I received an email from a high school classmate who included a letter written to the President and Principal of St. Ignatius College Preparatory. This letter by Elmer Carr commented on high school lads refusal to stand with hand over heart for the pre-football game playing of the National Anthem. The following is my contrarian response:
PHIL RYAN, Class of 1961
November 23, 201
Dear Father Reese and Mr. Ruff,
My S.I. classmate, Bob Callan ’57, forwarded me an email copy of a letter Elmer Carr ’69 sent to you relative to members of the SI Wildcat’s football protesting during the playing of the National Anthem at the SI vs. SHC football game. I’m uncertain why Bob would send me a copy of this letter, but believe it entitles me to comment.
Like Mr. Carr, I played basketball and baseball and was Sports Editor for Inside S.I. I was blessed with legendary coaches Rene Herrerias, Jim Keating and Pat Malley. In those years, we played in the powerful A.A.A league and won championships in baseball, basketball, football, swimming and golf. In college, along with my S.I. classmate, Jerry Kerr, we were instrumental in bringing Pat Malley to Santa Clara University when the Broncos returned to playing football.
Mr. Carr entered S.I. in 1965. The summer of that year my wife and I joined our generation in the Mississippi Freedom Summer, teaching in Freedom Schools and registering black folks to vote in the Jim Crow South. Mr. Carr graduated from S.I. in 1969. That year I graduated from Howard University Law School, cum laude. While waiting for my State Bar exam results, I was Project Director for the Mobilization to End the Vietnam War and produced a S.F. Polo Ground protest rally of 250,000 against the war
As a trial lawyer with offices in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Rome, Italy for just shy of four decades, I represented Academy Award winning movie stars, Hall of Fame rock stars, all-star and all-pro athletes, elected public officials, sitting judges, draft resisters, recording company executives, accused criminals, police officers and occasionally ordinary folks. I ended my legal career by writing and publishing a novel set in 1950’s San Francisco. I’m presently editing my second novel and completing a non-fiction book on my successful defense of Police Chief Earl Sanders, San Francisco’s first African American police chief. Interestingly, Chief Sanders paved the way for S.I. alumnus, Greg Suhr to become Chief of Police by appointing Greg to his command staff.
Mr. Carr and apparently others have taken offense at some of St. Ignatius High School football players kneeling during the playing of the National Anthem. I do not question Mr. Carr’s sincerity. Indeed, I embrace it and offer my critique with candor. He wrote, “[T]he playing field was about team unity and banding together as one unit.” But this is a game. And when played in the “S.I. Tradition,” according to Coach Pat Malley, it was about individuals joining together, each performing to make their teammates better. Singing songs, marching bands, group prayer, anthems – national or otherwise – pep talks, pompom girls, acrobatic cheerleaders are part of the spectacle not the game played. For those of us who have competed in team sports in high school and college, our unity derives from melding distinct and divergent skills into a physical force that will win or lose based on collective effort and group skill. Once our uniforms are donned and the whistle blows, the differences in our family backgrounds, the social classes from which we spring, the economic status of our families, the color of our skins (unless it might affect sprinter speed or jumping ability), our grade point averages are not part of the game. They are irrelevant.
The playing or not playing of Francis Scott Key’s poem set to the music of a German drinking song at a high school or even professional sports events has nothing to do with the players competing and everything to do with the promoters of the events. During my playing years, the National Anthem was not played at high school, intercollegiate sports and, only sporadically, at professional sports events. I doubt that the National Anthem is played at P.G.A. golf tournaments or that “God Save The Queen” is sung before each Wimbledon tennis match. Indeed during and immediately after the Vietnam War, it was a common practice not to stand during playing of “The Star Spangled Banner” in protest of what many of us considered an illegal and immoral war. In the 70’s I was a season ticket holder of the Golden State Warriors and refused to stand for the pre-game rendition of the anthem as my personal protest that the flag represented imperial and murderous policies to millions. Not incidentally and for those of us blessed by Jesuit education, the Vietnam War violated the Roman Catholic concept of “just wars.”
What is important is not to confuse symbols for substance. In the 50’s, we C.Y.O parochial school boys would bless ourselves before a basketball foul shot or our teaching nuns would entreat: “Our Lady Queen of Victories, pray for our boys.” It never occurred to us that our opposing schools’ priests and nuns offered the same divine request for their teams, nor did we consider that our prayers were creating a conflict of interest for the Blessed Mother. In my S.I. freshman year, Coach Rene Herrerias cured me of this dubious theological practice. He saw me make the Sign of the Cross before taking a foul shot and called me aside and said, “Jesus doesn’t get an assist when you score a basket.”
While I appreciate that the flag is very important to Mr. Carr and that he believes it is a “symbol that honors our fallen comrades and it is a symbol for people to UNITE behind social values and equality,” his faith is entirely subjective. Flags – be they be Stars and Stripes, the Confederate rebel banner that today still flies in some Southern capitols or at Donald Trump rallies, the French tricolor – all imply different notions to different folks at different times and in different circumstances. Mr. Carr tells us the American flag is “being disgraced right now due to political maneuvers by certain groups.” The phrase certain groups hints at dog-whistle alerts all too frequently heard during the recently concluded presidential campaign. I applaud Mr. Carr for ceasing to watch NFL games because kneeling players “disrespecting” the flag offends him. What offends me is that the player (Colin Kaepernick) who instituted this protest thinks so little of the issues he purports to raise that he failed to vote. But I have also have stopped watching the NFL because so many of its players and the NFL owners have demonstrated a contempt and indifference for women by the epidemic of timid sanctions for the physical and psychic abuse of wives, girl friends and lovers.
I have a less lofty reason for abstaining from non-thinking reverence for the playing of this melodically challenged tune before professional sports games. This an industry that presents games played by millionaires, employed by billionaires, for fans who pay exorbitant ticket prices to gain entry into stadiums and arenas built with public dollars. Furthermore, it turns out that the U.S. Defense Department has shelled out at least $10 million to the NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL to play the National Anthem and other patriotic productions as a means of recruiting youngsters to join our armed forces. Arizona Republican Senators John McCain (no dubious patriot) and Jeff Flake have raised such strong objections to tax payer dollars going to professional sports franchises to pay for waving flags, patriotic music and Air Force fly-overs, that the NFL had refunded some, but not all, of these public treasury gratuities. As for me, paid or compelled patriotism rings discordant.
Perhaps my differences with Mr. Carr are a matter of the generations of which we are members. Mr. Carr wrote: “Sporting events were always the time when ALL cultures, classes and races gathered together in the stands to put aside all the pressures and troubles in society for a couple of hours of ‘high fiving,’ hugging and rooting for our teams.”
“Inclusion,” Mr. Carr wrote in boldface. But it wasn’t that way when I was coming of age. Indeed, it was the Society of Jesus who radically altered the face of big time college sports and authored the “inclusion” of which Mr. Carr writes. My awareness started at Kezar Stadium rooting for the U.S.F. Dons football team starring running back Ollie Matson (an Olympic medalist) and Burl Toler at linebacker. This was a team that never lost. It was a team that sent 13 players to the NFL and three to the NFL Hall of Fame. It was best described as the “unbeaten, untied, and uninvited U.S.F. Dons.” They were not allowed to play in any of the bowl games. In fact, U.S.F. was secretly invited to play in the Cotton Bowl on condition that they leave Matson and Toler home. Ollie and Burl were black. The players, the coaches, the Jesuit administration refused this bigoted condition. The loss of Cotton Bowl dollars might have saved football at USF, but the moral cost was too onerous for a Jesuit institution of learning to pay
In my SI days, the U.S.F. Dons basketball team didn’t have a gym to play or practice in. So they practiced at our S.I. gym on Stanyan Street before our varsity held our practices and played their home games at Kezar Pavilion. Seeing them practice every school day, we were not surprised when the Dons won 56 consecutive games and two NCAA championships. But the rest of the nation was stunned that a small west coast Jesuit University had produced the most dominant basketball team in college history. The nation’s sports fans may have been shocked that three Negroes started for this unbeatable team. What we would learn a generation later was that a third of the members of these championship teams were barred from entry into Southern hotels because of their race. More importantly, the white USF team members refused to stay in any hotel that rejected their black teammates. So this legendary college basketball team stayed together covertly in the private homes of Southern black families. Not insignificantly, all of the Dons’ players earned their university degrees.
When I watch a college or pro basketball or football game in the 21st century I remember, with pride, that it was a Jesuit university that changed the face of American sports in the 1950’s. And I suspect that the Ignatian principle of being “men for others” that I was taught as a teenager, compelled me to confront Jim Crow in Mississippi and contest my government’s overseas wars in the streets of our cities and on the campuses of our colleges.
But that was a lifetime ago, more than a half century. I see the protesting S.I. lads differently than Mr. Carr. I understand that not all team members joined in the symbolic protest, and yet they remained a team, united as one. That their differences did not divide them is a lesson for we adults. Indeed, it is likely the most important moral principle our countrymen and women should learn in this era of orchestrated alienation.
This is not, however, a debate between two old guys who graduated from St. Ignatius College Preparatory decades ago. It’s really the story of present day S.I. students and faculty. And that story is beautiful and compelling. Allow me to provide two examples.
In March of last year, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone published a shockingly dreadful proposal for working conditions for the archdiocese’s teachers and administrators. In his edict, he demanded that Sacred Heart Cathedral, Marin Catholic, Serra and Riordan faculties and administration “affirm and believe in the sinfulness” of contraception masturbation, homosexuality and a variety of sexual practices that seemed awkward topics for a prelate presiding over a professed celibate clergy. Nonetheless, the Archbishop arrogantly proclaimed: “[Administrators], faculty and staff of any faith or of no faith, are expected to arrange and conduct their lives so as not to visibly contradict, undermine or deny these truths.” Obviously, Cordileone’s medieval mentality doesn’t recognize any of America’s First Amendment rights.
Happily, St. Ignatius College Preparatory is not under the authority of any bishop other than the Bishop of Rome. The kids from SHC, Riordan, Marin Catholic and Serra held a moving demonstration vigil at St. Mary’s Cathedral in support of their faculties and administrators and the larger lay community and against Cordileone’s intolerance. Parents and even a couple of old guys joined in support of these enlightened and morally sensitive young folks. S.I. alumnus and former California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley joined me at the Cathedral. Both of us were pleased when a S.I. female student joined the leadership of these Catholic high school students representing our Jesuit alma mater.
More recently, Father Reese announced the creation of a junior high program that will provide tuition free education for poor kids. Father Reese is quite correct that education is the surest path to escape the inhibiting precincts of poverty. I am delighted that we will have the Father Anthony Sauer Academy! I can’t think of a better guy than Tony to be so rightly acknowledged. I’m pledging a $500 gift that I’ll send to Joe Vollert ’84 and will do all that I can to support this extremely important and manifestly Christian educational outreach.
Sorry to take so much time responding to Mr. Carr, but I’m grateful his comments stimulated me to think about these issues. And in this season of Thanksgiving I’m grateful for all that S.I. gave me and continues to give to young women and men for others.
Phil Ryan ‘57
Cc: Elmer R. Carr
PS: You have permission to give this to Tim Reardon for grammatical and spelling corrections.