As professional football heads into Week 2, the National Football League continues to lead from behind on its most contentious issue – how athletes will conduct themselves during pre-game ceremonies honoring our country. Fewer players protested in the season’s opening games, giving the NFL hope the issue will fade away and an official policy will be unnecessary. But, “If you choose not to decide / you still have made a choice,” sings the rock band Rush.
The League’s failure to act has caused lasting damage and prevented an opportunity at what might have been a constructive dialog. They allowed players to express dissent by taking a knee, taking a seat, or raising a fist and repudiating the time-honored tradition of standing with their fellow Americans to celebrate our past and express hope in our future.
The NFL regulates player conduct on and off the field to promote sportsmanship and set an example for the nation’s youth, yet they tolerate anthem protests which violate traditional norms of civility. They allow the NFL platform to be used for protests which teach kids to defy authority and question our national morality, absent context or nuance.
The example was set by former San Francisco 49er Colin Kaepernick who first protested during the 2016 preseason. His explanation: “I am not going to stand up and show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”
Kaepernick made it clear his beef is with his country. He explained his concerns about racial profiling and police shootings but indicted the nation for the specific sins of individuals. As more players joined in, each had their own reasons, to include the president, the police, the NFL, the First Amendment, social justice, or some other cause. The protests became a flea market of grievance with the only commonality being the national anthem.
Former wide receiver Donte Stallworth takes great offense at the suggestion the demonstrations are aimed at the anthem. As protests began anew this summer, Stallworth tweeted, “NFL PLAYERS ARE *NOT* PROTESTING THE NATIONAL ANTHEM. How many times must it be said?” Well, Donte, a protest against our national symbol suggests a protest against the nation.
No problem will be solved with a blanket condemnation of America and her people – whether that is real or perceived. Concerns about cases of police brutality should be directed at the bad cop or his department. Acts of discrimination can be corrected if the admissions officer or the mortgage lender or the employment supervisor is held accountable.
Police misconduct occurs, there’s no doubt. But for every act of police injustice, there are many more examples of sacrifice and heroism. Discrimination happens, but not by every American, everywhere, all the time. Our kids should understand that America, while imperfect, is not immoral. America is a place of hope and promise. We operate on the belief that our country is inherently good and each day we strive to become “a more perfect Union.”
While leading the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King, Jr. believed that the promise of America is what guaranteed progress. In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” King explained that America enjoys the blessings of God and is rooted in the moral law. “Abused and scorned though we may be,” King wrote, “our destiny is tied up with the destiny of America.” The injustice King fought was taking place in America, but he didn’t believe it to be of America. He denounced those who fought discrimination with “bitterness and hatred,” explaining that that movement was “made up of people who have lost faith in America.”
King condemned the police department of Birmingham, but praised the United States, saying the cause of justice was harmonious with the “eternal will of God” and the “sacred heritage of our nation.” He said he was in Birmingham “because injustice is here.” In contrast, the NFL players are protesting in the stadium and on the field, while the problems they seek to address are on the streets and in the communities.
Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered 55 years ago, is anything but a protest of the nation or its symbols. It is an appeal to believe, as King did, in “the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.” His refrain reminded his followers to “refuse to believe” those who say America is incapable of better days.
National anthem protests in the NFL are conducted at the wrong time and in the wrong venue. They undermine the very institutions that exist to correct injustice. They offer no hope that problems can be solved. Players would be more effective if they demonstrate that America is the solution, not the problem. Ditto for the National Football League.
Tom Kilgannon is the President of Freedom Alliance, a nonprofit organization that provides support to America’s military families and advocates for a strong national defense.