TakeAKnee Part 3: Sorry, Your Love of Country is Obscured by all that Patriotism

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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.

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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.

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TakeAKnee Part 2: The Posturing over the Posture

Pence

This is the second in a 4-part series exploring the ongoing saga of the protests taking place in the NFL. For context, I recommend starting with Part 1, in which I explore the respectability of the posture. In this post I will explore some of the common responses to the protest by those who wish to leverage them in service of varying agendas.

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The Attempt to Minimize

The first inevitable question that arises is, “Aren’t there more important things to be talking about?” There’s something subtly disingenuous about the question to begin with, since (1) the person asking it typically is, in fact, talking about it, in order to express their own opinion on the matter, and (2) that opinion is often (not always, to be fair) not so much that they find other things to be more important, but just that they don’t find this cause to be worthy (in which case, just say that). But even if the answer is Yes—the obvious implied answer from the questioner—we need not subscribe to the false choice of conversations on one issue necessarily taking away from conversations on the others. The conversation around racial disparities in our country is important, whether you believe the NFL protests are effective in advancing that conversation or not. Disaster relief, mass shootings, and tensions with hostile foreign powers are also important. Are they more important? I’m uninterested in taking the bait of that question’s unspoken intent to minimize the issue by virtue of creating a faux hierarchy. They need not be in competition; talk and act on them all.

The Attempt to Dismiss

The common #StickToSports catchphrase is essentially saying, “I tune in to sporting events to be entertained, not to hear your opinion.” Aside from containing a subtle condescending air toward athletes, it smacks a little of the entitled, “You’re violating my safe space” response I addressed in part 1. But I’d make a larger point: like it or not, sports is woven into the cultural fabric of American life, and as such, has always carried intersectional touchstones to other areas of life that transcend mere athletic achievement. Stories of courage and mental conviction, to overcoming adversity, to profound faith, to political provocation, to challenging racial and gender barriers, to breaking down international walls. The examples are beyond measure, from Jackie Robinson, to Eric Liddell, to the pioneers of Title IX, to soccer matches during the famous WWI Christmas Truce, to countless examples in the Olympics through the years… we could go on for days. Not everyone is a sports fan, but it’s hard to deny their power and relevance even if you’re not. And if we try to prevent sports from crossing any cultural boundaries outside the strict corral of physical athleticism alone (whether we agree that would be a good thing or not), that effort is going to fail. History has proven that’s just never going to happen. So we might as well just embrace the conversations it inevitably sparks, disagreements and all.

The Attempt to Discredit

The next tactic usually attacks the protestors themselves as not having earned the necessary credentials to have a voice in the debate. Here’s a common refrain: “They’re not oppressed! They’re overpaid millionaires who get paid to play a game.” Of course, many of those players have overcome various forms of discrimination on their road to stardom (some even more recently, as in the case of Michael Bennett), but even if that weren’t the case, why should that matter? They’re using their platform to bring awareness to a problem beyond just their own personal experience, advocating on behalf of those without as big a voice; so if they’re not oppressed themselves, then that makes it a selfless act.

Again, you can debate the legitimacy of the problem to which they’re drawing awareness separately, but let’s not pretend that their millionaire status precludes them from having a voice in this. They’ve worked hard to get where they are and I don’t begrudge them their money. Are they overpaid? Well, if you believe in the free market, then they’re paid exactly what they deserve as dictated by what the consumers of their entertainment are willing to spend, but we’ll save the economic lesson for another day. It’s just a red herring not germane to the discussion, anymore than a player’s level of on-field skill or whether or not they’re black enough, additional logical fallacies unnecessary to respond to separately.

The Attempt to Co-Opt

When all else fails, make it about something else. This is where the posturing comes in—a prime example being the narrative around the protestors being ungrateful for those who have fought and died for their freedom. Who, after all, would ever be justified in being ungrateful to those who have fought and died for their freedom? Never mind that the players have insisted they’re not ungrateful to those who have fought and died for their freedom—it matters not; in fact it makes the tactic all the more effective. You see, I just repeated the phrase 3 times, and it matters not whether some of those repetitions are explanatory clarifications or refutations—the repetition itself cements in the public eye that that’s what the issue is about. And thus you see how straw man arguments, even though a logical fallacy, can be annoyingly stubborn to counter.

The high-profile figures who employ these straw-man tactics typically care little about the issue itself, and more about rallying support to their tribe. Mike Pence’s staged walkout from the Colts-49ers game last week was an expensive PR stunt clearly meant to galvanize a partisan base that the administration had no doubt it would play well with. All politicians, right and left, do this, but we should recognize it as no more than capitalizing on the political theater of it. In reality, the issue should be independent of the right-left divide, but like everything else, it’s easier to herd the masses into the predictable trenches dug by those tribes than to promote thoughtful dialogue on the issue; the politicians play that game because we too often let them win at it.

The Attempt to Coerce

Far more concerning, however, were the president’s comments on the matter in the preceding weeks. Even if you’re adamantly opposed to the protestors and their cause, if we’re not equally bothered by the leader of the free world, who is sworn to defend and protect our constitution, endorsing punitive action against people exercising a constitutional right, we can’t really turn around and call ourselves patriotic.

This was a clear violation of conservative values in particular, but should transcend partisan divide. The liberty-minded take umbrage when the highest officer of the executive branch, the branch of government responsible for the enforcement of law, expresses an anti-free speech value. Even if he’s encouraging a private, non-government entity to do it (and therefore he hasn’t broken any law, as defenders have pointed out), it’s still an anti-free speech value, and I find that dangerous, because he’s the one sworn to protect those values. If he wants to express those opinions as a free citizen when he’s out of office, fine. There’s a higher accountability necessary for officers of the state on things like this.

That’s probably why even the conservative publication The National Review published an article leveling this same criticism against the president. And why certain NFL owners and others who had supported Trump chose to make a defiant statement against his weigh-in. It suddenly became about more than the anthem; it became about executive overreach, a repudiation of power they understand the government simply doesn’t have, and a clear statement that they won’t be bullied in such a fashion by an agent of the state. Liberty supersedes partisan loyalty, and true patriots will not tolerate government officials suggesting punitive action for constitutionally protected rights—period.

But more on this patriotism angle in my next post. Stay tuned for Part 3 in the coming days.

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TakeAKnee Part 1: The Respectability of the Posture

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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.

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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.

Continue to Part 2 >>