This is the third in a 4-part series exploring the ongoing protests taking place in the NFL. For context, I recommend starting with Part 1.
Patriotism as Compulsory
I’m no legal expert, but if my employer decided to start each day with the Pledge of Allegiance, and I chose to quietly abstain, my hunch is they’d probably have a hard time firing me over that, provided it wasn’t a part of my employment contract or affecting my job performance in some way. I’m also no expert in NFL contracts so as to say whether a team/owner could be warranted in firing a player for abstaining from standing for the anthem, but legality aside, I find it odd that anyone (let alone the president) would suggest they should be required to stand for the anthem in the first place, since the concept of “compelled respect” is self-evidently oxymoronic. Surely everyone but Kim Jong-un gets this…?
Patriotism as Government-Sponsored
For my employer to introduce a patriotic display prior to the day’s work activities would also be just exceedingly weird. Owing to longstanding tradition, it’s decidedly less weird to sing the anthem before a major sporting event, but consider how the NFL has amped up these displays in recent years. It’s only since 2009 that they began having players gather on the field before the anthem—prior to that they didn’t emerge from the locker room until afterward. And it’s not just the anthem anymore. I’m bombarded now with all manner of lasers and cannons, color guard displays, field-sized flags, and fighter jet fly-bys, all so that my military can advertise its own might—at my expense—to me.
And why the recent change? Simply put, because the Department of Defense saw a demographic leaning in NFL viewership that lent itself to a recruiting opportunity, and has spent millions of dollars to capitalize on it more and more, especially since 9/11. A cynic could argue it’s exploitative. And if it sounds like I take umbrage with it, it’s not because I don’t appreciate our troops—don’t even go there—but I can think of better uses for my tax dollars. The change in policy to ensure players were on display during the anthem was just another element of the overall marketing strategy. So when we hear, “Stick to sports and keep the politics out of it,” let’s remember that it was the government that inserted politics into the sport, not the players.
Patriotism as Virtue Signaling
In my experience, very few people (though there are some) will get up off the couch in the privacy of their own home to remove their hat, put hand over heart, and silently stand during the singing of the anthem. It’s something we do at the ballpark because of the tradition and social norm of doing it as a crowd. In fact, by kneeling for the anthem, I’d venture to say the protestors are engaging with it at some level, ascribing some level of meaning to it, more so than the vast majority of the rest of us are (or at least were, before we all started thinking and talking about it more).
Let me be clear: there is nothing wrong with such traditions and social norms. Continuing the national anthem at sporting events is fine; I stand with my hand over my heart and will continue to do so. But my point is: don’t mistake the tradition itself for what it represents. Because either way, whether in the ballpark or the privacy of your own home, you have to recognize that such patriotic displays are only a symbol of our patriotism, not the patriotism itself.
As case in point: many have pointed out that the kneelers should be doing more—put some action behind their words, put their money where their mouth is. To this I say: amen—I agree! But wait… why just the kneelers? Surely you wouldn’t let your disagreement with them expose your own double standard by bringing this up only now, because this concept of putting action behind the views you express publically has always applied, and applies even now, to both sides. Whether someone is kneeling or standing for the anthem, the greater consideration in either case is what they are doing about it after the game, right? Surely we don’t grant ourselves the moral licensing to do nothing to actually improve our country, just so long as we wrap ourselves in the flag when everybody’s looking, do we?
Of course not. The necessary next step, beyond temporarily getting out of your seat, is to actually get off your ass to do something to love your neighbor and improve your world, country, or local community. If you’re not backing up the display with such substance, then the symbol is not representing anything. It’s meaningless. It’s useless. It can even become a form of religious idolatry. And I submit that some have made it thus (more on that in a bit).
Patriotism in Many Forms
And that substance of your patriotism may take many forms, as Bob Costas correctly pointed out in a recent interview. It may be expressed through serving in the military with honor and dignity (as it was for my father). But as much as I honor and appreciate their sacrifice, I reject the notion that a monopoly on patriotism belongs to service men and women alone. Patriotism may also involve grinding out an often thankless career as an industrial arts teacher in a public school giving kids (some without many other options) a marketable, vocational skill, when you probably could have made more in the private sector (also my father). Patriotism might involve philanthropy to organizations that improve our communities, making a million-dollar pledge and then sticking to it even after you cease to draw your NFL salary. It might involve advocating for policy reform as in the recent letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee co-penned by wide receiver Doug Baldwin and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. It might look like the many other examples of community engagement referenced in that same letter.
And patriotism, as exemplified by patriots through the past 250 years who have pushed us toward progress on numerous fronts, along with our founders themselves, might sometimes look like dissent and resistance. As Notes of a Native Son author and social critic James Baldwin wrote, “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” Because productive democracy depends on its critics; it doesn’t dismiss them with “love it or leave it” bumper-sticker axioms.
Patriotism as Idolatry
But alas, our nouveau brand of patriotism in America is getting dangerously close to precisely this level of superficiality, something that emphasizes the display more than the substance. The most telling sign of this is that the NFL has come under far less criticism for their past and present leniency on more serious offenses. In what kind of world does the importance of outward displays of patriotism run so high that—while we are willing to turn a blind eye to all manner of substance abuse, sexual assault, domestic violence, and other forms of personal misconduct among football players—that this, of all things, is the straw that breaks the camel’s back?
It was written like a rhetorical question, but I’ll answer it anyway: the kind of world where we’ve planted the seeds of idolatry by coming to prize the packaging more than the contents.
To echo the words of James’ epistle (2:18) in applying them to another context: show me your patriotic displays, and I’ll show you my patriotism by what I do.
The Faith Angle
To continue on this faith parallel (because it’s a good one), there are likewise differing expressions of faith from people with different gifts, or that call for emphasis in different contexts. An article a month ago explored how the act of kneeling by two different players (Tim Tebow in prayer, Colin Kaepernick in protest) represents two different manifestations of devotion that only together make a holistically healthy expression of the Christian faith. Tebow represents the importance of living out your faith in prayer and personal piety, and Kaepernick represents the importance of being a prophetic voice, living out your faith in the public square, speaking truth to authority and sometimes making the dominant power structures uncomfortable. Both are necessary. Both are biblical.
I do happen to believe that American Evangelicalism has over-emphasized the former while stigmatizing the latter, to our great loss. But I suppose this isn’t new or surprising—the prophets themselves were often persecuted and killed.