Many people have weighed in on the firestorm I started when I declined to accept the People’s Health Champion Award at the New Orleans Saints game last Sunday. Both supporters and opponents have misconstrued or misrepresented my motive in reaching a very difficult decision.
The People Health Champion award recognizes those over age 65 who continue to serve their communities and the nation. I was honored and even excited when I was notified, prior to the start of this NFL season, that I had been selected. The people I dealt with from People’s Health are wonderful folks who put a lot of work into the process. I know that I disappointed them and that is unfortunate. Even when I declined the award, they responded with understanding and respect. The New Orleans Saints — not so much.
I stopped watching the NFL after the second week, and have dedicated that time to my work with veterans. I had hoped that the recent meeting of the owners would result in an end to this sideshow, but unfortunately it did not. To make matters worse, the Saints kneeled during a moment of silence for a slain New Orleans Police officer.
As a 22-year Navy veteran, I am proud of my country and my flag. More importantly, the flag is a symbol of unity. The Buffalo Soldiers carried it in the Spanish-American War. The Suffragettes carried it in their quest for the right to vote. Martin Luther King carried it, respected it and pledged allegiance to it, while he was marching for civil rights. The players have used the flag to divide, not to unite. I can think of few things more despicable in what they couch as a way to draw attention to police brutality and injustice based on race.
Like all civilized people, I despise police brutality. As an attorney, I have taken police misconduct cases. Like all civilized people, I loathe racism and discrimination.
Certainly, I defend the rights of the players to protest. While I defend their right, I also have the right to criticize their attack on our flag. Their tactic has backfired. It has resulted in more division and a significant drop in NFL attendance and television ratings. They are alienating the very people who would be most inclined to rally to their cause — military veteran. As a military person, I understand that pursuing a failed tactic is counter-productive. When a tactic fails, it is time to change tactics.
I am astonished that I have been attacked by the Saints organization. When I talked to Ben Hales, their Chief Operating Officer, he was respectful and understanding of my stand. It was a very cordial conversation. I did not expect their abusive attack on my right to protest the players protest. It seems that the Saints do not realize that free speech is a two-way street.
In the end, I decided to decline the award because silence is acquiescence. I could not insult my brother and sister veterans by participating in a phony, feel-good photo-op to make the Saints look good. The Saints claim that they are supportive of the military and veterans.
Outside of photos, a few game balls and some free tickets, the Saints have done nothing. Currently I advocate on behalf of 90,000 Navy veterans denied Agent Orange benefits because Congress cannot find the $1.1 billion spread over 10 years to pay for those benefits.
There are 50,000 Guam veterans also exposed to Agent Orange. Congress cannot find the money for them, either. My organization estimates that 4.5 million veterans have been exposed to toxic substances, whether from radiation in the 1950s to open air burn pits in Afghanistan and Iraq. What have the Saints done to help those veterans? It took us 70 years to gain benefits for World War II veterans exposed to mustard gas. Where was the NFL?
A few weeks ago, I received an award from the Baton Rouge Folds of Honor chapter. That award hangs proudly on the wall of my conference room and is visible in some of my recent television interviews. This award was named for a young man who succumbed to disease brought on from exposure to burn pits. The “folds” refers to the way a flag is folded prior to presentation to the survivor of a military member or person. How could I accept that honor and then go to a place where that same flag is dishonored? I could not.
I am sorry the Saints took the low road, but I guess they had to try to justify their position given the declining attendance and viewership. Still, part of my goal here was to start a conversation. I have offered to sit down with the team or a delegation of players to discuss this matter. That offer is still on the table.
John B. Wells is a retired Navy Commander. After retirement, he became an attorney practicing military and veterans law. He is Executive Director of the nonprofit Military-Veterans Advocacy, Inc.