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A Star Spangled Banner day at the Sarasota Polo Club

Side of Ranch: Jay Heater

Pine View senior Kaki France sings the National Anthem before Sarasota Polo Club play March 7.
Pine View senior Kaki France sings the National Anthem before Sarasota Polo Club play March 7.
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Pine View senior Kaki France came to that last line of the Star Spangled Banner March 7 at the Sarasota Polo Club, and hovered over the word "free" for 10 seconds.

"O'er the land of the freeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee, and the home of the brave."

Fortunately, France has the kind of voice that sends tingles all over your skin, in a good way, when she hits the high notes. The crowd at the Polo Club — and yes, pandemic aside, there was a crowd along both sidelines — abandoned its respectful silence and launched into a cheer that even gave the horses happy feet.

Jay Heater: Side of Ranch
Jay Heater: Side of Ranch

Lingering on "free," however, had become somewhat of an art form at athletic events long before the 18-year-old France was born.

If she had put her own personal stamp on "free" back in the glory days of the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden, the crowd would have erupted with such intensity, "home of the brave" would have been drown out.

The Knicks' glory days were way, way, way back, when Walt "Clyde" Frazier and Willis Reed were the toast of the Big Apple. It also was the time I was an impressionable kid.

As each game would become more important, "free" would get stretched out longer, and longer. The Star Spangled banner fed the fans' frenzy (say "fed the fans' frenzy" five times fast). I was glued to my 12-inch, black-and-white TV.

Never, though, did I lump the National Anthem, and patriotism, with sport. Even when I was 10, I understood the difference. The Star Spangled banner wasn't being played to amp up the athletes. It was more about saying thanks to our country, our leaders, our soldiers, for giving us the opportunity to enjoy the amazing entertainment to follow. The amped-up athletes were a perk.

Granted, I was a U.S. Marine's son, a white, lower-middle-class, farm boy who loudly said "The Pledge of Allegiance" each day at school. If I was a willing victim of mind control, so be it. The playing of the National Anthem makes me feel, well, American. How many times can you say that during the course of a day?

Our tradition of playing the National Anthem before sporting events, and other events that brings substantial amounts of people together, should last as long as our country exists ... in my eyes.

So as France, who represents Sarasota's Music Compound and has sung the Star Spangled Banner at just about every local polo match the past two years, came to the conclusion of the song, I started to think about sporting events without the National Anthem. Since I've lived a little, and since France is just starting her journey, I thought I would ask her what she thought of Mark Cuban's decision to not play the National Anthem before San Antonio Spurs games in February, before the NBA and the Texas legislature told him the anthem would be required listening.

"I love performing this song," France said with a smile. "It's so important to our nation's great history."

Paige Lautzenheiser, the director of operations for the Sarasota Polo Club, presents the colors.
Paige Lautzenheiser, the director of operations for the Sarasota Polo Club, presents the colors.

This is an intelligent teen, who knew where I was going with the question. Obviously she knows the landscape, the tumult caused by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick when he took a knee during the National Anthem in 2016, the protests that followed, a nation's unrest, political tension, racial inequality and now Cuban's decision to stow the National Anthem away for a while.

What do you, Kaki, think about efforts to stop playing the National Anthem at sporting events?

Once again she said how much she respects and honors the song, but she added, "I do understand," those protests.

It certainly was a politically correct thing to say, and understandable in our politically correct world. Obviously, her actions coming to the Sarasota Polo Club each week to perform the Star Bangled Banner speaks for this teen's love of country. It wouldn't have been fair of me to push any further on the topic.

I went Sarasota Polo Club owner James Miller, who didn't mind being put on the spot.

Would you, James, ever consider not playing the National Anthem before a polo match?

"I was raised to respect my country and to respect those who fought for my country," he said. "I would never consider not playing the National Anthem. And I don't mind speaking out. COVID-19 has moved us into a worried climate of political correctness.

"We've got to get back to being a unified country. We need to get back to being patriotic."

Perhaps getting back to patriotism means changing the song. While I believe these protests during the National Anthem are disrespectful and a form of grandstanding, no matter how politically incorrect that statement might be, I would be open to changing the National Anthem if its origins are insulting to different sectors of our population. Would "God Bless America" work better, if Irving Berlin doesn't have any skeletons in his closet?

I would imagine France could handle that song just as well.

"God bless America, my home sweeeeeeeeeeeeeeet home."


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