Of course there’s no way to quantify this, but it’s entirely possible that I’ve heard our national anthem played more than anybody else on this earth.

Maybe that’s hyperbole, but consider. As a sportswriter since roughly 1980, I’ve covered thousands of sporting events. I’ve also coached Little League and youth basketball for 35 years, give or take. And of course, like most of us, I’ve seen countless renditions of "The Star-Spangled Banner" on television and sang it at family picnics and in the school chorus and, well, you get the picture.

So let’s just say I can be considered an expert on how our nation honors the flag and the national anthem.

It’s mixed.

So when the president of the United States suggests that if we don’t honor the flag and the anthem, we should be shipped out, let’s just say there will be a long line at the exit. And according to some accounts I’ve seen this week, the president himself might be in that line.

The National Football League, in part following a directive from the president, came up with a silly idea this week of allowing those players who would choose to take a knee or engage in some form of protest do so in hiding. In other words, the NFL has decided that players wanting to express their freedom of speech in this country can’t do it in public before a sporting event unless they’re willing to pay a price.

Meanwhile, the networks will have cut away to commercial, lining the pockets of the same NFL owners who voted for this preposterous plan with corporate money, while not showing the anthem on television in the first place.

And while we’re on that topic, there was no vote. Like something out of NASCAR, the league commissioner simply polled the owners and printed out a statement. There was no vote. Nor was the player’s union involved.

Talk about un-American.

This is where we are in this country right now. We’re confused from all the lies and chaos coming from our leaders, who themselves seem confused by what’s really going on in our country. And the solution, time and time again, is this odd requirement that we prove our patriotism by standing at attention, right hand over our heart, left arm extended down the seam line.

That means not rushing out to the parking lot for a smoke before the Little League game and not rushing out to the beer stand before the NFL game and not running to the restroom and not taking out your cellphone to record the flyover or even the cute little girl singing the national anthem.

I’ve seen all of these scenes. I've heard our own schools change the actual words of the anthem to fit their own allegiances or to infuriate fans from other schools. And as of last year, I saw sportswriters and photographers and cameramen and even fans themselves watching neither the flag nor the flyover but instead watching those who took a knee, making note of who did and who didn’t and then, in some cases, tweeting it during the anthem.

Judge not lest ye be judged.

The president invited NASCAR champion Martin Truex Jr. to the White House this week, honoring him and NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France and race fans in a press conference that seemed to be a campaign speech aimed at his base.

“This lively sport reflects our national spirit and our can-do attitude,” he said. “At every NASCAR race, you will see thousands of patriotic Americans, from the grandstands to the pit stalls, proudly waving our flag and roaring with joy at the words, ‘Start your engines.’ And I will tell you, one thing I know about NASCAR, they do indeed, Brian, stand for the playing of the national anthem, right? They do indeed. Somebody said maybe you shouldn’t say that. That’ll be controversial. I said ‘That’s OK, NASCAR’s not going to mind it at all.’ Right fellas? They don’t mind at all.”

And all that is indeed true. But I’ll tell you this, too. They also stand, with hands over hearts, for the playing of "God Bless America," and when George Jones came to sing the national anthem a few years back, some stood for a taped version of “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” And that was after Jones stormed off stage because the tape was messed up while he was supposed to be lip-synching the national anthem.

So this is not a perfect example, and this is far from a perfect policy.

The NFL followed the president’s remarks and instituted its hide-and-go-seek protest policy two days later, sparking a backlash among some, a rebel among others and genuine feeling that all the NFL did was rekindle the emotions that had already subsided.

Look, we’re having a national discussion about a lot of things right now, and this flag-anthem controversy is about the dumbest thing going. We need to get over this pledge of patriotism stuff, especially at our sporting events, which are the one place we should be able to go and be equal in our stadium seats, free to choose how we honor our flag, anthem and men and women in uniform while also being respectful of those who died for that flag.

After all, what are the final words of the anthem?

“O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave

“O’er the land of the free and the home of the WOLFPACK!”

Contact Ed Hardin at 336-373-7069, and follow @Ed_Hardin on Twitter.

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