I received lots of very kind emails about my recollections of what I said at the 9/11 service at Yankee Stadium on Sept. 24, 2001. Among them was this heartfelt critique from J in Suffolk County about my quote from the Masai tribe, “Sticks in a bundle are unbreakable. Sticks alone can be broken by a child.”
He wrote: I do believe that standing together for a just cause can do more than one individual can. The thing is, one individual has the right to think and believe any way he or she wants without interference as long as it does not hurt or oppress others. Sometimes the lone person is trying to tell those with closed ears and minds something very important — that our bundle must be related to the truth.
My reply: The huge question we as humans have grappled with since we began to think and believe is this: What is your bundle? The Masai got it right, and alone we are all vulnerable to the predations of our savage world. We are just sticks alone, we are just zeb, rightras facing lions.
You are also right that choosing just any bundle will not do. We must be bundled not just to each other but also to the truth, which in my view comes from both reason and God. The Nazis bundled millions of Germans into a murderous mob filled with genocidal hate. The problem therefore is to carefully evaluate the moral virtue of your bundle, and if it falls short of its ideals, to speak and act in such a way as to return it to its collective virtue.
If that fails, the prophetic individual has no choice but to rebundle himself or herself. Expats do that with their national identity by changing countries. Converts do that with their religious identity by changing religions. And athletes who do not stand for the national anthem have done that with their athletic identity. OK, I admit tying Colin Kaepernick’s kneel-down protest before a football game to the Masai tribe’s saying about sticks in a bundle may seem like a stretch, but stay with me here.
Sports is a way we are bundled into our culture. It is warm and comforting and occasionally joyous to know that people who may be unlike you in every other way are bundled up with you in your love of your team. However, sports teams are bundles without moral significance and this is why standing and singing the national anthem before every sporting event is so very important.
Standing is a secular ritual affirming that there is something that bundles us together that is bigger and better, larger and more important and compelling than ourselves or our team. We remove our team hats and sing the song that symbolically bundles us into team America. After the anthem we can revert to our team’s tribalism.
Kaepernick’s, and now sadly other sympathetic athletes who kneel, make a clear and unmistakable and divisive statement that they are no longer a part of the American bundle, and that their largest identity is the team. Kaepernick’s mistake is that the anthem is not about what America does. The anthem is about what America is. America does good and bad, just and unjust things, but America is a beacon of light and hope to the world, and America is our bundle.
It is also profoundly sad to see an American sports figure lose track of the connection between sports and America. Professional sports is precisely the venue where the best in America has asserted itself. One can argue that Jackie Robinson is the most significant American of our time because he brought racial diversity not just to the Dodgers, but eventually, after much struggle, to America.
America has failed to live up to its values in many ways, but providing equal rewards for equal performance in professional sports regardless of race is not one of America’s failures. It is one of America’s most important successes.
One can be a prophet while standing. One can work for change while also affirming the greatness of our national bundle and the sacrifices made to keep the bundle intact over the years.