Michael Hayden: In Trump versus NFL, standing up for free speech

When I became director of CIA, I kept my Steelers season tickets. It really wasn’t a hard choice. My wife and I and the security detail willingly braved the Pennsylvania Turnpike for the nine-hour round trip to Pittsburgh since, no matter what was going on in Washington, when we settled into our seats at Heinz Field all that mattered for three hours was what happened between those white lines. It’s been that way on fall Sundays for me for more than 60 years.

Until Sunday, when the ugly side of American politics intruded into my fall eden. I blame some of that on Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who last year began to protest social injustice and police brutality by sitting or taking a knee during the pregame national anthem. His comments on America were a bit more dystopian than I thought was warranted, and I wasn’t enthusiastic about turning a unifying and celebratory moment for most Americans into a venue for protest.

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Still, this is a big country with a big heart and the issues he raised were both real and sincerely held. It didn't take much to just let this ride, even after some other NFL players joined in. Everything seemed to be within the tolerances of normal American political discourse and, certainly, American free speech.

Until last Friday. And then President Trump, before a red-hot Alabama crowd of his political base, decided to treat the “SOBs” who wouldn't stand for the anthem the way he has previously treated other groups like Mexicans (murderers and rapists), intelligence professionals (Nazis), immigrants (deeply unfair), refugees (dangerous) and Muslims (they hate us).

When in political stress, attack the “other” — those dark forces that allegedly threaten our way of life — and pay no attention to the lack of legislative progress on ObamaCare or anything else, a careening crisis with a nuclear North Korea or the destruction of civilized life on an island territory of the United States.

For extra measure, the president claimed that the NFL was ruining the game with recent rule changes to prevent or reduce player injury: “Today, if you hit too hard, 15 yards, throw him out of the game!” To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, President Trump does not instinctively appeal to “the better angels of our nature.”

The NFL — players, coaches, staff, ownership and league officials — had to make decisions quickly. Sunday’s kickoffs were less than 40 hours away when the president walked off that stage in Huntsville. Nearly half of the NFL would be getting on planes in less than 12 hours.

There were tough choices to make: respect for the flag, respect for the anthem, respect for your teammates, respect for justice, respect for your fans, respect for free speech. The president had created what logicians call a false dilemma, that support for free speech or for teammates equated to disrespect for flag, anthem or country. And he did it for political advantage.

My Steelers rejected the false dilemma. They concentrated on unity and focus. They were in Chicago to play football. Head coach Mike Tomlin said, “We're not going to play politics. We're football players, we're football coaches. We're not participating in the anthem today, not to be disrespectful to the anthem, but to remove ourselves from the circumstance.”

So the team did not go out onto the field for “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Several coaches (including Tomlin) did go out to represent the organization. Alejandro Villanueva — starting left tackle, West Point graduate, decorated Army ranger — broke consensus slightly to appear at the mouth of the tunnel with his hand over his heart, but several players have already said they understood Villanueva’s unique circumstances.

Pittsburgh is a patriotic town. There was a lot of anger about the Steelers not showing up. But I believe that everyone on the Steelers did the right thing. They were dealt a bad hand and played it as best they could. Or, more accurately, they tried not to play.

And the dealer here was President Trump. A week ago, a handful of NFL players protested in one form or another. On Sunday, three full teams did not go out for the anthem, almost all players and coaches locked arms, and more than 200 in the NFL knelt, sat or otherwise demonstrated their displeasure.

And, to be specific, their displeasure was largely with President Trump and what he had said about them, their teammates and their rights. Forced again to defend the indefensible, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Monday said the president’s Huntsville stand was about “honoring the men and women who fought to defend” the flag.

As a 39-year military veteran, I think I know something about the flag, the anthem, patriotism, and I think I know why we fight. It’s not to allow the president to divide us by wrapping himself in the national banner. I never imagined myself saying this before Friday, but if now forced to choose in this dispute, put me down with Kaepernick.

Gen. Michael Hayden is a former director of the CIA and the National Security Agency, and a visiting professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.