Football and the Politics of Standing for the National Anthem  

Kevin O'Toole, former senator from the 40th Legislative District, warns legislators to learn from the lessons of former Congressman Dan Rostenkowski, who was indicted for misuse of public funds and aids for personal gain.

I recently went to one of my favorite restaurants, The Belmont Tavern, and as I waited for my table I struck up a friendly conversation with the timeless bartender, Jimmy.  With the TV showing the Yankees taking a commanding lead 8-3 over the Indians (they eventually lost 9-8), and with Frank Sinatra playing on the decades old jukebox, I asked the bartender how this crowd felt about the recent controversy with some NFL players refusing or otherwise not standing for our National Anthem.  

The response – “They hate it and everyone thinks it is disrespectful.” It didn’t take too long before a few customers jumped into the conversation and it was soon apparent that a lot of folks had this topic in their orbits. One particularly incensed customer wearing a baseball cap leaned over and said, “When did football become so political?” – and from that question was born this article.  

This customer went on to state that he could no longer watch a football game and was desperately seeking other distractions for his Sundays. Evidently, he is not the only one with very strong feelings about this latest controversy. According to a recently published poll by Winston Group Survey, the NFL now has the highest unfavorable rating (-40) of any Big Sport. Curiously, in August, well before the controversy more fully developed, the NFL had a 73% – 19% favorable to unfavorable rating.  In one month’s time, after many others, including some owners, jumped into the fray and refused to stand during our national anthem, those money attracting favorables disintegrated. The favorable/unfavorable morphed into an eye- popping 42% – 47% split. For those of us that have seen a poll or two, that evaporation of fan support is unprecedented and doesn’t bode well for the sport. Putting it in perspective of politics, if this were a candidate, we would be searching hard to pull them out and replace them with someone that has a slim chance to actually win – see The Torch.   

To fully appreciate the honest response from the patrons at this restaurant, you need to know what the Belmont Tavern is and who makes up its loyal and faithful customer base.  The restaurant has been around since at least the 1960’s and it is unusually nestled in between the corners of three towns—Belleville, Newark, and Bloomfield.  The restaurant only takes cash and is known for its very eclectic but extremely loyal crowd. The neighborhood is decidedly blue collar and working class.   

The true customers don’t need to consult a menu because chicken savoy, ziti with pot cheese, shrimp peeps and long hot peppers aren’t really hard to remember. I started going to the Belmont in the 80’s and was told some rules early on which tell you something about the place:  

  1. Don’t ask what is in the Savoy  
  2. Don’t ask to replace a bent fork  
  3. Don’t linger and ask for coffee if a crowd is waiting  

While the Belmont has changed a little in the last few decades, one thing that hasn’t changed is the middle of the road Americans that the place attracts. There are doctors and lawyers, many of whom grew up in the neighborhood; there are factory workers and students; law enforcement and firefighters; nurses and teachers – all of whom rub elbows in close proximity to one another without incident or complaints.  The crowd constitutes a true American melting pot with every race being represented.  As such, listening to the patrons of the Belmont is an opportunity to hear how real folks feel about the issues of the day.   

So back to the question of when football become so political. I really don’t know the answer. All I can do, like my friends at the Belmont, is give my opinion based on my own experience.  

I grew up not far from the Belmont in a racially mixed family, with a mom who escaped from North Korea and the brutal conditions of that country. Life wasn’t always so clear for me but I was brought up with a few hard and fast rules: 

  1. Respect your elders and don’t talk back to your parents 
  2. Say please and thank you  
  3. Hold the door for a lady  
  4. Respect your country and the American Flag 

The last one was easy as my dad fought in the Korean War and is a proud Veteran. My father-in-law, Arthur, served over two decades in the Coast Guard, and I have two close relatives currently serving overseas. We pray daily to keep them all safe.   

I understand the argument that we need to talk about societal injustices, and we should readily engage in that dialogue. However, I’m convinced that not standing to honor our flag and country is NOT the way to do it.  In fact, if anything, that disrespectful behavior has detracted from the very discussion the protestors claim they want to have and their conduct has become the focus.     

More to the point, not standing for our National Anthem is an insult and knock to every person who has ever served this wonderful country of ours. Intentionally or otherwise, I think it is also an insult to every foreign-born American (like my mom) who roughed it to get out of whatever unimaginable place/condition they came from because of the hope and opportunities they knew they could have if they could just make it “The Shining City on a Hill” called America. The affront of refusing to stand at attention for our American flag, and with it a refusal to honor our brave men and women, is maddeningly frustrating.  It is a comfort to know that most of middle America is on this very same page.   

Francis Scott Key wrote the words to our beautiful Anthem in 1814. As the story is told to us in Grammar School, he was inspired to write these verses when he saw our American flag still intact after a particularly brutal bombardment by the British at Fort McHenry. After all the wars and battles, bloodshed and loss of lives, how could any person not stand and honor this Anthem? 

For whatever reason, the NFL has condoned and encouraged behavior that is disrespectful to our flag and Anthem. In doing so, it has offended the values so many of us honor and cherish.  I’m not shocked that regular folks, like those at the Belmont, are boycotting games. National unity and pride transcend the momentary enjoyment of sporting events. If the NFL wants to take this path, it should be ready to endure the consequences it has already begun to experience. 

Politics, debate and discourse are one thing, but let’s all at least stand for our country and stand for the National Anthem. 


Kevin O’Toole is Chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and the former State Senator from the 40th Legislative District.

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