This Memorial Day, let's remember there is more to unite us than divide

This Memorial Day, let's remember there is more to unite us than divide
© Getty images

As we reflect, and grill out on the patio or at the park this Memorial Day, on the brave sacrifices our men and women in the armed forces have endured in service of this country, one thing comes to mind. As a country, we seem to be straining between our ideals — what we aspire to be — and our confidence in who we have become. We feel torn, that is, between nationalism and patriotism.

No more salient example exists than in the rage over whether NFL players should stand for the national anthem before games. The league has come up with what appears now to be a life-saving compromise, requiring all personnel on the field to stand for the anthem, while allowing those who do not wish to stand to remain in the locker room. This tenuous détente is likely to last for a while as a stopgap measure, but it does little to resolve the tension.

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I have long held that airing political grievances during sporting events is a bad idea. In 1968, when U.S. Olympic gold and bronze medal-winning track athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised black-gloved hands in protest against social conditions facing black Americans while at the medal podium, the U.S. government stripped them of their medals. The USOC suspended them from the team, and they never represented the U.S. again.

 

By their accounts, even though they obscured the USA on their uniforms, they were performing a patriotic act. That is, they were upholding the ideals of America at a time when our nation was not living up to them.

Today, when football players such as Colin Kaepernick have decided to take a knee in protest against police brutality rather than stand for the national anthem, they have paid a similar price. The NFL is a business that cloaks itself in patriotism, honoring men and women in the armed services and law enforcement for their sacrifices on behalf of our country. The singing of the national anthem harks back to the founding of our nation, a time steeped in war and sacrifice by the noble patriots who fought against British tyranny to carve an independent path forward.

Football, more than any other sport, exemplifies the American ideal of patriotism. Its origins date back to the civil war, when the scions of northern families who were either too young (or too privileged) to participate in the war yearned for the valor of the war hero. In response, Ivy League colleges such as Harvard and Yale developed a sport that would allow young men to enact battles in a safer environment. In those early days, without helmets or protective gear, some of those young men died on the field due to headlong collisions with each other. That is the rich history of football, and it is unique among American sports in that respect.

Fast forward to today. National sports are not only a big business, but they have come to represent a sacred ground in America. On Sundays, in many cities and small towns across our nation, Church and football are sacrosanct. Many fans view their weekly respite from work and politics as an inviolable space. After all of the tumult and stress of a long workweek, they do not want to sit in front of the television to see America’s social battles waged on the football field. That is why we as a people chose to numb ourselves with cheap, plentiful beer and bland food — it is truly comforting.

The truth is there are social ills that beset America, and many of today’s professional sports players come from communities that have been the battlegrounds for those contests — against racism, poverty, incarceration and marginalization. In fact, in many cases, their ability to play sports rescued them from the less fortunate fates of their neighbors and peers. Many of them feel like veterans of a domestic war that has been bubbling beneath the surface of our nation since its founding.

On the national stage, however, there are bigger fish to fry. We have thousands of veterans of America’s wars, from World War II through the latest wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and Niger who are suffering too. Many of them have faced unimaginable horrors in the defense of our nation — the horrors of seeing their fellow soldiers blown to bits; the catastrophic injuries among those who survived; the excruciating physical anguish of lost limbs and embedded shrapnel from exploded IEDs; the psychological weight of carrying the survivors guilt over the friends that did lose their lives.

By contrast, the social ills facing America’s urban centers seem almost tame: Like a game invented by old men to give young people an opportunity to vent their youthful aggressions. In addition, the players in the NFL, who make millions of dollars and are placed on a pedestal — even higher than those in the military who have committed the ultimate sacrifice in service of their country — seem, by contrast, to be privileged, ungrateful brats at best. At worst, they are poisoning the national well with petty gripes that dishonor the brave warriors who have laid down their lives to protect the very rights they get to exercise as Americans.

This Memorial Day, let us truly enshrine in our minds and hearts what it costs to enjoy the freedoms we have as Americans. Let us suspend the fights that rage all around us on the grounds of wealth, race and social class. Let us acknowledge, if only for one afternoon, that there is far more that unites us than divides.

Armstrong Williams (@ARightSide) is author of the book "Reawakening Virtues." He served as an adviser and spokesman for Dr. Ben Carson's 2016 presidential campaign, and is on Sirius XM126 Urban View nightly from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Eastern.