What began as a protest against the inappropriate use of force by a minority of police officers against people of color and the inadequate response of the criminal justice system to these incidents is turning into something more.
On August 26, 2016, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat while the national anthem was played prior to a pre-season game against the Green Bay Packers. Kaepernick later modified his protest by kneeling on one knee instead of sitting while the anthem was played. His protest has been emulated by other athletes in other sports at all levels of competition.
Thirteen months later, Donald Trump got into the act. At a September 22, 2017, campaign rally in Alabama, Trump declared, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’ The only thing you could do better is, if you see it, even if it’s one player, leave the stadium. I guarantee things will stop. Things will stop. Just pick up and leave. Pick up and leave.”
A Twitter storm from Trump followed.
September 23: “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 our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem. If not, YOU’RE FIRED. Find something else to do!”
September 24: “If NFL fans refuse to go to games until players stop disrespecting our Flag & Country, you will see change take place fast. Fire or suspend!”
September 24: “NFL attendance and ratings are WAY DOWN. Boring games yes, but many stay away because they love our country. League should back U.S.”
September 24: “Courageous Patriots have fought and died for our great American Flag — we MUST honor and respect it! MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!”
September 25: “Many people booed the players who kneeled yesterday (which was a small percentage of total). These are fans who demand respect for our Flag!”
September 30: “Very important that NFL players STAND tomorrow, and always, for the playing of our National Anthem. Respect our Flag and our Country!”
Then, on Sunday, October 8, in a move that was choreographed as carefully as the dropping of balloons at a political convention, vice president Mike Pence walked out of a game between the Colts and 49ers in Indianapolis because several players knelt during the playing of the national anthem. This came after Pence had tweeted, “I stand with @POTUS Trump, I stand with our soldiers, and I will always stand for our Flag and our National Anthem.“
Thereafter, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones poured more fuel on the fire, warning his players, “If you do not honor and stand for the flag in the way that a lot of our fans feel that you should, then you won’t play,”
Here I should note that I haven’t heard Jones complain about fans who start shouting halfway through the anthem. Does it bother him when, around the time the anthem gets to “rockets’ red glare,” fans are screaming, “Go, Cowboys! F***ing, go!”
For NFL players who choose to kneel, the primary issue is still the inappropriate use of police force and other matters of concern to the minority community.
Trump, on the other hand, is seeking to frame the issue in terms of whether or not the players support country, flag, and American troops who are fighting overseas. His comments bring to mind the thoughts of Samuel Johnson, who proclaimed, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”
Still, Trump’s message resonates with his base, particularly among those of his supporters who don’t like black people and see the protest as being driven by ungrateful African Americans who don’t appreciate the opportunity they’ve been “given” to play in the NFL.
At this point, I should make clear my feelings toward Donald Trump. I think he’s a crude, vulgar, mentally unstable narcissist with fascist tendencies. I love this country as much as he does, probably more. I have enormous respect for the democratic institutions that have made America great. I don’t need lessons in patriotism from a man who says that the neo-Nazis and torch-carrying white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville included “some very fine people.”
When the kneeldowns began last year, I didn’t think the tactic was well-chosen. I agreed with Jim Brown (one of the greatest football players ever and an outspoken civil rights activist), who said, “I would not challenge our flag. I would not do anything that has to do with [dis]respecting the flag or the national anthem. I don’t think it’s appropriate.”
Like Brown, I believe that we need more unifying symbols in this country, not fewer. And the national anthem, like the flag, has the potential to be one of these symbols.
As for the effectiveness of the protest, I felt then – and still feel – that the chosen means of protest allow people like Donald Trump to frame the debate on their terms and avoid confronting the underlying issues. Rather than reject what the American flag stands for, we should be challenging people to live up to the ideals that the flag is supposed to represent.
As for whether or not NFL players have a First Amendment right and other standing to protest in this manner, we’re looking at issues of law, power, and the difference between right and wrong.
You can’t work for McDonald’s and say “Heil Hitler” each time you give a hamburger to a customer. At least, I hope you can’t.
If the NBA can fine Kobe Bryant for calling a fan a “faggot” and force Donald Sterling to sell the Los Angeles Clippers because of his racist remarks, I assume there are circumstances under which a sports league can legally penalize players for “disrespecting the American flag.”
Suppose Jerry Jones says to Dallas Cowboys fans, “If you don’t respect the anthem, you can’t come into my home.” Can Jones terminate the season-ticket licenses of fans who refuse to stand?
And what about the media? I write about boxing and attend roughly two dozen fight cards each year. Should I stand or kneel when the anthem is played?
Let’s start with the understanding that the media is credentialed to report on the story, not be the story. Writers who sit in the press section aren’t athletes.
Nor are we there as fans. We have advantages and opportunities that fans don’t have. In return, there are limitations on our conduct. For example, it’s inappropriate to openly root for or verbally denigrate an athlete from the press section.
Virtually all media credentials, regardless of the sport, state on the back that the credential can be revoked for disorderly conduct or other offenses. Suppose someone wears an American-flag lapel pin in the press section? No problem, right? A Black Lives Matter button? Seems okay. An ISIS-flag lapel pin or a swastika armband?
We’re in the press section to report on the event, not to make a political statement.
The private sector can’t discriminate in most instances on the basis of race, religion, age, or sexual orientation. If Jerry Jones announced that he was banning people of color, Jews, Muslims, and members of the LGBTQ community from the press section, he’d be violating the law. But the private sector is allowed to limit free speech in ways that the government can’t.
Want an example? ESPN disciplined Curt Schilling (to the delight of the political left) and Jemele Hill (to the delight of the political right) for expressing their political views on social media.
The sports editors at three major newspapers offer differing views as to whether reporters on assignment at a sports event should be required to stand when the national anthem is played.
New York Times sports editor Jason Stallman says that the Times doesn’t have a policy governing the issue and that it’s left to the conscience of each reporter. Asked what he anticipates the position of the Times would be if a reporter’s credential were taken away because he or she chose to not stand for the anthem, Stallman declined comment because “it’s a hypothetical question.”
Like The Times, the Boston Globe doesn’t have a policy that’s specific to the national anthem. But Globe sports editor Joseph Sullivan, says, “We do have a policy for reporters that has been in place for more than a decade. Our reporters are not allowed to take a public stance on elections or other political issues. They have to remain neutral. In this instance, I think that would mean standing. The reader comes first. If you’re a reporter for The Globe, your job on this given day is to report on the game. You have to put your feelings aside.”
But Los Angeles Times sports editor Angel Rodriguez has a different perspective.
“The LA Times does not have a policy on it,” Rodriguez states. “And it has never really come up here. If we needed a policy, mine would be, I would leave it up to the individual to make a decision to stand or not for the anthem. If they had a political reason to not stand, I’d be fine with them sitting. If they wanted that time to sit and tweet, then I’d ask them to be respectful and stand.”
“My parents are Cuban and fled Fidel Castro and his revolution in the 60’s over restrictions on personal freedoms,” Rodriguez continues. “So individual rights are important to me as they’ve had a direct impact in my life. My father was a political prisoner who was viewed as a counter-revolutionary because his views were different than what that government imposed on its people. I am always fearful whenever a government looks to restrict individual choice. If one of my reporters decided they did not want to stand for the anthem because of political reasons, I would support them one hundred percent. It is why my parents are in this country. I will stand and honor the anthem and the flag because this country has given me opportunities I would never have in Cuba,. But I realize my experiences may be different than others.”
And suppose Jerry Jones or another owner refused to credential writers who knelt when the anthem was played?
“If we were denied a credential over this,” Rodriguez answers, “then we’d raise it to the league/promoters/whoever and complain and hope to resolve it through negotiations. We’d involve the Associated Press Sports Editors group and rally support from that organization and other media outlets. If that doesn’t resolve it, then I’ll be damned if I’d send another LA Times reporters to cover their event.”
Some things are more important than sports.
There’s a time-honored tradition in America of non-violent civil disobedience to achieve social justice. The civil rights movement succeeded because tens of thousands of foot soldiers braved much more than the loss of a day’s pay or being deprived of a press credential to achieve a desired goal.
Responsible media are already under assault by the Trump Administration. If Trump continues to force the issue, there may well come a time when standing for the national anthem is interpreted, not as a statement of respect for cherished American values but as a symbol of support for Donald Trump. If that time comes, I’ll kneel.
Kneeling under these circumstances would not be disrespectful to the American flag. It would be a statement of belief in what our country can and should be. In the words of Clarence Darrow, “True patriotism hates injustice in its own land more than anywhere else.”
And a final thought: I’d like to see athletes who are kneeling for the national anthem also go out and register people to vote.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at email@example.com. He is the author of The Trial of Patrolman Thomas Shea (published by Seven Stories Press), an account of the shooting death of a ten-year-old black child at the hands of a New York City police officer and the ground-breaking trial that followed. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism.
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