Although I grew up in England, my parents were Scots, and my dad "coaxed" me into following the Scottish national team. When I was a lad, the Scottish national anthem was the jaunty "Scotland the Brave," but few people knew the words, so they changed it to the more accessible "Flower of Scotland." I stood and sang both with gusto before international soccer games, even though the lyrics are outdated, sentimental tosh. For me, the songs served to set the scene and ramp up the atmosphere before a sporting spectacle. To some Scots currently campaigning for independence from the United Kingdom, I imagine that "Flower of Scotland" holds more significance. Their nation, their choice.
Nowadays, I'm a citizen of the Federal Republic of Germany, which gave me the option of a passport after the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. The lyrics to the German national anthem begin with the words, "Unity, Justice and Freedom." Those are values I can get behind, much more so than some blather about distant wars accompanied by spurious visions of God and regal glory. Of course the lyrics to this anthem weren't always so enlightened, but it does a country good to update its flagship tune every now and then to reflect the changing times. Their anthem, my privilege.
I also lived in the United States for 15 years and had an uneasy relationship with the "The Star-Spangled Banner," and not just because -- like many a challenged pre-game warbler -- I couldn't hit all the notes. I once went to a Smithsonian exhibition devoted to Woody Guthrie, and liked the suggestion that his song "This Land Is Your Land" would make for a perfect U.S. national anthem. "The Star-Spangled Banner" seems more like a rally to war than a homage to a diverse, vibrant and democratic land. Whenever it was played in the stadium prior to a Major League Soccer game, I did my best to be preoccupied with a beer and a hot dog on the stadium concourse. Your anthem, my choice.
I never did understand, though, why the anthem had to be played before every single domestic game in a league that featured multiple nationalities. And not just in MLS. They used to blare it through the loud speakers at my neighborhood pool before my daughter's diving meets. She was 6 at the time. There was something quite unsettling at the sight of swim-wear suburbanites clambering up off their towels and deck-chairs on a Sunday afternoon to stand erect, dripping with sweat and sun lotion, in order to pay obeisance to the flag. (It also raised the question -- should I hold my ice cream to my heart? I opted to stay on the sun-lounger and was cussed out as a "low-life" by a gentleman nearby. I said nothing, reasoning that my daughter's diving meet wasn't the place for a discussion. His anthem, my choice.)
I welcome the decision of U.S. Soccer to rescind its no-kneeling policy during the national anthem. I'm only astonished that the ruling existed in the first place, depriving athletes of a choice and therefore their freedom. Dissent does not harm a strong democracy, it can only strengthen it. Dissent sews discussion, which leads to new policies and thinking, and opens up the possibility of progress. Today's protests are tomorrow's history.
In his Devil's Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce defined a patriot as "the dupe of statesmen and the tool of conquerors." There's an alternative to that cynical take -- patriots can be people brave enough to take a stance when the establishment (U.S. Soccer or the NFL, say) is legislating against their freedom of self-expression, and when flags are being histrionically waved in lieu of rational debate. Dissenters -- from abolitionists to suffragettes to civil rights activists -- want change to benefit the majority in their country. It seems an obvious point, but that makes them patriots.
The United States is big enough, old enough and strong enough to embrace protest and dissent. Stand up during your anthem to celebrate what you believe to be great. Or celebrate the fact that you have the freedom to do the opposite. One anthem, two choices.