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Sam Coonrod, MLB, and when patriotism is bigotry

When you stand for the national anthem, what are you actually supporting?

San Diego Padres v San Francisco Giants Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

I’d like to start today’s article by asking you to first read something else. A week or so ago, the always brilliant Shakeia Taylor wrote about the recent trend of Major League Baseball players kneeling for the national anthem for Baseball Prospectus, and how it is more performative art than real activism. She’s right, of course.

Still, even that small and insufficient gesture was a bridge too far for some, most epitomized by San Francisco Giants relief pitcher Sam Coonrod. Coonrod says that he won’t kneel during the national anthem because he is a Christian.

After the Dodgers’ 8-1 victory, Coonrod told reporters he cannot support Black Lives Matter and said, as a Christian, the faithful “can’t kneel before anything besides God.”

“I’m a Christian, like I said, and I just can’t get on board with a couple of things that I have read about Black Lives Matter,” Coonrod said. “How they lean toward Marxism and they’ve said some negative things about the nuclear family. I just can’t get on board with that.”

There’s a lot to unpack here - racism and queerphobia hidden behind religion, for starters - but it’s really worth breaking this down.

Now, Coonrod’s statement that he kneels before no one except God might be defensible on its face if not for the openly racist history of the national anthem. Let’s start with the national anthem itself. You probably know that Francis Scott Key wrote the “Star Spangled Banner” during the War of 1812, America’s second war against the British in a half-century. You probably also think you’re reasonably familiar with the words:

Oh, say, can you see, by the dawn’s early light, What so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming? Whose broad stripes and bright stars, thro’ the perilous fight, O’er the ramparts we watch’d, were so gallantly streaming? And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air, Gave proof thro’ the night that our flag was still there. O say, does that star-spangled banner yet waveO’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Seems straightforward enough. The problem is that Key didn’t stop there - in fact, that’s just the first stanza. So let’s continue with what the national anthem says after that (emphasis mine):

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion A home and a country should leave us no more? Their blood has wash’d out their foul footsteps’ pollution. No refuge could save the hireling and slave From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave: And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

In other words, after Key got done bragging about defeating the British, he rather abruptly pivoted to praising the terrorizing and murder of slaves. Yes, our national anthem is that racist.

Like so many of his compatriots, Francis Scott Key, the wealthy American lawyer who wrote “The Star Spangled Banner” in the wake of the Battle of Fort McHenry on 14 September 1814, was a slaveholder who believed blacks to be “a distinct and inferior race of people, which all experience proves to be the greatest evil that afflicts a community.” It goes without saying that Key did not have the enslaved black population of America in mind when he penned the words “land of the free.”

In fact, that racist nature is one reason President Woodrow Wilson declared the “Star Spangled Banner” to be our national anthem.

Wilson undoubtedly was aware of the fact that the anthem is racist. Wilson, whose daughter Margaret Woodrow Wilson performed and recorded “The Star-Spangled Banner,” was deeply committed to white supremacy. He worked to aggressively segregate federal work places, defended efforts to restrict voting for African Americans and believed Black people were happier under slavery. He saw reconstruction—an era of affirmative action for Black people—as not just a mistake, but a shameless aggression against the (white) people of the United States.

Wilson held the first ever film showing in the White House. The movie? None other than “The Birth of a Nation”—the “American classic” that glorifies the Klan. In fact, Wilson was quoted in the movie, “The white men of the South were aroused by the mere instinct of self-preservation to rid themselves, by fair means or foul, of the intolerable burden of governments sustained by the votes of ignorant negroes and conducted in the interest of adventurers.”

In other words, Wilson wanted an anthem which would make plain that among the glories of the United States was the terror imposed by the country against Black people within its borders, which makes Coonrod’s decision to stand and honor it rather, well, un-Christian. After all, the Old and New Testaments are both replete with references to the evils of slavery, with the punishment for enslaving another being death. Frederick Douglass said this on the subject:

Frederick Douglass had this to say: “Between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference—so wide that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ; I therefore hate the corrupt, slave-holding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason but the most deceitful one for calling the religion of this land Christianity…”

Coonrod is wrong for another reason as well. Putting aside the Marxism comment - a purely hyperbolic political statement which deserves no response - let’s look at Coonrod’s comment on the “nuclear family.” What Coonrod is referring to is the movement’s steadfast dedication to being queer-affirming. Specically, Coonrod objects to this:

We make our spaces family-friendly and enable parents to fully participate with their children. We dismantle the patriarchal practice that requires mothers to work “double shifts” so that they can mother in private even as they participate in public justice work.

We disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement by supporting each other as extended families and “villages” that collectively care for one another, especially our children, to the degree that mothers, parents, and children are comfortable.

We foster a queer‐affirming network. When we gather, we do so with the intention of freeing ourselves from the tight grip of heteronormative thinking, or rather, the belief that all in the world are heterosexual (unless s/he or they disclose otherwise).

What Coonrod calls the destruction of the nuclear family is, in fact, nothing more than basic empathy. Black Lives Matter wants LGBTQ+ people to be welcome in the movement. The movement wants extended families and movement building to be a part of empathy. That is, in fact, how empathy works.

In other words, Coonrod is saying that he will not support the fight for Black lives because queer people are welcome in the movement. Coornrod is saying that he won’t kneel because his Christianity says he must honor racism instead of fighting injustice. This isn’t Christianity - it’s homophobia.

Granted, I’m Jewish. But by the same token, it’s attitudes like Coonrod’s that help explain the dearth of Black and queer lives in MLB. To Coonrod and those like him, if you want police to stop killing Black people in cold blood and you’re willing to accept gay neighbors without judgment, you are a Marxist bent on destroying the nuclear family. Bruce Maxwell faced backlash for his protest, but Coonrod received no consequences for his actions.

If Coonrod wants to worship a racist god on his own time, that’s his American right under the First Amendment. Accusing his protesting teammates of being family-destroying Marxists, however, is simply unacceptable. It is difficult, in light of the backlash Maxwell received, to imagine any pro-BLM protesting player facing that little scrutiny.