic beauties, with stars down the sides of the jerseys and stripes down the sides of the pants. (These are aptly named the “Stars and Stripes” uniforms). These were met with fire emojis and clapping gifs and generally uproarious support on social media.

According to the press release introducing them, they are intended to “pay honor to the men and women of the military.” That seems beyond reproach. But the release goes on to announce a “military series initiative” sponsored by defense contractor Leidos.

Leidos will donate tickets to veterans, support on-court recognition of those who have served in the armed forces, and will continue to participate in activities established under their existing partnership with the Wizards. There are undeniably positive aspects to these programs, but they also stink a bit of exploitation—patriotism-as-marketing and veteran-as-mascot.

It’s the inverse of the Kaepernick question: Where the player questions the country’s actions while still supporting the troops, this partnership seems to inch closer to the idea that supporting the country’s soldiers requires support of U.S. wars. This should be prompting the same kinds of debates and soul-searching that anthem-kneeling has. Instead, it’s largely become part of the background noise of sports.

At 7:10 in Landover Monday night, no one sat. The home team not only stood, but also helped hold the enormous flag that covered the field. There was a flyover by the 71st Fighter Training Squadron from Langley Air Force Base. A Navy SEAL who publicly claimed to have been the one to kill Osama Bin Laden stood at the coin toss as Washington’s honorary captain. None of those things is inherently right or wrong, but they should all elicit the same questions and start the same conversations.