Spend any length of time in the United States and you realise that the
is not an anthem to be dishonoured lightly.
It resounds not merely at great occasions of state but as a prelude to every game in the land, such is its lyrical glorification of all that Americans hold dear: namely, war, sports and, of course, victory. It is even enshrined in law, in the 1942 US Flag Code no less, that all civilians present during its performance should stand at attention facing the flag, with right hand clasped firmly over the heart.
Woe betide anybody, then, who does as reserve San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has just done, by turning the other cheek. For a little over a week, Kaepernick has chosen to sit for the anthem, as a protest against what he considers to be wrongdoings against African-Americans and minorities across the country. To judge by the reaction of his more conservative critics, he could scarcely have committed an act of more brazen provocation if he had driven through backwoods Alabama with the words "Man Love Rules" spray-painted on his car in pink.
Actually, a certain trio of former Top Gear presenters already tried that. And they were pelted with rocks for their trouble.
The barbs hurled in Kaepernick's direction have been no less bruising. Several fans have filmed themselves burning his signature 7 jersey. The local police union in Santa Clara have threatened to stop protecting 49ers games in response. Ted Cruz, the failed Republican presidential candidate and seldom a man to offer much nuanced critique of a slur against the red, white and blue, lambasted Kaepernick as a "rich, spoiled athlete" who neglected to recognise his nation's greatness.
All this frothing at the mouth is exposed for the folly it is when one cares to examine Kaepernick's precise language. "I am not going to stand up to show pride for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour," he says. "To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street, and people who are getting paid leave to get away with murder."
For a start, Kaepernick is exercising no more than his constitutional right to focus attention on racial injustice. Plus, his gesture fits neatly within the context of the "Black Lives Matter" campaign that has simmered for the past three years, after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the fatal shooting of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin.
In America, if you are black you are still twice as likely to experience police violence than if you are white, and you are eight times more susceptible to being killed. These are not the cries of the disaffected but established truths. That Kaepernick finds himself demonised for pointing them out is a reflection less on him than on the society around him, which apparently attaches a higher premium to four militaristic verses about rockets' red glare and bombs bursting in air than it does to essential freedom of speech.
Historically, the consequences of impugning the anthem, on however principled a pretext, are severe. When basketball star Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, Chris Jackson before converting to Islam, refused in 1996 to acknowledge the flag after arguing that it was at odds with his religious convictions, he was not only derided by his own fans in Denver but suspended by the league. For Kaepernick, this is one moral stand that is unlikely to end happily.
In a sense, it is a tragedy, given how few figures in sport have the gumption to give voice to their conscience. Take the US Ryder Cup golfers, for example. Later this month they will gather for the biennial hostilities at Hazeltine, Minnesota, delivering all manner of platitudes about their pride in the flag. In the last instalment on US soil at Medinah, Bubba Watson, voice quavering with emotion, said: "It's about the military that carry our flag everywhere they go. They give us the freedom to play golf." If you closed your eyes, you almost hear Kenny Loggins' Top Gun soundtrack blaring out from the team-room stereo.
It would be refreshing if these same players could, a la Kaepernick, apply the same passion to the burning issues of the moment. Granted, as phenomenally rich white men, they do not harbour quite the same grievances.
But Phil Mickelson tried, once, to dip his toe in the political waters, when he complained in 2013 about federal tax laws, and he was shouted down with such ferocity that he resolved never to make the same mistake twice.
"I shouldn't take advantage of the forum that I have, as a professional golfer, to try to ignite change," he said. Heaven forbid.
In 2016, the popular preference is, if the ostracising of poor Kaepernick is any gauge, for athletes who talk little about social justice and who do even less. For Kaepernick even to dare to discuss the issues that impinge upon every facet of his existence as a black man in America is broadly regarded as an abrogation of his duties to tell the world about no more than the game he has just played or the pass he has just thrown. It is a grotesque hypocrisy, in the year of the death of Muhammad Ali, that Kaepernick can be persecuted for his activism just as Ali was lionised for it.
"The Negro in America, you've put fear in him ever since he has been here," Ali once proclaimed. "And the only thing you hope is that it's instilled in me, but it ain't!" How quickly, and how pitifully, such noble words have been betrayed.