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Region's school districts, high school leagues have guidelines in place for playing of anthem

Members of the Cleveland Browns stand and kneel during the "Star-Spangled Banner" before the start of their game against the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday, Sept. 25, at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. Thomas J. Russo / USA TODAY Sports

FARGO—It's becoming America's latest spectator sport: Watching who stands or kneels during the national anthem at sporting events.

The latest chapter in the ongoing debate over patriotism was brought about by President Donald Trump when he criticized the NFL for refusing to punish players who knelt or sat during "The Star-Spangled Banner" before games.

At a Republican rally Friday, Sept. 22, in Huntsville, Ala., the president asked a crowd if they'd "love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, 'Get that son of a b---- off the field right now. Out. He's fired. He's fired!"

What the president got instead was a show of solidarity from players and team owners this past Sunday, Sept. 24.

The Minnesota Vikings owners and senior managers stood on the field and locked arms with the players during the anthem. Other teams simply didn't take the field for the anthem or some players knelt during it.

The protests were a quiet but pointed rebuke of the president's words, which were interpreted to be an attempt to quash players' First Amendment rights to protest.

The issue first came to the fore when quarterback Colin Kaepernick first sat out the national anthem during a preseason game in August 2016 to protest police brutality and social injustice.

Since then, such protests have become more commonplace.

Anthem wasn't common

Americans take it for granted that college and professional teams will have "The Star-Spangled Banner" played or sung before each contest.

However, that wasn't always so.

The national anthem had been played at baseball games since the 1860s.

But it really caught on thanks to what happened in the first game of the 1918 World Series, as World War I raged overseas, said a 2011 report by ESPN The Magazine.

The New York Times reported on Sept. 6, 1918, that the anthem was played by a military band during the seventh-inning stretch of the first game between the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox.

On the field at the time was Red Sox third baseman Fred Thomas, who was on furlough from the Navy. Upon hearing the opening notes of "The Star-Spangled Banner," Thomas immediately faced the flag and snapped to attention with a military salute. The other players on the field followed suit, in "civilian" fashion, standing with their right hands over their hearts. The crowd, already standing, joined in a spontaneous sing-along, haltingly at first, then finishing with flair.

For the next two games, the Cubs front office had the band play the anthem during the seventh-inning stretch. Not to be outdone, the Red Sox ratcheted up the pageantry in Boston for the next three games, and the anthem was moved to the pregame festivities.

Other major league teams noticed the popular reaction, and over the next decade it became standard for the World Series and holiday games. In subsequent years, it grew into the daily institution we know today, ESPN reported.

No flags on decorum

An NFL spokesman told Time magazine that the league's operations manual says the anthem must be played prior to every NFL game, and all players must be on the sideline for the anthem, the magazine reported Monday, Sept. 25.

During the anthem, players on the field and bench area should stand at attention, face the flag, hold helmets in their left hand and refrain from talking. The home team should ensure that the American flag is in good condition.

"It should be pointed out to players and coaches that we continue to be judged by the public in this area of respect for the flag and our country. Failure to be on the field by the start of the national anthem may result in discipline, such as fines, suspensions, and/or the forfeiture of draft choice(s) for violations of the above, including first offenses," the policy states.

However, the story says it's important to note the use of the word "may."

The NFL is not considering fining players or teams who choose to kneel or stay in the locker room during the anthem, the spokesperson said.

Common at local events

Fargo, West Fargo and Moorhead public schools all have the anthem played at varsity events that have a public address system, or hire an announcer, spokespersons for the districts said.

Fargo and West Fargo schools also have similar patriotic exercises policies.

Fargo's policy "recognizes that the beliefs of some students and teachers prohibit their participation in these patriotic exercises. No person shall be required to salute, stand or otherwise participate in this exercise if it is against his/her beliefs. All persons, however, are expected to show respect to the flag and to the participation of others in the exercise."

The North Dakota High School Activities Association has no requirement for schools to play the anthem prior to athletic contests, but recognizes it is a long-standing tradition, Executive Director Matthew Fetsch said in an email.

Fetsch said the NDHSAA doesn't have specific regulations that address coaches or players on the anthem, as those are determined at the local school level.

The only reference the association has to the anthem is listing "respect the American flag and the national anthem" in its minimal behavior expectations, Fetsch said.

Minnesota State High School League policy also calls for respect for the flag and the anthem during competitions, but otherwise lets schools and districts handle the matter, Communications Coordinator Tim Leighton said Monday, Sept. 25.

"The high school league does not require its member schools to play the national anthem before a contest," Leighton said. That is a decision for schools and districts, he said.

The MSHSL sent out a letter Aug. 30 to athletic directors with guidance on how to handle player protests during the anthem, Leighton said.

The MSHSL reminded ADs and coaches that sitting or kneeling during the anthem is a protected First Amendment right.

Coaches are urged to discuss the issue with administrators before broaching the topic with their teams. Coaches are also urged to tell their teams not to react to what other teams may do during the anthem, the letter said. And if a coach believes a player may engage in a protest, they may consider asking for the team member to give them a heads-up before acting.

"Ultimately, we must all be open to conversations about this issue and other sensitive topics. There are many diverse opinions each of us can learn from," the letter said.

Helmut Schmidt

Helmut Schmidt was born in Germany, but grew up in the Twin Cities area, graduating from Park High School of Cottage Grove. After serving a tour in the U.S. Army, he attended the University of St. Thomas in St Paul, Minn., graduating in 1984 with a degree in journalism. He then worked at the Albert Lea (Minn.) Tribune and served as managing editor there for three years. He joined The Forum in October 1989, working as a copy editor until 2000. Since then, he has worked as a reporter on several beats, including education, Fargo city government, business and military affairs. He is currently The Forum's K-12 education reporter.

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