Ford: Pre-game anthem is a dubious habit

When you consider the way our national anthem has become the sporting equivalent of a station identification over the years - a ubiquitous piece of business to be scheduled, performed and forgotten - the real surprise isn't that San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick would think something positive or negative during its playing, but that he would be thinking anything at all.

Kaepernick sat through the playing of the anthem before Friday's exhibition game between the 49ers and Packers. He said he had thought about making some sort of silent protest concerning the treatment of minorities in the United States for some time, and apparently also sat during the anthem the previous week, although no one noticed.

That tells you what you need to know about the solemn nature of most anthem renditions before sporting events. Paying attention is not required. Fans shift on their feet, forget to remove their hats, surreptitiously check their phones again, take a swig of soda, and wait it out. Again, this is most of the time and most of the people. If you feel differently, and never, ever waver in your laserlike focus on the flag, that's a significant level of patriotism, if that is how you choose to define it, but you are not the norm.

"To me, this is bigger than football," Kaepernick said in part, and he is right that the important issues and challenges facing the country, regardless of which side one takes, are bigger than football. But it could also be suggested that the national anthem should be bigger than football, too, at least bigger than an August exhibition game of no particular meaning. What exactly about that trivial event is worthy of being introduced by the playing of a song that commemorates a moment in which the nation's independence was in the balance?

Still, it is played. It is played before nearly every game, in nearly every sport, at nearly every level where there is a public address system. Why is that? "Habit" is the best answer. That and the unspoken belief that the two minutes it takes to perform the anthem is less trouble than dealing with the blowback were the anthem not played to consecrate each game, no matter how insignificant.

Most historians trace the playing of the song at sporting events to the 1918 World Series, when a military band on hand to honor World War I veterans played an unscripted version during the seventh-inning stretch. The fans liked it and the tradition began, but only for special events. To use a baseball analogy, if there was bunting on the facades of the stadium, the song was likely. "The Star-Spangled Banner" wasn't even declared the national anthem until an act of Congress in 1931, and didn't become an everyday staple at games until World War II, with baseball wrapping itself in the flag as it carried on its business.

The habit has ossified by now and it isn't going to change. Maybe the anthem should be reserved for special occasions. Maybe it shouldn't. The argument can be made reasonably both ways, but the argument no longer matters. The anthem is going to be played at sporting events, maybe as often as "Don't Stop Believin'."

Here's what that means, however. If you conflate sports with patriotism, you have to allow the gods on that particular altar to have their say about the whole thing, and to have a large platform upon which to do so. That is the opportunity Kaepernick is apparently taking. Last month, he posted a video to Instagram that showed a fatal confrontation between a Louisiana man and police, and wrote, "This is what lynching looks like in 2016." That post got some attention, obviously, but it was nothing - not even close - compared to the attention he received for quietly sitting during the rote repetition of the anthem before a meaningless game.

"I am not looking for approval," Kaepernick said.

He's not going to get much, either, aside from a grudging admission from the NFL and the 49ers that he is within his rights to express himself. Beyond that, the societal issues he references are so complex, with so much misunderstanding, mistrust and missed opportunity for real dialogue, it seems likely his message will merely be swallowed up by the wind like the final note of a song played so often that nobody notices it when it fades.

O, say, we do see. We just don't hear each other anymore.

bford@phillynews.com

@bobfordsports