On Gabe Kapler and my personal journey back to the national anthem (2024)

PHILADELPHIA — Before his team’s game against the Philadelphia Phillies on June 1, San Francisco Giants manager Gabe Kapler sat in the visitors dugout doing his routine pregame meeting with reporters. The last five days had been intense. In the wake of the shooting of 19 schoolchildren in Uvalde, Texas, Kapler said, he would remain in the clubhouse during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” to protest the inaction and cowardice of politicians to enact gun control and gun safety legislation.

“I don’t plan on coming out for the anthem going forward until I feel better about the direction of our country,” Kapler told reporters in Cincinnati.

Kapler did stand for the anthem on Memorial Day out of respect for veterans, but since then, including the June 1 game, Kapler remained in the dugout.

Given the conservative nature of baseball, the response to Kapler’s protest has been surprisingly supportive. Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts tweeted his support for Kapler, and Giants president of baseball operations, Farhan Zaidi, has supported him as well.

By contrast, former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick has remained unemployed since kneeling during the national anthem in 2016.

“Without making any comparisons,” Kapler said, referring to Kaepernick, “I’m pleased that important conversations are being had. They’re being had around the industry; they’re being had in our cities. Baseball players, major league managers, coaches — they reside in cities and what they say tends to spill out into the community and more important conversations happen. So, I think that’s what is on my mind most.”

I asked Kapler if he was surprised by the relative absence of widespread criticism. (Chicago White Sox manager Tony La Russa said Kapler’s protest was not appropriate.)

“I’m glad we’re in an environment in this moment where hard conversations are taking place,” Kapler said.

On Gabe Kapler and my personal journey back to the national anthem (1)

Kapler’s stance and using the anthem as a vehicle to make a statement reminded me, in some ways, of my personal journey with the anthem. Kapler and I have taken different approaches to hold the nation accountable. He has chosen to remain seated in the dugout while the anthem is being played.

A few months ago, I made the decision to once again stand for the anthem.

Over the last 45 years, I have listened to hundreds of national anthems performed before sporting events — Super Bowls, World Series, NBA and WNBA Finals. The national anthem has been a primary accoutrement of sporting events since the 1940s.

But during the last several seasons, I did something similar to what Kapler is doing: I made a point of discreetly disappearing as the anthem was played. This was my own private protest, my anger about our nation’s hypocrisy, its violence against Black Americans and the never-ending struggle to make this country live up to its founding ideals.

That all changed for me on Jan. 6, 2021, when rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol to stop the certification of a legitimate election. There were several U.S. flags interspersed with Donald Trump flags and even Confederate flags. At that moment, I saw a wildly different version of patriotism, one that did not include me. I also realized that I had allowed a segment of the population to hijack patriotism.

In keeping arm’s length from the flag and even the anthem, I had inadvertently given away a piece of my birthright as an American citizen. With it, I had given up a piece of myself.

During this year’s Super Bowl, I vowed to take it back.

Whether I stand or sit, I am aware of having dual citizenship: one in Black America, the other in mainstream America, whose flag is the Stars and Stripes and whose anthem is “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

“It does, psychologically, make you feel homeless,” said Micah Johnson, an assistant professor of mental health law and policy at the University of Southern Florida. “There are some real, tangible benefits of feeling like you belong.”

Four years ago, Johnson published a paper titled The Paradox of Black Patriotism: Double Consciousness.

During his two-year project,Johnson spoke to several African Americans about patriotism, about the ambivalence many had toward the United States and its primary symbols: the flag and the national anthem.

Many were justifiably reluctant to embrace the flag and the anthem because of the pain and sorrow that many who embrace those symbols have inflicted in thename of their patriotism.

“A group of people has successfully marketed themselves as the real Americans,” Johnson said. “They have done such a good job of branding the flag in a way that excluded you.”

Who is “they”? I asked.

“I think it’s white people in general who brand white men as the symbol of patriotism,” Johnson said. “This is the embodiment of what America means: a white man. That’s how it’s been for years. White folks have done an incredible job at branding patriotism as a white male conservative.”

Johnson calls this “hegemonic patriotism.” He explained that hegemonic patriotism “casts whites as exclusively the true Americans, responsible for all the nation’s greatness and none of its failures. These meanings imply that Black people are abnormal, illegitimate, uncivilized and un-American.”

“White folks have completely co-opted and owned this thing of patriotism,” Johnson said.

On Gabe Kapler and my personal journey back to the national anthem (2)

I have consistently rejected the definition of patriotism others have imposed around the flag. But there is an emotional cost of not fully embracing the land of my birth, the land where three generations of my family fought and served.

“There is some currency in really feeling like you belong,” Johnson said.

When he hears the national anthem, Johnson said, he thinks “of all my friends who are soldiers. I think that this is a place where I belong. I’m proud of this place. I’m not proud of the inequities but I’m proud that this is my space.

“If we deny patriotism, then essentially, we’re countryless. That’s not fair. That’s not true. We built it.”

A number of years ago, I came across my grandfather’s Army discharge papers dated March 17, 1919. William H. Rhoden initially enlisted in the Army in November 1895. He reenlisted seven more times before receiving his honorable discharge. My father served in the Navy, each of my uncles were Army officers, and a cousin spent nearly 30 years in the Air Force.

“If you reject patriotism,” Johnson reminded me, “you reject a tremendous number of contributions that Black folks have made to building this thing.”

In his study, Johnson asked subjects he interviewed to describe the moment in their lives when they were proudest of their country or felt deep national pride.

My moment came in 1992 at the Olympic Games in Barcelona, Spain. I was surprised how I reacted when the U.S. Olympic team entered the stadium during the opening ceremony. There was chest-swelling pride: This was my country.

Then during the 2016 season, Kaepernick began kneeling each time the anthem was played; I began disappearing from the press box.

Now, I’m back. It’s amazing how much soul-searching and conflict can be squeezed into those three minutes. I look at the flag, listen to the lyrics, look around the stadium and look down at players, some with hands over their hearts.

“I think about soldiers, friends that served,” Johnson said. “I think about Civil War and all the nasty stuff that had to happen to us for us to be able to flex our muscle as people of color — as Black people, as Black men.”

Many African Americans have fashioned a certain brand of patriotism that allows us to love the country, with all of its imperfections, while pushing to make it better.

Patriotism means making the nation accountable to its own lofty vision of itself as a vibrant, diverse democracy.

Some, like Kaepernick, push for social justice by kneeling. Some, like Kapler, push for sensible, lifesaving gun control by sitting.

I push by standing, not to celebrate what the country is, but in anticipation of what it can be.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.

On Gabe Kapler and my personal journey back to the national anthem (2024)


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