The NFL players who choose to “take the knee” to protest police brutality or all forms of inequality in America are certainly within their rights. So are the club owners who kneel with them. That’s not even debatable. In fact, it is, ironically, just one of the things that make this country so wonderful. Let an athlete in China or North Korea, or Myanmar, or Russia try to do the same thing and we would probably see the last of that athlete for decades, if not forever.
So, let’s not debate whether they have the right to kneel instead of standing respectfully during the national anthem. Insulting anyone or any national symbol is a universal right in America. It is a lame protest, but it is a right. The owners who kneel with their players are simply demonstrating that they think they know where their bread is buttered. But do they? They might look across the field, or over their shoulders, to the tens of thousands of fans who are standing and proudly singing their country’s national anthem.
The players contend that they are kneeling because they really have no other powerful platform on which to express their grievances. Really? A quick check of their Facebook and Twitter pages suggests otherwise. The top twenty NFL players alone have over 55,000,000 regular followers with their combined Facebook and Twitter pages. Just the top twenty! That’s not a bad platform.
Now, we happen to think they have a very legitimate grievance, one that all Americans should share. We do have some serious problems in America. To whatever extent racially-motivated police brutality or any other brutality exists anywhere in America, it should be condemned thoroughly, loudly and clearly. So should every remaining vestige of racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, fascism and every other irrational hatred. Such calumnies are a body blow to the very fiber of America. But showing collective disrespect to America serves the bigot’s interest far more than it serves the protester’s interest. And refusing to show respect for the flag or the national anthem is pure oxygen for those who wish to divide us.
Most Americans love their country and most Americans deeply respect its flag and its national anthem—as well they should. So, when the flag or the national anthem is disrespected, tens of millions of Americans are offended and insulted, not because they question anyone’s right to offend or insult, but because they rightfully feel that the insult is also directed at them. It suggests that those who stand for the national anthem with their hands over their hearts, must not share the same sense of indignation at the corrosive and, sometimes, deadly prejudice that continues to hang on in America. And that simply isn’t true. It just hasn’t turned them against their country nor motivated them to recoil from its flag or anthem. Quite the contrary. When true Americans stand for the flag and the anthem they stand against those who choose bigotry over brotherhood.
Now, we recognize that President Trump’s targeting of the NFL players at his Huntsville Alabama rally a week ago was toxic and, we suspect, it resulted in the reaction he intended. Nearly every player joined the protest by kneeling for the anthem the following week along with some owners, and the kneeling controversy probably became the cause célèbre the President intended it to be. Much of the country and the media was and are talking about it, choosing sides, and voicing their collective opinions to anyone who will listen. More than anything last week’s protest was about Trump, and his clumsy reality-show showboating. The flag and the anthem, however, are much bigger than Trump, and that might be the understatement of the year.
Sadly, the kneeling controversy poisons the proverbial well. Relatively few people seem to be talking about the social and cultural problems that truly exist in America. Most are talking about the efficacy of kneeling as a protest. The injustices that need to be addressed are elbowed aside as millions of Americans weigh in on how they feel about the kneeling protest. Ballplayers are being interviewed and asked to opine on the protest controversy. Constructive dialogue yields to anger. Trump wins.
We’ve read dozens of statements by NFL players and they are obviously heartfelt. However, we believe Drew Brees, quarterback for the New Orleans Saints, made the most sense: “I disagree with what the president said and how he said it. I think it’s very unbecoming of the office of President of the United States to talk like that to a great people. And obviously, he’s disappointed a lot of people. But as it pertains to the national anthem, I will always feel that if you are an American that the national anthem is the opportunity for us all to stand up together, to be unified and to show respect for our country.”
Our country is trying. It will not, and cannot, ever be perfect. There will always be injustices and setbacks. But what we stand for is worthy of our respect, and without it there is little hope.