(June 6, 2018*)
By J Richards**
I wrote in my sports editor’s column in The Star Advocate (Titusville, Florida, USA) thirty-five years ago that playing The National Anthem was a waste at football games. The National Ensign, too, had no business being mis-displayed as well. The general lack of respect and proper protocol for both the song and the presentation of The Colors and raising said flag at the football field to the strains of The Star Spangled Banner left long lasting cringes for the failed educational opportunities both ceremonies offered to American schoolchildren…and perhaps parents and friends and fans, and even more importantly for Teachers as well.
When a Color Guard was in use as part of the pregame ceremonies often people in the stands and along the sidelines failed to stand, remove their hats if male and place their right hands over their hearts six paces before the flag arrived opposite the person whose attention was to be on the flag, and that hand-over-heart position held until the color guard had marched six paces past. What usually happened – across the field from where I stood at attention with my “cover” doffed and over my heart was that I noticed a goodly number of men and boys still covered by their bonnets – there being no sun nor rain about one wonders who taught them manners. When asked why he did not wear his famous Hound’s Toot chapeau inside the New Orleans Superdome when his University of Alabama football team played there, Paul “Bear” Bryant replied that his “mama taught me never to wear a hat indoors. It ain’t polite.” Good enough. Also it could be construed as insult to your host that their roof leaked and their walls were drafty, something no southern gentleman would – or could – contemplate doing last century. Also, the talking with fellow attendees and gum-chewing, soda-sipping and general slouching or worse – still sitting or scratching while standing (you know where, guys), make mockery of those who have fought and bled and sometimes died under that banner.
When the color guard is accompanied by a flag-raising, attention should be shifted from the four-person “detail” escorting Old Glory to the flagpole where another detail readies its flag to accompany the band’s playing of our National Anthem. And that, too, is fraught with disrespect too often to ignore. The first strains of Francis Scott Key’s memorable poem sung to a German beer-drinking tune adopted by the English – possibly because by the 19th Century England’s top nobility was after all imported from Germany – with a minor stop in Moscow – the flag is supposed to be hoisted briskly aloft to its topmost point. The detail – the two-rifle escort had already come to the position of “Rifle Salute,” and the two-person hoist detail then renders a hand salute. All that time – from the first bit of song and the flag raising – the stands are supposed to be turned toward the flagpole and at the position of attention – with right hands over hearts and hats off for gentlemen – the honors to our national emblems are rendered.
But what do – and did – I more often see. Gum being chewed; popcorn being tossed, hats still perched; talking and “grab-assing” on-going; and, that’s just from the older students and the parents and other adults. Elementary school-aged kids, mostly but not always just, boys playing “keep away” under the stands may be even more traditional than rendering honors. After all, a family outing in mostly safe and secured environs is a chance to let the younger set socialize, pull pigtails, receive an ungentle wallop from an offended female pal, and generally hell-about the place. They’d rather play than watch, and who can blame them? But I can – and do – blame their elders. By junior high (now Middle School) age decorum well should have been instilled – and if by the paddle or the swat so much the better. Little boys – and girls, too, like puppies, learn best by the hand-reared methods.
A third element to the ritual of pre-game football too has long been ignored. I wonder if it should continue. There are forces looming – and with the weight of lawsuits and courts with lawyers on both sides spouting “equality,” one wonders if soon it shall be no more. Of course I am talking about The Invocation. Almost as important, ritually, as The Star Spangled Banner and the Flag: the prayer for player safety and general convivial competition on and off the field in the name of our god and our savior has outlasted the mid-1950s banishment of The Bible from our classrooms. God does not belong in School. Jesus neither! Thus sayeth The Supreme Court. But at least here in The South we pray before football games and end In Jesus’ Name! And at NASCAR as well. Be you Jew or Arab, Hindu or Sikh, Satanist or Wicca, whatever, you stand up – and if the preacher is probably Baptist, are told to bow your head and close your eyes while he – has there ever been a she-preacher invited to bless the game? – prays sometimes well into the evening for all things good and holy.
And that is well. Well, it also is in peril, I wrote much the nearly 40 years ago. So I was off in my predictive ability – the real reason I declined to “pick” winners and losers mid-week in the newspaper: my excuse that promoting betting on games with “touts” was if not illegal at least immoral was but a sham. I preserved the right to pick the winner – and often by how much – fifteen minutes before kickoff when I could verity who was hurt on both sidelines, and who looked frisky and who looked feisty and in what condition was the field (one school in Saint Augustine was notorious for over-watering one portion of one of its endzones to the point of impassiability, taking Act of God well past its natural intent. Now, acts of The Diety – or not – well may be contended…in court. What’s to stop another faith, or even a not-faith, from suing to be included in such pre-game invocation? On grounds of fairness and equal opportunity and access? Absolutely nothing. And our school boards and other such devices of so-called self-government has shown a preponderance of weak knees and spindly spines.
Do you want to see a shaman dance on the fifty-yard line? Do you want some follower of Madeline Murray O’Hare come lecture you about atheist’s “beliefs” when all you want is a quick “God Bless,” and kick the damn ball?
Like the anthem and the flag, the prayer is a football thing. Only once or thrice every fifteen-hundredth Blue Moon does anyone pray before a high school basketball game or wrestling match. Volleyball? Secular! Cross country, track, swimming…you name ’em all and how many times do we stand as the flag parades past and someone calls succor us to The Lord? Get the picture?
In The South, football is not a game it is not even a re-enactment of stylized competitive warfare: it’s far more important than that – it’s religion! And that extends to our mania for professional baseball and stock car – and Indy car – racing as well. Will NASCAR allow The Grand Poobah of Whatever his say at the podium before The Daytona 500? Will The Courts abrogate the notion of Private Enterprise and say nay? Will The NFL owners borrow some spines and start suspending – and if necessary firing – players who follow not a very public policy of ALL PLAYERS standing to – with allowances for minor cup adjustments, cud-chewing and spitting a la baseball – when that silly old song gets terribly rendered with too much attention to warbling note-holding and sometimes outright rewriting lyrics on-the-fly.
We disrespect our country enough outside The Friendly Confines. Can we just cool it inside? Or should we consider just stopping?
I’m not in favor of that. Have roving patrols – no robes or head-wraps necessary – of men charged with tossing out (on first offense) all who offend proper decorum. And on second offense…well, we’ll just see.
- ( On the 74th anniversary of The Normandy Invasion during World War II.)
- ** (Amended and modified from a circa 1978 sports column I wrote in The Titusville Star-Advocate.)