I was never bothered by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the pre-game playing of the national anthem. I thought he had every right to do it, and I didn’t correlate the gesture to disrespecting our country or the military. Absent his choice of socks, I regarded Kaepernick’s protest against police brutality and racial inequality to be peaceful and dignified – in its own way, even subtle.
Many, including our president, disagree and are attempting to force the NFL into a stark choice: Players either stand during the national anthem or face suspension or dismissal. Personally, I don’t think it’s part of President Donald Trump’s purview to inform the league what constitutes a fireable offense. An owner has the right to fire or not to sign Kaepernick. An owner also can allow peaceful dissent on the field if he so chooses. Trump should stay out of the matter entirely – the NFL is not an arm of the federal government after all.
But Trump is Trump, so here we go again, fighting yet another racially charged battle in a never-ending culture war. Arguments will be made on both sides; very few opinions will change. We will all make our statements: Suspend a player, or link arms with him; watch the game or switch to the Food Network; stand up straight or take a knee.
But whether an owner takes action or not, whether spectators take offense or don’t, whether players elect to stand or kneel, let’s all get at least one thing straight: The American flag isn’t sacred. It can be legally desecrated, i.e., burned in protest. Its colors and symbols are routinely found on sexy swimwear, racy undergarments and tacky tchotchkes. It can be and is displayed at Ku Klux Klan rallies, alongside flags that promote hate symbols like Pepe the Frog or the Nazi swastika, and no one gets arrested for defiling the sacrosanct by association.
The flag represents American values (among them, ironically vis-a-vis this NFL debacle, freedom of speech) for which many in the military have fought and died. But those values remain intact regardless of whether or not people pay homage to the flag. In other words, our cherished values and national/civic pride can’t be assaulted by mere gestures. The real damage occurs when we lose our collective mind over symbols and symbolism, and forget that the flag itself is not owed more respect and consideration than the people it represents.
Anyone can decorate him or herself head-to-toe in red, white and blue: flag pins covering every inch of a lapel, hats and T-shirts bedazzled with sequins and rhinestones delineating the stars and stripes. But that doesn’t prove a damn thing about patriotism. Here’s what I’d want to know: Is he or she knowledgeable about our nation’s history? Reflective or reflexive while discussing important social and/or political issues? Respectful of the rights of all citizens, regardless of race, religion (or lack thereof), sex, political affiliation and sexual orientation?
I couldn’t care less if a person swells with pride when he or she hears the national anthem being played before the ball game starts, or whether he or she is mentally working out whether to get nachos or garlic fries at the end of the first quarter. I would prefer they’re both standing whilst cogitating, but I wouldn’t throw anyone out because they didn’t. Symbolic gestures can indicate a certain degree of patriotic impulse, but particularly at sporting events they can just as easily provide cover for empty-headed boosterism as well.
I don’t need to hear any more lectures about respecting the American flag. However, I wouldn’t mind some thoughtful discourse around respecting the American people and the different colors and constituencies we represent, and the value of listening to as many voices as we can with empathy, sincerity and humility. As our country divides and fractures itself into ever tinier bits, I can’t think of a more patriotic gesture than that.