I really think the NFL could solve this problem right now. The owners and players would just agree to go back to the way it was and have the players stay in their locker rooms until after the Anthem is played. The fans can stand and sing, or stand reverently if they can’t sing, or stand or sit distractedly, or do whatever the heck they want just like before all this started and get back to not thinking about what they would rather not think about on their weekend of diversion. The players could stand or kneel or (see above), while they watch it on the monitors.
The fans would miss out on seeing the players perform the ritual of unity before the contest begins. And give up on insisting they perform like automatons.
The players would give up the opportunity to make a public demonstration of their convictions, having now a made point of their sense of emergency. But they would gain something too. Their protest could very well change how we view, and what we demand of patriotism. It would show us that we must set aside this weird thing of requiring ritual behavior. It would once again insist on the maxim, “Without free choice there is no virtue.”
We have a unique American identity that is tied in many ways to “You can’t tell me what to do.” If our founders went to such great lengths to build this notion into our Constitution when facing religious imperatives in colonial America, why can’t we also see the problem with requiring these other things today, those that abjectly force us to behave a certain way. They are just another kind of imperative; a patriotic one.
I realize the ritual of unity that takes place before the great contest is important. But the rule requiring players to stand on the sideline during the Anthem only started in the NFL in 2009, after the trauma of the Gulf War. College teams largely have their players sit in the locker room only to emerge with great fanfare after. It works pretty well for them.
The post game gathering of opposing teams is much more significant for me anyway. A word of congratulations or encouragement, a bro-hug that re-unites the adversaries, and the picture they provide for us of seeing them as adversaries and not enemies.