The story behind recent blaring headlines about athletes protesting the national anthem begins with Colin Kaepernick, last season’s quarterback for the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers. Starting in August of last year, Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem to protest what he viewed as police brutality and the oppression of people of color in the U.S. At season’s end, he was released by the 49ers and still has no NFL job.
Then in August, white supremacists and neo-Nazis held a rally in Charlottesville that culminated in the death of a woman opposing them. President Trump’s predictably tongue-tied, tin-eared response angered those who were already upset over the murderous display of hatred. And we were, to borrow a sporting phrase, off to the races.
We now find ourselves in a situation where multitudes of NFL players, most of them African-American, are refusing to stand for the national anthem. Whole teams are refusing to come out onto the field until after the national anthem has been sung. Trump, for his part, is tweeting that team owners ought to fire protesting players, and that fans should walk out if players protest. And, let’s not forget, he is also feuding with pro basketball players and teams.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is nuts. And there is plenty of nuttiness to spread smoothly around.
I’ll start with Trump. NFL Hall-of-Famer Terry Bradshaw summed it up when he said: “I think our president should concentrate on serious issues like North Korea and health care rather than athletes.” That makes sense to me.
The Republican effort to repeal and replace ObamaCare has just died. At the same time, North Korea, while working furiously to miniaturize nuclear weapons so they can fit on the business end of intercontinental ballistic missiles, is making blood-curdling threats against the U.S. And how does our president spend his time? He’s busy advising the NFL to ban pre-game protests and commenting negatively on the league’s TV ratings.
Perhaps he gains favor with his political base by picking this fight, but Trump has an obligation to try to unify the country, not divide it. The president of our country is supposed to be the adult in the room. Donald Trump ought to start acting that way.
Now, to the athletes, teams, leagues, etc., who choose to protest when the national anthem is sung or the flag is honored, here’s a bit of news: Everyone with a functioning brain already knows that our country is not perfect.
And here’s another bit of news: Not only is the U.S. not perfect, but, in the history of the world, there has never been, and there never will be, a perfect country. Countries are inhabited by human beings; when human beings become perfect, so will countries. If players are going to take a knee until the U.S. is perfect, they’ll be kneeling forever.
It is silly to “protest” our flag or our national anthem, because those are symbols of the entire country. They are not symbols of vile neo-Nazis or white supremacists who unfortunately live here; they are not symbols of the small number of police officers who criminally abuse their power. They symbolize and represent all of us — including the protesters. And not all of us are hopelessly bad people, and not every feature of our country is bad.
It is, for example, a good thing that people in our country are free to criticize when our president says something foolish; lots of countries would never permit such behavior. It is also a good thing that, if a pro athlete decides not to stand when the national anthem is played, he or she is free to take that action. (In fact, both Trump and the athletes criticizing him are exercising their free speech rights, and all of them will have to accept whatever consequences follow.) And there have been thousands of basically good Americans who gave their lives so we could enjoy these freedoms.
Interestingly, Colin Kaepernick almost got it right. When first asked about his decision not to stand, he gave a very thoughtful answer. This is part of what he said: “[T]his country isn’t holding their end of the bargain up, as far as giving freedom and justice, liberty to everybody. . . . I’ve seen. . . circumstances where men and women that have been in the military have come back and been treated unjustly by the country they have fought for, and have been murdered by the country they fought for, on our land. That’s not right.”
Instead of protesting symbols that represent all of America, Kaepernick should have responded to every reporter’s question, whether about football or anything else, by first talking about injustice in America. That is the way to make thoughtful criticisms of specific failings that need to be corrected.
Kneeling conveys no thought at all — it is literally mere posturing. Rather than taking a knee, Kaepernick and his fellow athletes should grab the mic.
Professional athletes have a huge megaphone, namely, the media frenzy that magnifies their every word. Using that megaphone, they can broadcast thoughtful opinions about the steps they think are needed to form “a more perfect Union.” That would be much more valuable than launching a blunderbuss, inarticulate protest against the very symbols of that union.
David E. Weisberg is an attorney and a member of the New York State bar. His scholarly papers on constitutional law are published on the Social Science Research Network.