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Let's Get This Game Started
This is America.
Like everyone else, I’d never heard of Olympic hammer-thrower Gwen Berry until everyone was forced to hear about her ad nauseam last month, after she protested the national anthem at Tokyo’s track-and-field trials. The moment had caught her off guard, because the athletes were expecting the anthem to play either before or after, but not during, their medal ceremony. Berry was, in her words, “pissed,” convinced that it had been done “on purpose.” (In fact, it was about the same time the anthem had been played every other night, but heaven forbid facts should intrude, here.) Pictures show her pointedly turning away as it began to play, then draping a black “Activist Athlete” T-shirt over her head as it drew to a close, in case we missed the memo. On Instagram, she posted a shot of herself caught mid-sulk, hand on hip, captioning it, “I said what I said... I meant what I said..STOP PLAYING WITH ME!! PERIOD!”
As a black woman, Berry feels the anthem “does not speak” for her “and never has.” In this story, she points to the anthem’s allegedly racist original third verse (which nobody knows or recognizes today anyway, but which in fact allows for multiple interpretations). “I never said that I hated the country,” she says. “All I said was I respect my people enough to not stand or acknowledge something that disrespects them.” Asked whether she’ll behave similarly during the international games, she said, “We’ll see. It just depends on how I’m feeling and what I want to do in that moment.”
In fairness to Berry, she shouldn’t be accused of fishing for sponsorship deals out of this, given that her 2019 protest gestures resulted in probation and lost sponsorships that left her in financial straits. Though, granted, she may have rightly calculated that the tide has turned, and in fact the activist group Color of Change has been only too willing to leap forward and ink a new deal with her. (Whether this will be affected by her newly unearthed “problematic tweets,” nobody knows. At this point, as Bo Winegard commented to me on Twitter, I’m afraid as a society we are “spiraling into a social-media spawned stupidity singularity.”)
Feelings of conflict around the national anthem are not new in the black community. Berry’s original fist-raising move in 2019 was a direct nod to the iconic moment at the 1968 Olympics when Tommie Smith and John Carlos made the Black Power salute. She clearly sees herself in a long tradition. A tradition which has included not only controversial figures like Carlos and Smith, but universally loved icons like Jackie Robinson. In his autobiography, he famously wrote about the first game of his first world series:
There I was, the black grandson of a slave, the son of a black sharecropper, part of a historic occasion, a symbolic hero to my people. The air was sparkling. The sunlight was warm. The band struck up the national anthem. The flag billowed in the wind. It should have been a glorious moment for me as the stirring words of the national anthem poured from the stands. Perhaps it was, but then again perhaps the anthem could be called the theme song for a drama called The Noble Experiment. Today as I look back on that opening game of my first world series, I must tell you that it was Mr. Rickey’s drama and that I was only a principal actor. As I write this twenty years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made.
Unlike Berry, Robinson had the excuse that he had been forced to excel in a white-dominated sport in the face of direct, intense racial prejudice. It is at least psychologically understandable that he should have channeled his pain and resentment as he did, though even for him that pain was not unmixed with egotism. (“Mr. Rickey” is Branch Rickey, the man who made the decision to sign Robinson and thereby break baseball’s color barrier. It is curious and significant that this was how Robinson remembered Rickey’s role in hindsight.)
But it must be said, and it downplays historic racism not a whit to say it, that through the decades numerous black Americans have simply not shared this sentiment. In fact, one of the most iconic moments in US sporting history hinged on a black man’s pride in being able to, if not sing the anthem, at least recite the words loudly.
In 2001, Mo Cheeks was hired as head coach of the Portland Trail Blazers. As a player, he had always been content to play second fiddle, resting his reputation on a career in defense. In 1983, he had averaged 12.5 points, enough to put him in a modest fourth place well behind the top three scorers on the champion Sixers. Twenty years later, when the Blazers faced the Dallas Mavericks on April 25, 2003, he was able to provide the ultimate assist.
The anthem that day was to be sung by 13-year-old contest winner Natalie Gilbert. She woke up on the big morning with the flu, but this being an age when people still went about their business while having the flu, she put on her dress, did her hair, and showed up anyway. After practicing in the car and singing through the piece five times flawlessly in rehearsal, she took the mike in front of the crowd, national television cameras rolling, and promptly choked. After substituting “starlight” for “twilight” in “twilight’s last gleaming,” she realizes she has slipped and freezes, unable to recover. Then-Blazers PG Damon Stoudamire later recalled, “You’re listening to the National Anthem with your eyes closed and then it paused. So you look up and you see that she’s so young that you feel bad. Sometimes when people mess up, you laugh. But she was so young that you said dang.”
This is the part where Mo Cheeks comes in. “Come on, come on,” he says, moving swiftly to her side. “Starlight’s last gleaming…” he repeats, but at this moment in time it doesn’t matter. As Natalie starts again, haltingly, he feeds her the rest line by line, unable to carry the tune in a bucket, but unflappable. Midway through, he waves his hand, inviting the audience to join in. The camera pans around as she sings and he anti-sings. The bombs burst in air. A young black player nods, getting into it. An older black man, who looks like he could be sixty if not more, moves his lips and lifts his eyes.
They finish, to a standing ovation. Mo gives her a hug, then makes his way back, to high-fives and congratulations. Back at his spot, he pumps his fist.
The Blazers would go on to lose the game and the series. It marked the beginning of a long slump for the team. They wouldn’t recover for years. Cheeks went on to have an up-and-down career of his own. But to this day, he’s remembered for that one moment in 2003, that moment of bonding between a nervous little white girl and a black man who absolutely, positively could not sing.
“I didn’t know I would do that,” Mo reflected, over a decade later. “Many people said, ‘I didn’t know you’d do something like that.’ I just smile. I didn’t know, either.”
This is America. Let’s get this game started.