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Patriotism, Protest, and Pigskins

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Just one year has passed since Colin Kaepernick ignited the spark that became a blaze when President Trump and the National Football League clashed on the subject of protests during the National Anthem at games this weekend. During the 2016 NFL preseason, Kaepernick chose to remain seated during the National Anthem. After the second such game, the media inquired and received his answer: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”[1] As the situation developed, Kaepernick transitioned from sitting to kneeling and was eventually joined by other players across the league in his quiet but highly visible protest of the racial situation here in the United States.

The response to this form of protest have been as vehement as they are varied. Some call it a disgrace, saying the Kaepernick and others are kneeling on the graves of the men and women who died fighting for our freedom in various wars throughout the years. Others disagree, saying that the very freedoms those men and women fought for are what allow such protests to occur and that we should encourage reasonable and peaceful resistance in the face of issues in our country.

In addition to his kneeling, Kaepernick pledged to donate one million dollars to organizations in the communities affected by the racial divide he sought to expose.[2] He followed through on that pledge shortly thereafter. Having opted out of his contract with the San Francisco 49ers following a mediocre season, Kaepernick has gone unsigned as we enter the fourth week of the 2017 season. Some have pointed to his protests as the likely cause for this lack of a job, though even as a lifelong fan of the 49ers, I am the first to admit that it likely has more to do with his play over the last two or three seasons than his political statements.

Even with all that said, the issue was relatively quiet through the NFL’s offseason, the preseason, and the first two weeks of the new season. Players like Eric Reid of the San Francisco 49ers, Martellus Bennett of the Green Bay Packers, and Michael Bennett of the Seattle Seahawks continued to kneel or sit during the anthem and Kaepernick remained unsigned in the league, but the discussion that had once covered our social media feeds had dwindled.

Then, while speaking in Huntsville, AL last Friday, President Trump called for the NFL to fire players who protest during the National Anthem. He said, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a (expletive) off the field right now. Out. He’s fired. He’s fired!'”[3] The Internet erupted in response, digging in along the lines laid in last year’s controversy.

President Trump likes his buzz words and his controversial topics. After all, it is undeniable that his approach to speaking to the masses propelled him to the office of the President of the United States. Before we move forward with the more specific case at hand however, it seems prudent to highlight some of his other comments about people like Senator John McCain, a veteran and former prisoner of war. In 2015, President Trump said of Senator McCain, “He’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”[4] It seems contradictory for the President to be concerned with the legacy and feelings of our service members and veterans during peaceful protests after so readily disparaging a noted member of that same community.

In response to President Trump’s remarks on Friday, over 250 players across the league joined in demonstrations during the national anthem at the various games across the league, dwarfing the less than ten players that had done so the week before. This lends credence to the narrative that many protestors have put forward over the course of the last year, that they protest for unity. Even so, much has been said about the specific choice of the action of kneeling or sitting during our national anthem.

Title 36 of the United States Code § 301 states, regarding the observation of the national anthem:

(b) Conduct During Playing.—During a rendition of the national anthem—

(1) when the flag is displayed—

(A) individuals in uniform should give the military salute at the first note of the anthem and maintain that position until the last note;

(B) members of the Armed Forces and veterans who are present but not in uniform may render the military salute in the manner provided for individuals in uniform; and

(C) all other persons present should face the flag and stand at attention with their right hand over the heart, and men not in uniform, if applicable, should remove their headdress with their right hand and hold it at the left shoulder, the hand being over the heart; and

(2) when the flag is not displayed, all present should face toward the music and act in the same manner they would if the flag were displayed.[5]

Having been to several sporting events myself, I am surprised to see so much concern expressed about the actions of athletes, having seen the often far less respectful actions of fans in the stands. The Code also fails to stipulate any punishment for failing to observe these behaviors, and the far more drastic act of flag desecration itself is not prohibited by any legislation, after the various attempts at such legislation over the course of our history have been ruled unconstitutional Under the First Amendment.

Sulev Sepp, another author on this site, said it best in a recent Facebook comment when he said, “My point is that, right now, there is political opportunism and a happy-to-be-angry internet. Right now there is an easy shot at click-bait and ratings. Right now there is hypocrisy in the media and in politics for demanding personal definitions of 'patriotism' from people who have no ground to stand on. I'm glad that this time, people are saying something.”

Senators McCain and Flake recently conducted an oversight investigation into Federal spending on patriotic displays at sporting events. The Department of Defense spent 53 million dollars on these types of events between 2012 and 2015.[6] Is that the kind of “patriotism” we need with our sporting events? Millions of dollars of tax revenue in those years flowed annually to sport teams for the “privilege” of marketing the military without so much as a whimper, but a player takes a knee to bring attention to racial inequality and the response is dramatic.

In December of 1860, the first move of the Civil War took place as Major Robert Anderson move the U.S. Garrison in Charleston across the bay to Fort Sumter. Adam Goodheart wrote of the transition of the symbol:

“Before that day, the flag had served mostly as a military ensign or a convenient marking of American territory, flown from forts, embassies, and ships, and displayed on special occasions like American Independence day. But in the weeks after Major Anderson's surprising stand, it became something different. Suddenly the Stars and Stripes flew—as it does today, and especially as it did after the September 11 attacks in 2001—from houses, from storefronts, from churches; above the village greens and college quads. For the first time American flags were mass-produced rather than individually stitched and even so, manufacturers could not keep up with demand. As the long winter of 1861 turned into spring, that old flag meant something new. The abstraction of the Union cause was transfigured into a physical thing: strips of cloth that millions of people would fight for, and many thousands die for.”[7]

Our banner, the Stars and Stripes, is heavily symbolic in its appearance, but even more so in its representation of our nation and our ideals. The athletes who first bent the knee did so for this very reason: the flag represents the best of our country. It represents unity, American nationalism, and the hope that comes with living in this country. Kaepernick and those who mirrored his sentiment saw a disparity between this promise of hope and the reality of the lives of many people in our nation, and they chose to act symbolically, presenting what they felt was an appropriate rejection of this inequality.

On Sunday, the Pittsburgh Steelers decided, collectively, to remain in their tunnel during the national anthem at their game against the Chicago Bears. The media has noted that there was an exception to this team decision: Left Tackle Alejandro Villaneuva, a former United States Army Ranger, Bronze Star recipient, stood alone, hand over his heart, as the anthem played. This image was shared all over social media to both to praise Villanueva’s commitment to his country above and beyond his military service to it and to highlight that he refused to take part in his team’s display against it. This, however, was not accurate.

Villanueva unintentionally stood farther forward than he had intended, presenting himself as an individual, rather than at the front of the group. On Monday, he said, “Unfortunately, I threw (my teammates) under the bus, unintentionally. Every single time I see that picture of me standing by myself, I feel embarrassed.”[8] Villanueva also “said he has no issue with players who protest during the anthem and said several have thanked him for his service.”[9] This stands in contrast to the narrative being shared online and points to a stronger unity among the athletes of the NFL.

It is time for us to recognize that kneeling or sitting during our national anthem is a peaceful protest, protected by our Constitution, and is disrespectful neither to our military nor our flag.

 

References: 

[1] Wyche, S. (2016, August 27). Colin Kaepernick explains why he sat during national anthem. Retrieved September 25, 2017, from NFL: http://www.nfl.com/news/story/0ap3000000691077/article/colin-kaepernick-...

[2] Million Dollar Pledge. (n.d.). Retrieved September 25, 2017, from Kaepernick7: http://kaepernick7.com/million-dollar-pledge/

[3] Tsuji, A. (2017, September 22). President Trump says NFL players who protest anthem should be fired. (USA Today) Retrieved September 25, 2017, from For The Win: http://ftw.usatoday.com/2017/09/donald-trump-nfl-anthem-protest-alabama-...

[4] Schreckinger, B. (2015, July 18). Trump attacks McCain: 'I like people who weren't captured'. Retrieved September 25, 2017, from Politico: http://www.politico.com/story/2015/07/trump-attacks-mccain-i-like-people...

[5] 36 U.S. Code § 301 - National anthem. (n.d.). Retrieved September 25, 2017, from Legal Information Institute: https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/36/301

[6] McCain, J., & Flake, J. (2016). Tackling Paid Patriotism. Retrieved September 25, 2017, from https://www.mccain.senate.gov/public/_cache/files/12de6dcb-d8d8-4a58-879...

[7] Goodheart, A. (2011). 1861: The Civil War Awakening. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

[8] David, N. (2017, September 25). Alejandro Villanueva: I threw Steelers under bus on national anthem. Retrieved September 25, 2017, from USA Today: https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/nfl/steelers/2017/09/25/alejandro-...

[9] Ibid.