This is the first in 4-part series of my exploration of the ongoing saga of the national anthem protests in the NFL (which has recently spread to other sports as well). As always, dialogue is welcome. In this first installment, I will explore the protest act itself and the initial reaction it has sparked—namely, that it’s disrespectful.
First, I’ll preface by saying the method of protest is not one I would have chosen. That said, I’m trying my best to listen and give the benefit of the doubt to those who have chosen it.
Why? Well, in part because I’m a white, middle-aged, middle-class, middle-management male in a prosperous corner of this country—the recipient of near-maximum privilege any way you cut it. Not that I think that’s a show-stopper—I don’t subscribe to the automatic invalidity of one’s opinion on an issue based on their identity. But it humbles me enough that I attempt to give the benefit of the doubt to those with a perspective that I don’t always see because of my privilege. That doesn’t de facto mean they’re right, but I take it upon myself to listen and open my mind to it as best I can.
The posture is probably not as disrespectful as you think
So what do I hear when I listen? Well, enough to at least give me pause before assuming the worst of the protesting players. When Colin Kaepernick first began sitting for the anthem, his teammate, Safety Eric Reid, engaged him in discussion about it, as did long-snapper and former Green Beret Nate Boyer who wrote an open letter to Kaepernick basically saying his initial reaction was hurt and anger, but that he is trying to listen and understand. Reid expressed interest in joining his cause, but expressed concern over the perception of the gesture, that sitting perhaps signified apathy, and they didn’t wish to disrespect the country or veterans. To his credit, Kaepernick listened. Together, and even after a consultation with Boyer himself, they decided to kneel instead. A posture of kneeling traditionally connotes honoring, or at least a greater solemnity, while still making their statement at the same time. As Reid expressed in a recent op-ed, they saw it as more of a statement of bereavement over injustice rather than a statement of disrespect toward veterans or anyone else, and that they imagined the posture resembling “a flag flown at half-mast.”
Now, you don’t have to agree or buy into that rationale yourself, or suddenly adopt it as your own form of protest. But at least we should agree it doesn’t seem like a middle finger, either. It’s thoughtful. Something to engage with. Listen to. Dialogue about. Have a beer summit over. Learn another perspective that might even sharpen us in some way, whether you come out on the other side of that conversation agreeing or not.
What you might mean to say is that you feel disrespected by it
Claiming that something is disrespectful can mean multiple things. That (a) the person has the intent of overt disrespect—toward Americans, conservatives, cops, veterans, you personally—fill in the blank. Or (b) that one or more of the aforementioned parties feels disrespected by the action, regardless of the protestors’ intent. It is also possible that both (a) and (b) are true at once. I’m not convinced (a) is true—i.e. that the act of kneeling during the national anthem constitutes overt, intentional disrespect—based on how the players have articulated it as discussed above. But some will counter that if people are feeling disrespected by it, and they’re still doing it anyway, then it does show disrespectful intent regardless of their stated rationale (so that (b) necessitates (a) by default). After all, they’re not being sensitive to the feelings of those being offended, which serves to divide. Okay, that’s one way to look at it. But frankly it sounds a little like saying, “They need to act out their beliefs in a way that doesn’t offend me or violate my safe space, regardless of whether that’s their intent.” The irony is that many who offer this objection would decry it in other contexts as the millennial, snow-flakey take on it.
Our hang-ups on respectability are likely missing a larger point
So is the chosen method of protest disrespectful? The answer is likely in the eye of the beholder. Maybe it is to some extent, but likely not to the degree that some of the more visceral reactions, with their hyperbolic rhetoric around troop-hating contempt for freedom, would suggest.
But in any case, have we considered that this conversation about what’s disrespectful might be a red herring in the first place? It is, after all, a protest. The civil rights movement was born out of protest. Our very nation was born out of protest. And it was all disrespectful to someone—namely, the status quo of the existing power structures. As MLK said, “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” You may feel the comparisons are unfair because the current cause is less worthy, and if you’re inclined to stick with me on this journey I’ll explore that angle at greater length in part 4, but in the meantime let’s agree that any protest is going to ruffle the feathers of someone, or it’s kind of pointless. At the very least it’s started a conversation.
It might not have been my chosen form of expression, and I certainly don’t seek to invalidate the feelings of those who take offense to it. But it’s that next step beyond the offense where we ought to pause before becoming prescriptive. As soon as I, as one who benefits from the existing power structures, start dictating the where, why, when, and how the oppressed should feel about their oppression, as soon as I suggest how they ought to act out their frustration toward it, as soon as I demand they do it in a ‘respectable’ manner as defined by me, that’s on my timetable, doesn’t make me uncomfortable, and doesn’t violate my ‘safe space,’ that’s when I’ve gone too far, made it more about me, becoming what MLK described as the white moderate, and need to check my privilege at the door. I’ve failed at that many times in the past, and this time just trying to shut up and listen, understand, and empathize.