Do politics and sports mix? Are social, political and economic issues impacted by athletes and sporting events? The sports world is bigger and more powerful than ever. What level of influence do you think athletes play on our culture and our politics? Following an NFL weekend that saw players and teams respond to President Trump’s comments about the league with demonstrations during the anthem, many questions have come to light. There are many views, beliefs and opinions but what about the law and how (or even if) it plays into these types of demonstrations?
Firstly, what’s been happening in the NFL (in case you missed it)? The debate stirred up over players kneeling during the national anthem surfaced last year, when the San Francisco 49ers’ Colin Kaepernick knelt to protest police brutality against African-Americans. The topic reemerged again last week when, during a speech in Alabama, President Trump declared that players like Mr. Kaepernick should be fired. Instead of discouraging the protests, Mr. Trump’s remarks incited them. On Sunday, players nationwide knelt or locked arms in a show of solidarity against the president. The controversy over the NFL and the National Anthem continues, with players kneeling while the White House fumes.
Wait, is this legal? Do players have to stand during the National Anthem? Do I have to stand during the National Anthem? The recent stance by the NFL players about standing for the national anthem is drawing a lot of attention to the customs and legal issues related to a person’s behavior during the anthem’s playing. There are certainly a lot of opinions, discussions and viewpoints around the subject. There is plenty of debate in the public arena about the teams’ and athletes’ decision, the First Amendment, and the behavior of any citizen when the anthem is played, especially in the presence of an American flag.
Today, we’re assessing the legalities. Does the law require us to stand during the National Anthem? The question is: Are players – or anyone else not standing for the National Anthem – breaking the law?
No–at least according to the U.S. Code. In the United States legal code, there are statutes that apply to flag etiquette, the Pledge of Allegiance, and the National Anthem. Currently, these statutes don’t include language that would make it a criminal offense to disobey the guidelines.
The code contains a list of Star-Spangled Banner etiquette. It states:
According to Title 36 (section 171) of the United States Code, “During rendition of the national anthem when the flag is displayed:
(A) individuals in uniform should give the military salute at the first note of the anthem and maintain that position until the last note;
(B) members of the Armed Forces and veterans who are present but not in uniform may render the military salute in the manner provided for individuals in uniform; and
(C) all other persons present should face the flag and stand at attention with their right hand over the heart, and men not in uniform, if applicable, should remove their headdress with their right hand and hold it at the left shoulder, the hand being over the heart; and
(D) when the flag is not displayed, all present should face toward the music and act in the same manner they would if the flag were displayed.
According to legal expects, the key word here is “should.” “Should” is NOT “shall” or “must.” Therefore; it is not considered illegal.
Does this mean there are any penalties?
Nope, no penalty. Section 171 does not specify or impose penalties for violating the section of the code. According to a Congressional Research Service report to Congress in 2008, “The Flag Code is a codification of customs and rules established for the use of certain civilians and civilian groups. No penalty or punishment is specified in the Flag Code for display of the flag of the United States in a manner other than as suggested. Cases … have concluded that the Flag Code does not proscribe conduct, but is merely declaratory and advisory.” The passage is part of the larger U.S Flag Code, which recommends American flag and National Anthem etiquette. Congress has noted, the code “does not prescribe any penalties for non-compliance” and “functions simply as a guide to be voluntarily followed by civilians and civilian groups.”
To sum it up, you won’t be forced to stand for the National Anthem, or hauled off to jail if you don’t. It’s not against the law to sit out the National Anthem, however controversial it might be.
A side note: In Massachusetts, singing the National Anthem, “other than as a whole and separate composition or number, without embellishment or addition … or, as dance music, as an exit march or as a part of a medley of any kind, shall be punished by a fine of not more than one hundred dollars.” Same goes for enforcement here; no one will be arrested for having a National Anthem themed dance party.
What are the rules on respecting the flag?
The United States Code, a collection of all federal laws in the U.S., has a section dedicated to the flag — Title 4, Chapter 1 — sometimes called the “Flag Code.” The Flag Code covers how the flag should be designed, whether it should be used in advertising, and how it should to be displayed, among other relevant topics. The President has the power to change the Flag Code unilaterally at any time.
Penalties for violating the Flag Code are not enforced. In fact, the Supreme Court has found it unconstitutional to prohibit desecrating the flag. Instead, the Flag Code can be considered a list of guidelines for proper conduct regarding the flag.
As the sports world’s debate over national anthem protests continues, here are several ways in which people commonly violate the Flag Code.
- Using the flag on athletic uniforms
Teams in the NFL and other leagues often wear and sell jerseys or other athletic gear featuring the U.S. flag. But as the Flag Code states: “No part of the flag should ever be used as a costume or athletic uniform. However, a flag patch may be affixed to the uniform of military personnel, firemen, policemen, and members of patriotic organizations. The flag represents a living country and is itself considered a living thing. Therefore, the lapel flag pin being a replica should be worn on the left lapel near the heart.”
- Carrying the flag horizontally
During many pregame national anthem ceremonies, a flag is brought out and held over the field. However, the Flag Code says that “the flag should never be carried flat or horizontally, but always aloft and free.”
- Letting the flag touch the ground
Flags are often displayed on football fields and other playing surfaces. But as the Flag Code states, “The flag should never touch anything beneath it, such as the ground, the floor, water, or merchandise.”
Whether players’ pregame protests are disrespectful, a form of free speech, or somewhere in between is a matter of debate. People have their own opinions and thoughts on the subject. But the dispute has raised an important question: What are the rules regarding how Americans should treat the U.S. flag? Now we know!