This post is an open invitation for everyone who is affected by the recent National Anthem protest trend that’s sweeping across the nation’s the sport’s scene. This simple protest has resonated in almost every community and as high up as the White House. Balanced opinions on this divisive topic are hard to come by. For a few minutes, I am going to ask the voices on both sides of the aisle to look clearly at the issue and the questions it raises.
And, of course, I am going to make recommendations. I am not the oldest of old men, but, as the song says, “I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain.”
Disrespecting the Flag Disrespects All of America
Let me start off by saying that I truly don’t believe that the protestors intend to disrespect all of America. In their minds they are issuing a call to action – a wake-up call, if you will, to those legions of Americans who seem unmoved (or at least unresponsive) to social situations that – if left unchanged – will erase more than 150 years of progress and destroy this country. Although I don’t, personally, agree with the protest, the people who oppose it should begin by recognizing that the intent of these protestors is noble. In their minds and hearts, they are trying to redeem this country.
That being said, though, the truth is that language – even symbolic language – means what it means. Every time a new state is added to the union, a new star is added to the flag because the flag represents all of us. It is the enduring symbol of every single American who ever has and ever will live. Every patriot who bled out his life on a foreign shore – as did every policeman and firefighter who perished in the 911 attacks – had his or her earthly remains wrapped in the flag that you are protesting. In its various versions it is the same flag that draped the caskets of fallen presidents Lincoln and Kennedy. It is the same flag that raised over Iwo Jima. It is as connected to the history and future of this nation – and to every individual in it – as any symbol could be.
Helpful, here, might be a few words from a pledge that we used to say in school (I don’t even know if this is being done anymore). We learned, “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands. One nation, under God, indivisible.”
For good or for bad, that word – indivisible – connects us all to that symbol. It connects us to that flag. But even more than that, it connects us to the ideal that is America. As you are probably aware, the pledge ends with the phrase “with liberty and justice for all.”
That, of course, is not the case in present-day America. In truth it never has been the case, and possibly never will be. It’s possible that a lofty ideal like that may forever elude any nation composed of flawed mortals. But is that a reason to disrespect an entire nation? Because it struggles to live up to its own idealized vision of what it should be? Is it a just protest when the disrespect includes all the people (and there are really quite a lot of them) that have and are working for change? Do the teammates that are standing (or kneeling) next to you deserve your disrespect? Does Barak Obama deserve your disrespect? Does Abraham Lincoln? Does Jackie Robinson? Does the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King? You know he died for this vision of America, right? When he went to the mountaintop, what he saw there was the same vision of what America could be that the founding fathers had when they fought and died to make this little political experiment a reality. Protesting a flag is not as simple as it seems. A lot of people – good and bad – get caught in that deceptively complex protest.
On the Other Hand, These Protests are Clearly Protected Speech
Part of the fall out of these protests are attempts by Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, and President Donald Trump to snuff out the protests. They need to understand that this cannot be done. Any attempt at legislating this away will be swept out by any court challenge. One of the amazing and terrific things about America is that Americans have the right to disrespect this country and anything connected with it. There is no power in the land – including the President himself – that can legislate away the basic constitutional right of free speech.
And herein lies one of the great ironies of the entire debate. In their haste to defend the honor of America and her flag, these powerful individuals are attempting far more damage than the protestors could ever inflict. While the common protest is a simple show of disrespect, what Trump, Goodell and Jones (and probably some others) are trying to do would actually undermine some of the most cherished freedoms that those soldiers I mentioned earlier died to protect. If allowed to stand, these legislations will begin to erode this government of the people, by the people and for the people until it becomes just another form of dictatorship. So, my first bit of advice will be to all individuals, great and small, who want to see these protests stop.
How to Make the Protest Go Away
Last week, Vice President Mike Pence gained great notoriety by walking out of an Indianapolis game because some of the players knelt in protest. These National Anthem protests have gotten headline time for the President and some others that I’ve mentioned.
If that is the point of all this – the national attention – then by all means keep denouncing and walking out. Keep attempting to legislate it away. None of these actions will bring the protests to a stop, but they will – for a while, anyway – keep your names in the papers. If, however, you really want to see these protests stop, there is an exceedingly simple tactic that I recommend to you.
Now, by saying this I don’t mean to suggest that all of this is simple attention-mongering on the part of the protestors. I give them credit for more than that. There is, however, no doubt that the attention lavished on these protests has fueled them like gasoline on flames. At one point it started to turn into a competition over who could show the most disrespect. I remember hearing of one of them who rode the stationary bike during the National Anthem.
It’s the society that the professional athlete is raised in. Whatever he does, good or bad, is always attention-worthy. When the attention stops, much of the motivation for protesting will go with it. After all, what’s the point of sending a message over a channel that no one is listening to?
The best advice I can give to everyone on this side of the debate is to simply let it go. Give them there protest. I promise you that the Dallas Cowboys, the NFL, and the United States itself all have many problem that are far more pressing than a couple of football players that have decided to kneel during the National Anthem.
And Some Advice for the Protestors
I will begin by recommending a message of choice. I’ve seen more and more teams doing this this year, but the first time I saw it done was last year by the Seattle Seahawks. Instead of kneeling, they stood together with their arms linked. Exactly what this gesture meant to them, I can’t say. But this is what the symbolism of that moment said to me:
Here we stand together. We are America. We are of all her races and peoples. We come from all backgrounds, from great privilege all the way down to heart-breaking want. We understand that our country is far from perfect, but we face her issues together as teammates, as Americans. We still believe in the ideal that is America, and we believe that as long as we stand together and work together there is no problem that we can’t overcome.
I found it to be an especially touching message. In particular, it is a message of hope. Kneeling can be easily seen as giving up on America. To some extent it says that “until the rest of the people in this nation rise to my standards of what your behavior should be, I have nothing to do with you. I am not a part of you.” Disdain is rarely an effective method of fomenting change. A message of hope that will work with people where they are and how they are is much more likely to move the county toward positive change.
Beyond this, though, I think the entire concept of the protest needs to be re-examined.
A Better Idea than Kneeling During the National Anthem
One thing you should be aware of is that the protest is now becoming counterproductive. The protest has taken on a life of its own, and has now completely overshadowed the very important issue that lies underneath it. Nobody is talking anymore about the young black lives that have perished under circumstances difficult to justify. While this national wound continues to suppurate, all the attention is going to which football players are and aren’t kneeling during the National Anthem. Once the protest crowds its cause out of the public consciousness, it needs to be re-examined.
Again, if this is about the attention, then by all means keep doing it. As long as the powers that be keep trying to stamp out this act of expression, kneeling during the National Anthem should garner ample amounts of attention. But a bunch of kneeling football players will never change America. All of the sound and fury connected with these protests will never help heal America. My challenge to you is to get off your knees and go to work.
Are there troubled neighborhoods in the cities you play in? or in the cities that you grew up in? Walk those streets. Walk them with your teammates. Be with the people in their troubles. Initiate dialog. Help lift the national vision.
Movie stars have never hesitated to leverage their celebrity to champion causes that they feel strongly about, whether it’s feeding children in Africa or pushing congress to spend more money on AIDS research. While some athletes have embraced the opportunities presented to give back to their communities – and all cities that are privileged to have major league franchises have benefited considerably from the efforts of community-minded ballplayers – the influence that you can be for good is still a largely untapped resource.
If this issue is important enough to earn the focused attention of players throughout the NFL, then please don’t be content to kneel at the National Anthem. Seek out people in your communities who will be forces for change as mayors and aldermen – and police chiefs, for that matter – and throw your support behind them. Share your stories. Share your concerns. Share your hopes. If the America of today is a nation you can’t abide being a part of, then help us to re-shape this country into something we can all be proud (or prouder) of.
All of this is difficult and sometimes uncomfortable work – and that, really, is the point that I’m getting at.
Protesting is – after all – an easy thing. These days kneeling during the National Anthem is an easy action to take. And for that reason it can never initiate lasting change. Before you is an opportunity to be a significant part of the answer – and more importantly, to be a significant part of the healing.
But none of that will happen as long as you stay on your knees.