Why patriotic songs at sporting events make me uneasy right now

Fans wave an American Flag at Yankee Stadium during pregame ceremonies commemorating those lost in the Sept. 11 attacks. Courtesy of Henny Ray Abrams via Getty Images

On a bright, sunny summer day less than a year after a norm-defying election that profoundly shook my faith in humanity, I got uncomfortable at a Yankees game.

It started with the national anthem played at the beginning of the game, but I grew more and more uneasy during the seventh-inning stretch. The stretch is a longstanding tradition in baseball, so named because it provides fans weary of sitting through lengthy games a moment to stand up and get their blood moving. A variety of songs have been played during the stretch; famously, broadcaster Harry Caray popularized the singing of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” in the 1970s.

But while the ditty that is Caray’s personal favorite is cheerful and nostalgic, the latest seventh-inning stalwart conjures up very different feelings. Playing “The Star Spangled Banner” has been a pregame ritual since World War II, and it occasionally makes an appearance during the stretch. But it wasn’t until the Sept. 11 attacks, after which Major League Baseball required teams to play “God Bless America” during the stretch for the rest of the season, that the stretch became about more than just peanuts and Cracker Jack. At the time, it was a well-received and seemingly unifying gesture. New York baseball fans welcomed it, and the Yankees accordingly rolled out a host of other crowd-pleasing patriotic tributes over the course of the season. But the tradition of singing “God Bless America” during the stretch truly made its mark when the 2001 World Series came back to Yankee Stadium and a popular President Bush, who threw out the first pitch to chants of “USA USA USA,” looked on while the renowned Ronan Tynan belted it out in the seventh. 

Let’s fast forward. The end of Bush’s tenure saw his support dwindling as the U.S. War on Terror needlessly dragged on. He responded disastrously to Hurricane Katrina and was in office during the beginning of the most significant economic downturn since the Great Depression (at least until the current one). These crises disproportionately affected Black and impoverished Americans. Meanwhile, Ronan Tynan lost his gig at Yankee Stadium in 2009 after admitting that he made anti-Semitic remarks to a Jewish doctor. While 2001’s unabashed patriotism was generally perceived as powerful and noble at the time, there were clearly unresolved societal ills lying beneath the surface that, within the decade, would become stark. But these afflictions weren’t truly laid bare until the 2016 election, when Donald Trump won the presidency on a nationalistic platform. Post Sept. 11, people came together when faced with a common threat. Trump managed to convince nearly half the country that there was another such threat, a threat as dangerous as a terrorist organization, but far more insidious: it was anyone who wasn’t white, Christian and born in the United States. 

Hate crimes against Muslims, which skyrocketed after Sept. 11 but stabilized in the following decade, rose again after Trump’s election and remained high due to his travel ban and incendiary rhetoric. But while Sept. 11 mainly spurred anti-Muslim attacks, Muslims are just one of many groups that began to face a surge in hate crimes immediately following Trump’s election. In 2019, hate crimes reached a 16-year high. Now, the Trump campaign is specifically targeting minorities, especially Black voters who almost uniformly vote Democratic, in their voter suppression efforts, just as they did in the last election by gaining unauthorized access to data on Facebook users. 

I maintain that real patriotism is loving everyone in your country equally, listening to all voices and being willing to share that love with anyone who wants to join. Trump’s fear-mongering brand of false patriotism has granted him the approval of more than 40 percent of Americans; I am uncomfortable joining in patriotic song with that 40 percent because the divide between our interpretations of the lyrics has grown so large.

Back to that sunny summer day in 2017. Before we saw the highest yearly rate of hate crimes in 16 years. Before Americans’ right to vote was being threatened more than ever. Before a corrupt president was exonerated in an impeachment trial that was over before it even began. Before he grossly mishandled a pandemic, costing over 200,000 lives.

We saw the warning signs right away. We immediately resolved to resist in any way we could, and witnessed astronomical numbers of donations and protesters. But on that day in 2017, tired of resisting, the most defiant action I could muster when we rose to listen to “God Bless America” was to mutter: “This is my least favorite part.”

My cousin, standing beside me, overheard and asked why. I began to launch into my scripted rebuke of nationalism, centered around how people are forgetting what happened the last time we allowed it to propagate unfettered. Before I could really get started, however, a man standing in the row in front of me wheeled around, red-faced. 

“Don’t you dare disrespect this country right now!” He said, his teeth clenched and finger pointing. Stunned, my face turned a vermillion to match his. Luckily, my father is a lawyer.

“If I’m not mistaken,” he said calmly, “what this country stands for is free speech.” The man shook his head and, grumbling to himself, turned back around. The confrontation was over as quickly as it began.

But despite the brevity of the confrontation, I remember the way it made me feel to this day: the initial shock when the man spun around, the embarrassment I then felt at potentially making a scene and my ultimately coming to the conclusion that I should keep thoughts like that to myself, at least in public. Although the memory has stayed with me, the feelings have faded somewhat over time. Meanwhile, the attacks on our democracy from so-called “patriots” have only multiplied and grown more urgent. Yet, the Yankees are the only remaining team in baseball to regularly play “God Bless America” during the seventh-inning stretch of their home games. Even after not one but two disgraced singers had to be removed. Even as a president from their city wreaks havoc. Even during a pandemic that our country has arguably handled worse than any other.

Written by Irving Berlin, a Jewish immigrant whose family escaped Russian pogroms by fleeing to the United States, “God Bless America” was born from good intentions. But when the Yankees’ marquee live-performer, Tynan, admitted to denigrating the religion of the very man who wrote it, and the racist past of the singer for their oft-used recorded version came to light, there should have been a real conversation about making significant changes to their seventh-inning routine. Perhaps they will keep the song, but better acknowledge the flaws in this nation while singing it. It would be nice to see gestures like those we saw on opening day this year during the national anthem displayed more consistently and spread to the stretch as well. 

Even taking Trump out of the equation though, the Yankees have more than enough reason to implement changes. But in case they need some more, Jews have also been by far the most frequently targeted religious group, if not the most frequently targeted group, in the rash of hate crimes under Trump’s watch. This is not the America that Berlin had in mind, but his words are still being used in such a way that downplays attacks on his (and my) religion.

For now, my sights are set on reconsidering the use of “God Bless America.” But the use of the national anthem is another story. Before Trump was even elected, NFL quarterback-turned-civil-rights-activist Colin Kaepernick had the right idea. He started kneeling or sitting when the anthem was played to protest racial injustice. Shortly after beginning his peaceful protests, Kaepernick appeared on the cover of TIME Magazine, accompanied by a promo video acknowledging the struggle inherent in his attempt to redefine patriotism. It was titled, “‘The Perilous Fight.’ That, of course, is a line from our national anthem.” In support of Kaepernick’s actions and just a month before the 2016 election, cornerback Richard Sherman noted that “people are still missing the point…You know, the reason these guys are kneeling and the reason why we’re locking arms is to bring people together and make people aware this is not right.” Reassessing the way we sing the anthem is a huge step towards creating a new type of patriotism. Some have even called for leagues to stop playing it entirely. Perhaps that is the solution for right now, but ultimately, I hope to get to a place where we can sing the anthem and maybe even “God Bless America” while also acknowledging our nation’s faults and working to improve ourselves. This will not be tied up with the blind and fervent nationalism that Donald Trump stands for. It will be linked to a newer, truer kind of patriotism.

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