At times like these I wonder if our country has lost its collective mind. Concluding that it has, I can’t resist the temptation to wonder how things got this way. Of course there are no simple answers. But it seems to me that among the causes for this, the widespread propensity of many to act upon what they believe, as if those beliefs constitute verifiable facts despite lack of objective proof, is a prime culprit. With the plethora of conflicting info (including “fake news,” however one chooses to define this misused term), it can be hard to navigate all the contentious claims. But failure to exercise due diligence is no excuse. These are, after all, the times in which we live. We must deal with the world in which we find ourselves, no matter how alluring nostalgia may appear.
It is in this spirit that I’d like to take a minute to consider some verifiable “facts” regarding the current controversy drummed up and enflamed by irresponsible pandering on the part of a so-called leader of our nation regarding sports figures’ right to peacefully protest during the opening ceremonies of NFL games. It is the height of hypocrisy for the same man that had to be reminded by his foreign-born wife to place his right hand over his heart during the playing of the national anthem on Monday, April 17, 2017, to question the motives of NFL players that have chosen to kneel during the playing of the same national anthem as a protest against racial profiling. For him to insist on the application of a standard he himself fails to follow sums up his approach to his current job and shows a complete disregard for the rights guaranteed to all American citizens in the Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution.
First, because the NFL players he attacked are citizens of the United States, they are legally entitled to exercise their right to “freedom of speech,” and such protests fit well within the time-honored tradition of protesting grievances in the U.S. being interpreted as expressions of free speech. Here is the actual First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that guarantees these rights:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Many (including the prime instigator of this donnybrook) have accused those protesting of “disrespecting” the U.S. flag. We have no laws regarding what does or does not constitute disrespectful flag treatment. The closest thing we have to a code of conduct regarding flag treatment is the “U.S. Flag Code,” which is really only a set of guidelines or etiquette for displaying, storing and disposing of the flag.
While the U.S. Flag Code contains guidelines that encourage all present to stand when the flag is hoisted (see Section 9 below), it also prohibits displaying the flag horizontally (see Section 8c below), as frequently occurs during current NFL opening ceremonies, yet this practice generates no complaints:
Section 9, titled “Conduct During Hoisting, Lowering, or Passing of Flag, states:
During the ceremony of hoisting or lowering the flag or when the flag is passing in a parade or in review, all persons present in uniform should render the military salute. Members of the Armed Forces and veterans who are present but not in uniform may render the military salute. All other persons present should face the flag and stand at attention with the right hand over the heart, or if applicable, remove their headdress with their right hand and hold it at the left shoulder, the hand being over the heart. Citizens of other countries present should stand at attention. All such conduct toward the flag in a moving column should be rendered at the moment the flag passes.
Section 8, titled “Respect for the Flag,” states in section c:
The flag should never be carried flat or horizontally, but always aloft and free.
Given that these “kneeling” protests are relatively short in duration, and are actually occurring only during the playing of the national anthem, it seems likely that they are not protests against the U.S. flag or all that it represents (as some claim), but instead are protests that coincide with the playing of the national anthem in order to draw attention to a particular grievance. It is hard to imagine the purpose or value of lying about the reason for a protest, if one hopes the protest will get results. Therefore, I take the protesters at their word when they say the protests are against racial profiling only.
So the issue is that some NFL players are kneeling during the playing of the national anthem to protest racial profiling. Some complain these protests defile the tradition of respectfully standing for the national anthem—but why? How much of a tradition is it really? Playing of the national anthem in and of itself has not always been the accepted patriotic symbol for starting football games that some now interpret it to be.
There are records of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” our current national anthem, being played before baseball games as far back as 1897, but the song wasn’t adopted as the national anthem until 1931.
According to the NFL Pro Football Hall of Fame, the NFL was founded in Canton, Ohio, on September 17, 1920. Yet the earliest indication of regular inclusion of the national anthem as part of the opening ceremony for NFL games was after WWII, when the commissioner of the NFL at the time, Elmer Layden, made a specific plea to keep the anthem as a game-day tradition. While the anthem eventually became a game-day fixture for the fans, NFL players typically stayed in the locker room during its playing. According to Tom E. Curran of Comcast Sportsnet New England, NFL players did not typically stand for the national anthem until 2009. There were exceptions, of course—players observed the anthem after 9/11 and during Super Bowl games—but it wasn’t until 2009 that players were mandated to be on the field for the playing of the national anthem.
There are other “economic reasons” that the national anthem was not always played before sporting events. For example, historian Marc Ferris, who wrote a history of the national anthem, points out that at first the anthem didn’t exactly come free. As he told NPR in 2016, before the advent of recorded music, “you had to hire a band. That was expensive, so it was only for special occasions—opening day, holidays—up until the time of World War II.”
So, if “standing” for the national anthem is not nearly the longstanding (no pun intended) tradition that it has been for the U.S. flag, why on earth is taking a knee suddenly considered so disrespectful of our national anthem? Perhaps some folks are equating the tradition of standing for the flag with standing for the anthem. Yet we have no U.S. Anthem Code; we only have a U.S. Flag Code. And why is kneeling considered disrespectful? Kneeling, often called genuflection, is traditionally a gesture of subservience, obedience, or reverence, not of confrontation. Here’s a definition:
Genuflection (or genuflexion), bending at least one knee to the ground, was from early times a gesture of deep respect for a superior. Today, the gesture is common in the Christian religious practices of the Anglican Church, Lutheran Church, Roman Catholic Church, and Western Rite Orthodox Church. The Latin word genuflectio, from which the English word is derived, originally meant kneeling rather than the rapid dropping to one knee and immediately rising that became customary in Western Europe in the Middle Ages.
Men also traditionally get on a bended knee to propose marriage. And quarterbacks in American football like Colin Kaepernick, who started this whole kneeling during the anthem controversy, “take a knee” to signal they are conceding that a play is over without any attempt to gain yardage . . . doing so merely to run out the clock as the game nears either half-time or the end of the game. This is done to avoid risking a turnover when a team in possession of the ball has a narrow lead that they want to protect.
So why take offense with this particular gesture in this context at this time? Reflecting on this question may lead to some insight into how some folks are exploiting fissures in our collective national psyche for their own political ends . . . using emotion rather than knowledge to fan the flames of resentment.
Could there be any legitimate reasons that some protesters might object to the unquestioned embrace of the lyrics of the anthem, which Francis Scott Key wrote on September 14, 1814, as soldiers at Baltimore’s Fort McHenry raised a huge American flag to celebrate a crucial victory over British forces during the War of 1812, and therefore feel it is the appropriate time and place for their protest?
To the folks that find these protests objectionable, I ask you to examine the rarely sung third verse of Key’s lyrics, which refers to former slaves who had joined the British Army:
And where is that band who so vauntingly swore,
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion
A home and a Country should leave us no more?
Their blood has wash’d out their foul footstep’s pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
I’m not even of African American heritage, and I find this stanza to be questionable, offensive and insensitive to our country’s historical injustices . . . especially the institution of slavery, which had not yet ended at the time of the War of 1812!!
So perhaps there are valid reasons to protest racial profiling during the playing of our national anthem. Valid or not, these protests are still legal. Rather than attack the messengers, perhaps we’d all benefit from considering the validity of their message.
I know there are some that feel that, with the election of an African American President, Barack Obama, the time for apologies should be over. And I acknowledge that there may be some merit to this argument. But until African American parents no longer need to have “the talk” with their children about the perils of “driving while black,” or how to cow-tow to any questioning by any police officer in virtually any circumstance, I believe that the appropriate form of any protest has to be determined by the aggrieved parties, not by those eager to move on.
This brings me to the complaints that the opening ceremony of a sporting spectacle intended for entertainment is not the place for such protests. Well, this is the field of endeavor where the protestors command the stage, and it is therefore the place that gives their protests the most visibility and effectiveness. Just consider how much we are all talking about it now. These protests are now getting more traction than all the Black Lives Matter protests did.
In the grand scheme of things, taking a knee during the anthem seems pretty tame to anyone who grew up in the 1960s, as I did. Just compare it to the 1968 Olympics Black Power salute, which was a political demonstration conducted by African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos during their medal ceremony at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, while the U.S. national anthem was being played; or Muhammad Ali’s refusal to be inducted in the U.S. Army as a protest against the Vietnam War. Or compare taking a knee to the actual burning of the American flag, which is deemed constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. Even Antonin Scalia, Trump’s model for the perfect jurist, supported a very liberal interpretation of the First Amendment, when, in 1989, the Supreme Court handed down a decision in Texas v. Johnson, which found a man named Gregory Lee Johnson had a constitutional right to burn the American flag during the Republican National Convention. At the time of this decision, Scalia sided with the majority in that case, which found that the First Amendment protects political expression like setting the stars and stripes on fire. That didn’t mean that Scalia liked flag desecration, but as Scalia said repeatedly, it’s the justices’ job to interpret the Constitution, not to pass moral judgment.
Part of what makes us a great nation is our adherence to the rule of law. Among the laws that have protected us since the Constitution was ratified on June 21, 1788, (by the way, it required the addition of the Bill of Rights to get it ratified), is the First Amendment, which guarantees all of us, including NFL players, the right to freely but peacefully express their protest of any issue they choose. In this case, that issue is racial profiling. So instead of firing them for exercising their constitutional rights (as a certain reality T.V. clown has suggested), how about we consider the validity of their grievances and seek to remedy them, in the spirit of fulfilling the very promises our founding documents put forth as the essence of human rights. Rights so named because all humans are entitled to them! After all, we are either a land of laws, which are fair and just, both in their design and their implementation, or we are a land of men, where we decide some folks are treated differently than others because of some distinction that is perceived to elevate or devalue their status.
I for one advocate adherence to what our founding documents propose, the rule of laws fairly designed and applied to guarantee what Thomas Jefferson outlined in the Declaration of Independence when our original thirteen colonies declared their independence from England (in what the British Empire perceived as an unlawful act), which protested the unjust treatment of the colonists by the government of King George the III. Jefferson wrote:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.
Let us live up to the promise of our forefathers, and not succumb to the temptation for divisive tribalism that some are encouraging.
Just say know!