Most people do not know this about me, but I played football in middle school and high school. Actually, to be honest, I starting playing football when I was a youngster. However, I rarely “played” at that age. Whenever the coach put me in, I would cry until I was taken out. I hated it, I suspect due to the violent nature of the game. But I also remember rather enjoying the orange slices provided by parents on the sidelines.

After two years of moderately serious middle school football, I went to play in high school. By that time, I had a football player’s body — 6’0, 225 pounds, broad shoulders — and, more importantly, a willingness to subject myself to pain because my coaches demanded it of me. By sophomore year, I was named captain of the junior varsity football team. I’d go on to play throughout high school. Still, upon reflection I was never as into playing football as I was being on a football team.

I’m writing this now because currently there is intense debate over San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision to not stand during the national anthem, in protest against the ongoing killings of innocent, unarmed black Americans at the hands of law enforcement officials. Some have issued strong defenses of Kaepernick’s right, if not his larger point; others have suggested he should leave the country, or even face physical violence.

For my part, I recall that the national anthem was played before each junior varsity game, and I stood with my helmet over my heart each time. And, thinking back, I probably would have completely lost it on a teammate who didn’t stand for the national anthem. I don’t know why, but I have little doubt my high school self would have found it offensive if a teammate did not stand for the national anthem. Perhaps because of the team mentality; perhaps because I was a narrow-minded high school kid obsessed with one particular view of patriotism (I was); or perhaps because I was looking for someone I could push down in order to feel better about myself.

It’s worth noting that as players we were never informed of our right to not stand for the national anthem. I’m not entirely sure we were informed of our right to not stand for the pledge of allegiance, either, though I recall few pupils daring enough to not stand. Consider that: as high school students, we were not informed or made fully aware of our fundamental constitutional rights.

Perhaps importantly, as students we were never fully informed of the structural and endemic racism that exists in the United States. This country is built on the products of white people subjugating black people for economic and political gain. This isn’t an opinion; this is a fact. I was not taught this, and was not fully aware of this until many, many years after college. Nor was I aware that racism still exists within our institutions and our communities, to a disturbing extent.

Who knows how I would have reacted to this knowledge if it was presented to me in high school? Perhaps, in hindsight, I might have felt uncomfortable standing for the national anthem (as I do now). Perhaps I would have taken a knee. I don’t know what I would have done; but I know I would have done something.

I have no doubt that everyday there are other young people and adults in the United States who come to the same or similar realizations about race and politics. What should they do?

Life is a continuous learning process, and all the while one’s conscience makes demands on one’s behavior. These demands cannot be contained or changed because someone in a position of authority thinks otherwise. As Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh said after several of his players raised their hands in fists during the anthem: “I’ve been thinking a lot about this over the last four, five, six weeks … Because I am the football coach doesn’t mean I can dictate to people what they believe.” He’s right. No one can dictate what you believe, let alone how you should peacefully protest perceived injustice.

For me, the demands of conscience might act out as writing up posts on Tweets and Facebook or here, and/or volunteering to an organization working on relevant issues. For others, it might mean using their platform to not stand for a song which hails America, and/or donating significant funds to an organization working on relevant issues (Kaepernick has done both). As Michigan football player Jourdan Lewis said: “I have a platform. Regardless of anything, I’m going to stand up for injustice.” And he has every right to do so. Bottling up that right only makes any problem worse.

For all the criticism that has been issued about people taking to the streets to protest in America — now there is criticism when athletes in America choose not to stand during a song. What madness is this?

I cherish and support the individual rights to freedom of speech and protest, and by consequence the right of all citizens and athletes to not stand for the national anthem. I also fully support their intent, to raise consciousness regarding race in the United States.

But I did not always hold these positions. And I would urge those who feel outraged simply because a professional athlete who they don’t even know is kneeling during a song to reflect on their feelings. I was once strongly opposed to individuals not showing “respect” for the the national anthem and the American flag. Now, I cannot provide a single rational reason why I would have been so bothered by that — especially as I’ve realized that the players who protest during the anthem are not, as so many have claimed, seeking to disrespect the country or its ideals. On the contrary, as Lewis said, these players aren’t “disrespecting anything. I love this university. I love this country, but things can get better.” Indeed they can — and indeed they must.

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