The National Football League, caught in a tight spot between patriotic fans and a diverse group of players, decided Wednesday not to penalize players for kneeling during the national anthem.
In response, President Trump tweeted:
In fact, as others have noted, kneeling for the anthem is a sign of respect, not disrespect, for our country and the values it stands for. Now is the time for football fans to rise to the occasion, even as our president is unable to do so.
To protest—for whatever cause, left or right wing—is to make real the best ideals of America: freedom of speech, democracy, the rule of law. Protesting brings those ideals into reality. It is the opposite of disrespect and despair: It is to call our country to account, and to say that we can do better. Dissent is patriotic, because it affirms that our country is worth fighting for.
To compel a show of patriotism, on the other hand, is the least patriotic, least American, least respectful thing one can do. It is to say that the flag stands for no ideals save rooting for the American team. It is to say that our nation is so fragile that it cannot brook dissent, that it stands for nothing.
And most importantly, it is to say that speech may be compelled, obedience may be bought, patriotism can be forced. It is profoundly undemocratic. It disrespects the flag and the Constitution. It is the beginning of authoritarianism.
Yes, the NFL is a private, for-profit corporation—albeit one that has received billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies—and can almost certainly compel its employees to stand for the national anthem. For that matter, it can compel them to do jumping jacks, wear pink jerseys, and chant in Latin.
But should it?
As a business decision, it’s a tough call. Angry fans on one side, angry players on another. But as a patriotic decision, it’s an easy one.
Football games are civic events. That’s why the national anthem is sung in the first place: because these gatherings are times for Americans to come together as Americans, and to celebrate more than touchdowns and field goals. We are celebrating our culture, too; our hometowns, our identities.
And now we’re celebrating what it means to disagree.
The kneeling players are saying something else by taking a knee: that as a nation, we’re not living up to some of our ideals. Three centuries of racism, slavery, and Jim Crow have left deep tracks that cannot be smoothed out over just a few decades. The advantages that I, as a white American, received as a child are directly traceable to that history, and to policies like redlining, which created the nice suburban school district I grew up in, and which systematically blocked black folks from living there.
More recently, several tragic incidents of fatal police violence without judicial redress have left many people wondering whether everyone’s lives matter equally in the eyes of the law. The more you know about the details of these cases, the more you tend to agree with those sentiments.
But it doesn’t matter whether I agree or not. Right or wrong, these men, who are also celebrities, sports stars, and role models, have come to the opinion that America is failing to live up to its values of equality, justice, and the rule of law. Others have joined them in solidarity. And so they have taken a knee at this moment of civic observance to say “We’re not there yet. We are falling short.”
Notice, too, that they’re not burning the flag, or turning their backs on the flag, or making some other gesture of disrespect. They’re kneeling down—hardly a gesture of defiance or disloyalty. Hardly as disrespectful as flag G-strings, flags used in advertising, or flags laid out on football fields, all of which area in violation of the 1923 National Flag Code, and of good taste.
Football fans are smart enough to understand this. Being an American is not the same as rooting for your favorite team (even when, as in my case, they’re 1-5). My team is just my team, and I cheer them on because that’s what’s fans do.
My country is more complicated. Sometimes I express being American by cheering, but other times I do so by criticizing what my government is doing. That’s not disrespect—it’s respect. (Come to think of it, sports fans do this too, criticizing the decisions of this coach or that player out of love for the team. But you get the point.)
Likewise, when I see people protesting, and I disagree with them, it’s a sign of respect for our country to let them express themselves. That happens to me all the time: at the Values Voter Summit last week, at pro-life marches, at Tea Party rallies. I criticize these gatherings often, and write articles condemning them, but never for a moment do I doubt their right to take place.
I wish the same could happen now with the players who take a knee. Let’s stop talking about their form of protest, and engage with what they’re trying to say. Let’s get educated about the statistics of police violence, look closely at the claims that it affects black folks more than white folks, and look at proposals to fix what’s broken in the system—Campaign Zero is an excellent, detailed, and documented one—while recognizing that most cops are doing their jobs as best they can.
To kneel in silent, respectful protest is patriotic. It gives the flag meaning. And now fans have the opportunity to the same, particularly if they disagree. Stand up for the anthem if you wish, but more importantly, stand up for American values. Stand up for the freedom of people to express themselves in ways you or I might dislike.
Stand up to honor a country where no one forces us to be patriotic in a single way. It’s the patriotic thing to do.