The State of Aloha

The National Football League is the best melodrama on television geared toward American men. Every year, the NFL — or rather the coverage of the NFL — manages to create a lot drama and get a lot of folks talking (and ranting) at work, around the dinner table and especially on social media.

First you had the season of domestic violence when allegations and evidence of players beating their family members came to light. And before that it was concussions. But this year has got to be my favorite football-related distraction that has nothing to do with football itself: the national anthem.

Blame Colin Kaepernick if you want. It started during a preseason game when the then-quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers sat on the bench while the national anthem was played in the stadium. Later, he switched from sitting on the bench to kneeling. Kaepernick said the change in position acknowledged men and women serving the United States military, while still protesting at the same time.

Before we get any further, by the way, it’s important to note something about sports and the national anthem. We are in the minority of countries that play its national anthem before a sporting event. You certainly won’t hear “God Save the Queen” when the local and domestic soccer matches are played in England. Nor will you hear anthems throughout Europe (unless the national team plays and then both countries have their anthems streamed on a recording throughout the stadium).

This tradition of saluting the flag and singing the national anthem is found really only in North America. Playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” before a game first started in the late 19th century at baseball games on the East Coast. That was even before the song officially became the national anthem in 1931.

And on the gridiron, the NFL commissioner started the tradition after the second World War when he ordered that it be played prior to all official games. Presumably the tradition has trickled down to high school games and spread to other sports. Over the decades, the playing of the national anthem became associated with patriotism and — to borrow the words from Superman — the American way.

So by the time Kaepernick started to sit out while a pop star or some other singer belted out our bellicose lyrics of “bombs bursting in air,” more than a few people were appalled.

Kaepernick had his reasons. “I’m not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” he said just before the start of the 2016 season. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.” He started to grow an Afro, too.

And in this season more and more players started to kneel. Even our media-loving president got in on it and lambasted players for daring to express themselves before playing America’s favorite game. (He would probably prefer China’s approach, where gravely insulting the national anthem of the People’s Republic could land you in prison for three years.)

Out here in Hawaii, it’s been pretty quiet when it comes to sitting out or refusing to stand for the national anthem. Maybe it’s because we don’t have an NFL team. Or maybe it’s because our other anthem — the anthem of the State of Hawaii — is loved too much.

“Hawaii Pono’i” is played immediately after the national anthem at sporting events and other public ceremonies. It’s more than our state’s official song. It was written by King David Kalakaua in the 1870s commemorating the unification of the islands under Kamehameha in 1810. It became the anthem for the Hawaiian Kingdom and continued to be the anthem for the short Republic of Hawaii and was a song during the territorial period, too. In 1967, it officially became the state’s song.

Unlike the national anthem, “Hawaii Pono’i” is the only song played before a canoe regatta. In a lot of ways, it’s a means of respecting not only the state, but the long and often sad history that preceded statehood. It is a nod to the very real fact that we are living in a former kingdom. Perhaps that’s why folks haven’t really protested the song that is played before Kalakaua’s.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial lawyer who grew up on Maui. His email is “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”