One year ago today I published a post explaining my evolution in thinking on football and standing for the national anthem. I am surprised to learn that was one year ago (time really does fly), but unfortunately I am not surprised that, one year later, my post is as relevant as ever (time is a flat circle, after all).
Last week, President Trump said he’d love to see an NFL team owner fire a player who kneels when the national anthem is played before games. The president’s own words:
“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! … You know, some owner is going to do that. He’s going to say, ‘That guy that disrespects our flag, he’s fired.’ And that owner, they don’t know it [but] they’ll be the most popular person in this country.”
There are all manner of points to be raised here—that Trump conflates the anthem with the flag (they are closely related but separate objects); this it represents completely unpresidential rhetoric; that Trump is embracing the very things he has railed against; that it is inconsistent for the president to reject free speech for NFL players and teams should have free speech, but defend it for conservative Christian businesses; that the president should be focused on the devastation in Puerto Rico or the horrors in North Korea; that the comments are a distraction.
Still, Trump’s comments are particularly disturbing in their own right. This is the president of the United States, the most powerful elected official in the country, calling for employees to be fired for following their conscience in political matters.
For me, this has been a rather straightforward issue: should the freedoms laid out in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution extend to professional athletes at work? Yes, of course.
That doesn’t mean Trump’s comments or wishes represent a violation of the law. Neither federal law nor NFL rules prohibit or punish individuals for kneeling during the anthem. But, as employees of a private organization/s, NFL players at work are not necessarily protected by the First Amendment (in contrast, public school athletes are explicitly protected by the U.S. Constitution). In theory, standing for the anthem could be required. But it’s not.
Indeed, we arrived at this moment in social debate precisely because the NFL doesn’t restrict players from exercising their political dissent in “patriotic” activities such as the anthem (though NFL teams may steer clear of controversial players, e.g., Colin Kaepernick). I’m sure Roger Goodell, at least from a business perspective, has no interest in policing the political opinions and expressions of his 2,000 players.
But, as I discussed in my first post, and others have argued, there there good reasons NFL players at work should be allowed to exercise the rights enshrined in the First Amendment—especially when placed in a political environment. Rights are legal extensions of the values we celebrate, and as a society we should value individual liberty of conscience as widely and deeply as possible. It benefits us all.
Yet it has become clear over the past year that isn’t just a debate about if or whether professional athletes should or are allowed to kneel during the national anthem—or else related debates on the importance of patriotism and what it means to be patriotic—but why they are doing it.
It’s not because because they’re unpatriotic. It’s not because they hate America. It’s not because they’re protesting the flag. It’s not to make you angry. It’s not because they hate you.
They’re doing it because they see injustice across the country and they’ve decided the most proper way to use their short-lived public platform to call attention to this injustice is to kneel during the national anthem, the only political event at their football game, and which arguably celebrates the very injustice they are seeking to dismantle.
As for the U.S. flag, it turns out we violate our own (non-mandatory) flag code regularly. How interesting that no one has ever complained about the treatment of the flag within the NFL until now.
To be sure, the flag is worshipped by many, for more and less understandable reasons. But the flag truly matters because of what it represents. It represents ideas of a nation in which there is freedom of thought and speech and equality for all under the law; a nation in which people are not just allowed but protected in protesting both their society and their government.
The flag should be a beacon. If U.S. citizens believe it is failing to serve as a beacon— that we have too often failed to uphold the ideals we purport to worship—then they have the right to openly disagree and show signs of disrespect. Patriotism and the flag belong to the soldier and dissenter alike. These are the supposed American values our government promotes abroad; why would we not respect them here?
The truth is, patriotism comes in many forms; patriotism, and the flag, belong to the soldier and dissenter alike. And you may reject that significant racial problems exist in this country, or believe that kneeling during the anthem is not a proper method of protest, but I would encourage you to search your soul and reflect a bit before accusing these players of, well, anything. Americans have a history of opposing protests later deemed not just acceptable but morally necessary and courageous.
One last thought: I’ve heard very few people ask why wasn’t this an issue until recently. Perhaps because before ~2009, NFL players weren’t always on the field for the national anthem and instead generally remained in the locker room. Why did that change?
Politics has always had a place in football, but as it happens, the NFL invited this political debate. Over the past decade, NFL teams have worked closely with the U.S. government to promote patriotism, including the Department of Defense and National Guard paying NFL and other major sports teams millions of dollars to stage patriotic events—including performances of the national anthem. Don’t believe me? Ask Republican Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake, who issued a damning report on the practice.
Is there anything less patriotic—or at least less authentically patriotic—than forced or paid patriotism?