Sunday 18 February 2018

Alan Quinlan: I can see US president's issue but sport will always trump politics

Players from the Dallas Cowboys kneel during the national anthem last Monday and (inset) Donald Trump
Players from the Dallas Cowboys kneel during the national anthem last Monday and (inset) Donald Trump
Players from the Dallas Cowboys kneel during the national anthem last Monday. Photo: AP

Alan Quinlan

Read Alan Quinlan every week in the Irish Independent.

We're not going to play politics. We're football players, we're football coaches. We're not participating in the anthem today. Not to be disrespectful to the anthem, but to remove ourselves from this circumstance. People shouldn't have to choose. If a guy wants to go about his normal business and participate in the anthem, he shouldn't have to be forced to choose sides. If a guy feels the need to do something, he shouldn't be separated from his team-mate who chooses not to.

- Mike Tomlin,

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach

There were few moments during my professional career where the scale of an international match had time to hit home, however belting out 'Amhrán na bhFiann' was always a timely reminder of the sacrifices I had made, the people I was representing and the responsibility I had to perform to the best of my ability.

Standing alongside my team-mates as one, irrespective of our provincial backgrounds or political and religious beliefs, our grips tightening around each other as the band headed towards its crescendo; it was always an incredibly intense and emotive time.

The start of 'Amhrán na bhFiann' triggered a barrage of memories of going to GAA games as a youngster and belting out 'The Soliders' Song' with pride. Goosebumps were inevitable.

'Ireland's Call' never ignited the same fires in me, I just didn't have such a deep connection with the song.

During my playing days I was always conscious that when the national anthem was sung, the guys from the North were in a very difficult position. They were playing for a 32-county Ireland, but couldn't sing the national anthem because they would cause a lot of issues for themselves.

While I would have loved for them to sing the anthem too, I never had a problem with it and all of the boys understood their reasons. It was a difficult position for them, they weren't disrespecting the anthem by not singing it, it was just that they couldn't sing it.

If I was in a position of standing before a national anthem and a number of my team-mates wanted to kneel on the ground or not stand, I would feel very strange about it because of my patriotic nature. The singing of the anthems politicises sporting events to some extent, but it's a tradition that I believe should be protected.

Thankfully, there was never a big issue around it with Ireland; we were never in a position where we did or didn't have to sing an anthem, it was always by choice.

The protests that are engulfing American sport at the moment are particularly precarious and it's incredible to see how quickly it has escalated since Donald Trump threw himself into the middle of the debate.

The initial demonstration made by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in August 2016 - to highlight police brutality against black Americans, when he sat during the 'Star Spangled Banner' in a pre-season game - has snowballed since Trump interfered.

Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, 'Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out. He's fired. He's fired!' 

- Donald Trump, US president

While crass in his approach, I understand slightly where the US President is coming from - the flag and the anthem should be respected. However, if politics decides to take on sport as a whole, there is only going to be one winner.

Sport may appear to be fractious and vulnerable due to its deeply-ingrained rivalries but once it comes under attack, the hedgehog spikes come out and the sporting world unites.

When politics gets involved in sport, sport has to be the winner and that was always the situation with the Irish rugby team. A lot of people in the Republic might not have agreed with guys not singing the anthem, and I'm sure there were plenty of people in the North over the years who wouldn't agree with guys playing for a 32-county Ireland, but it didn't stop sport from taking centre stage.

It wasn't like the provincial divisions didn't exist. I remember playing for Munster against Ulster in my earlier days and the divide was palpable at times; you could sense that religion was an issue outside the game, that we were two different people, Protestants and Catholics.

On one occasion an Ulster player said to me: 'Be careful, you're on the wrong side of the border now', and it dawned on me afterwards that it could be a very hostile place to play and that the differences in religion seemed to be at the heart of that.

However, once we got into the Ireland camps together it was never an issue, we'd laugh about it all and when we represented Ireland together I think that sent a powerful message of unity - that's what sport can do.

There was also, of course, a time where the South African rugby team was framed as a symbol of Apartheid - the flag-bearers of an oppressive regime, and sport, although not all at once, was a powerful vessel for spreading the message about the injustices in the nation.

The image of Nelson Mandela presenting the World Cup trophy to Francois Pienaar in 1995 will forever be one of rugby's most poignant and uplifting moments; the healing power of sport broadcast across the globe.

Sport may have its own divisions but when you take it on as a whole, its collective power can be quite incredible, as all of America is finding out.

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