Fans were much more attentive in the minutes before the game, at least in the seating areas. On a large, wide walkway at the open end of the New England Patriots’ Gillette Stadium directly overlooking the field, several dozen fans ambled around during the anthem, indifferent to the song or the presentation of the flag by a color guard on the field.
At MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., a steady flow of men entered and exited the restroom during the anthem, though it was audible through the concourse. Of the hundreds who passed near the aisle leading to Sections 103 and 104, a tiny percentage stopped, removed their hats and held their hands on their hearts. People in concession lines continued their transactions.
At AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Tex., where the Dallas Cowboys were playing the Los Angeles Rams, many fans raised their arms during the anthem — some in a fist as a sign of protest, perhaps, but far more holding a cellphone high to better record what the players were doing.
Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers wryly noted the contradictions inherent in the anthem-respect debate when he posted a photograph on Instagram last week, showing photographers crouched at the feet of Rodgers and his teammates, aiming cameras at them.
“I can’t imagine what kind of social media attacks these cameramen must be enduring after taking a knee during the anthem and wearing a hat,” Rodgers wrote.
If nothing else, an air of anticipation surrounds the anthem now, whether borne of patriotism or of curiosity.
But as part of the game-day experience, the anthem has always meant different things to different people. For some, it is something to cherish; for others, something to endure. For most, it is the biggest signal that the game is about to start.
Until the past couple of weeks, the anthem was rarely seen by television viewers; it was a time for broadcasters to show commercials. At stadiums, seats are usually not yet full.
The anthem itself is a two-minute pause amid the anticipation of a violent game, and guidelines for decorum are mostly unwritten and local. Many fans use the lyrics to express home-team allegiances. Kansas City fans shout that theirs is the home of the “Chiefs!” rather than “the brave” at the end of the song. It is not uncommon for individuals to pierce the pauses between lines to express love for the home team or disdain for the visitors. Imagine a player doing that.
The United States Code, in Title 4, Chapter 1, provides standards for presenting and respecting the American flag. They are not enforceable. After all, in Texas v. Johnson in 1989, the Supreme Court upheld the First-Amendment right to burn the flag.
The code states that military personnel should stand at attention and salute when the flag is raised, lowered, or when it passes, and others “should face the flag and stand at attention with their right hand over the heart, or if applicable, remove their headdress with their right hand and hold it at the left shoulder, the hand being over the heart.”
If you have been to an N.F.L. stadium, you have probably noticed many in the crowd doing that. You have probably noticed plenty of others not.
The current controversy began last year when one of the N.F.L’s roughly 1,700 players sat for the national anthem. The player, quarterback Colin Kaepernick, soon shifted to kneeling instead of sitting, and he was clear about his motivation: To call attention to racial injustice, including a string of killings of unarmed African-Americans by the police.
His position — the physical one, at least — angered many Americans. Critics said his mere posture was the ultimate sign of disrespect.
Yet as he knelt, Kaepernick faced the flag and solemnly kept his gaze ahead. He appeared to pay attention to the proceedings. He was not on his phone, he was not in a beer line, he was not chewing on nachos — all things that occur countless times during an anthem at just about any sporting event in this country.
Still, the cause has remained at the forefront of the national discourse, as President Trump again trumpeted the issue through the weekend, beginning with a tweet on Saturday evening.
“Very important that NFL players STAND tomorrow, and always, for the playing of our National Anthem,” he wrote. “Respect our Flag and our Country!”
So what counts as appropriate, and who decides? What if your hands are full because you do not have a place to set your hot dogs? What if your hat is part of the costume and cannot be removed easily? One man in at the Atlanta Falcons’ game on Sunday wore a red, white and blue mask over his face during the anthem, raising the question of whether a wrong can ever be a right.
Can you scratch an itch? Take a sip? Look at a text? Can you nod at the beer vendor so that he’ll sell you a drink when the song is over?
What if you are on the concourse, out of view of the field? Can you keep walking? Can you continue to use the urinal if you hear the anthem through the bathroom doors?
Is the most important part to “stand,” or to be “at attention?” Because Kaepernick, and most who have knelt since, broke only one of these quasi-rules.
Many — including the president, most pointedly — have criticized the N.F.L. for creating the debate by not requiring players to stand at attention. Others suggest that the flap would not have arisen had the N.F.L. not required teams to be on the field for the anthem, a mandate that began in 2009.
The sports world’s trend toward big productions often overwhelms out the nobility and solemnity of the anthem. For example, the code also says that the flag “should never be carried flat or horizontally.” The code does not specify if it is appropriate for a flag 100 yards long to be held parallel to the ground, or shaken by the people holding it when the anthem gets to lyric “that star-spangled banner yet wave,” and then wadded up hastily to make way for a game about to start.
The code states that the flag should not be worn as a costume, but “a flag patch may be affixed to the uniform of military personnel, fire fighters, police officers, and members of patriotic organizations.” The N.F.L., apparently, has deemed itself one of those, as U.S. flag decals adorning the back of player helmets.
It can be hard to know what counts as right anymore, and opinions are about as numerous as fans themselves. Some Jets fans at MetLife Stadium Stadium wore green T-shirts reading “I stand for the national anthem.” Plenty of others around the nation wore replicas of Kaepernick’s No. 7 with the 49ers.
In Baltimore, fans and players mostly stood in solemn respect during the anthem. Before it started, however, the Ravens knelt together to pray for “kindness, unity, equality and justice for all Americans.”
The players were booed by fans — those who were not making a last-minute stop for the bathroom or a beer, at least, before kickoff.