Kneeling for the National Anthem is the Ultimate Display of Respect
On Thursday evening, President Trump traveled to Alabama where he would headline a campaign rally for Luther Strange, a candidate for the Alabama Senate seat left vacant by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. During his remarks, the President suggested that NFL owners who see players "disrespecting the flag" should say "get that son of a bitch off the field right now, he's fired." On Saturday, the President doubled down on Twitter:
If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL,or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect.... (@realDonaldTrump) September 23rd, 2017
...our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem. If not, YOU'RE FIRED. Find something else to do! (@realDonaldTrump) September 23rd, 2017
The backlash from the President's comments has been justifiably enormous. Much of the Left decried the President's comments as uniquely un-American and reestablished their support for NFL players protesting police brutality against African Americans by kneeling during the national anthem. The response from the Right was partially similar. Few voiced support for the protests themselves, rather the players' right to do so, but many conservative voices expressed displeasure with the President's comments in general.
Personally, I believe that the President is deliberately attempting to sow discord in current political discourse, distracting media outlets from the Graham-Cassidy healthcare reform effort. The Republicans are quickly approaching their deadline for action under the budget reconciliation process, and resistance does nothing but slow their process and cause hesitancy among crucial members of their caucus.
But, as the debate is revived more vigorously, I think it is important to re-litigate the Kaepernick controversy: not only is it a powerful representation of race relations in this country, but the movement has grown to encompass the entire NFL and famous figures in other sports and industries as well, warranting renewed consideration.
There are various lines of attack against Kaepernick and his contemporaries. Kneeling is widely considered an indefensible act of defiance and disrespect, a rejection of the American flag or American values. Conservative writer and podcast host Ben Shapiro recently wrote that kneeling during the Anthem is "the equivalent of burning the American flag." Many Americans feel that Kaepernick-esque protests are "unpatriotic," 72%, in fact. Others believe that NFL players are using their popularity improperly, politicizing and sullying a national reprieve from our current chaotic political state.
Kneeling during the National Anthem is absolutely, on it's surface, a disrespectful act, but I believe that it exhibits a patriotism and deep respect for the country far outweighed by the superficial nature of the action. I also believe that NFL players are using their platform for play incredibly powerfully, something they have the right and duty to do.
1. Is it disrespectful?
Protest is an inherently disrespectful act. It is built on defiance of the status quo, and inextricably reliant on disrespect of the powers that be. Kneeling for the national Anthem is not, however an anti-American act. The most sacred of American values and identity lies within the protection of rights, the first of which includes the freedom of and protest and speech. The simple act of expressing one's opinions, especially when they run contrary to the accepted norm, is an American act, separate and apart from the actual opinions themselves. Kneeling for the Anthem is an expression, not of rejection, but of criticism. Kaepernick and other NFL players who have kneeled during the Anthem are expressing their discontent with disproportionally applied police brutality in the United States, and the institutional inequity and racism that protect it. It is a sentiment of hope, of longing, that the country can change. Each and every one of those protesters want a better America, not no America at all. Their protests exhibit a deep respect and love for the country, one that is willing to take advantage of its protections to criticize it and ask for its improvement. Every American wants a better country, free from inequality and injustice - so do NFL players kneeling for the National Anthem. Expressing discontent for the betterment of the country as a whole is about as American as it gets. Is it more disrespectful to the country to echo their call for improvement, or to demand their silence?
2. Should they be doing it?
Yes, they make a lot of money. That does not mean that NFL players are removed from injustices that plague the rest of the country, just ask Michael Bennett, an NFL player recently the victim of excessive use of force by police. They are certainly better-off than the vast majority of Americans, but their wealth does not disqualify the validity of their experience. They are also well disposed to comment on social movements, utilizing their unique platform of visibility second only to major politicians or celebrities. If an NFL player is a member of a community which is victim to state-sanctioned inequity or simply institutional bias, why should they not utilize their platform to call for change? Many are quick to say "there are better ways to protest, ways that do not 'disrespect the flag,'" or that players should stick to football. One cannot deny that the protests have been incredibly successful if they aimed to start a national conversation. The issue has been deeply polarizing, but it remains in the national conversation in a way that can only be beneficial. Apathy is cancerous, and when race-related issues are allowed to fester they often result in 'unexplained' violence or other troubling outbursts. A conversation is always better than none at all, making the protester's role in its inception essential. I would also argue that football players have earned their position as centerpieces of media attention. They are incredibly skilled at a popular game in the United States, their work is a valuable and highly coveted product. When television cameras are on them during games, they have the absolute right to act as they wish in conjunction with the delivery of that service. People who would rather see them play football must accept that their protests are a legitimate part of that experience, however justified they may be. It is the American public who choses to watch, and those players are using their popularity to call attention to something they believe in. They have earned their place in the spotlight, and may do with it what they please.
The protests will continue, as will the controversy, but when we consider the issue we must keep one thing in mind: We are all on the same team, and we all want a country better suited to ourselves and our posterity. It is unhelpful and destructive to question another's patriotism unless they explicitly state otherwise. The vast majority of those protesting love this country deeply, and they should be treated as such. Let us assume the best in others, and then disagree about how to get to where we all want to go.