COMMENTARY Freedom is expressed in the right to disagree

  • By Kent James
September 30, 2017

The flag and the national anthem are patriotic symbols that inspire strong feelings of love toward our country, but sometimes their role is complicated.

The anthem was first played at sporting events during World War I, to enliven the crowd during a World Series that was suffering from wartime anxiety, and it became a practice for regular-season games during World War II to support the war effort. Recently, the Defense Department discretely paid the NFL to put on patriotic displays before games as an effort to boost recruitment. For people who think politics should not be a part of sports, the political origins of the use of the national anthem at sporting events presents a problem.

Additionally, the second verse of the national anthem celebrates the death of American slaves who fought for the British in order to be free, which does make it reasonable for African-Americans to question its unifying qualities.

Last year, instead of standing as is customary, Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem prior to his games with the San Francisco 49ers. He told reporters that he was doing so because he wanted to bring attention to the ongoing problem of police inappropriately killing unarmed black men. Critics claimed that by raising the issue, he was anti-cop, and by kneeling, he was disrespecting the military, for whom the anthem has special significance.

It is not disrespectful for a player to kneel during the national anthem, though it is understandable that some people see it that way. It would be disrespectful for players to ignore the anthem, and continue to warm-up, chat with teammates, or otherwise go about their business.

Initially, Kaepernick protested by sitting on the bench, but Nate Boyer, a former NFL player and Green Beret, met with him and told him doing so was disrespectful; he suggested Kaepernick take a knee instead. Kaepernick followed his advice, so it is pretty clear that Kaepernick was not trying to be disrespectful.

Protests are by their nature disruptive. Disruption is the lever used to get attention for a cause. Protesters block streets, make noise, disrupt daily life. They force you to pay attention, to ask, “What is this about?” As a professional football player, Kaepernick had a large audience, and the controversy his actions created demonstrate the efficacy of his method. His silent protest is not inherently disruptive, but he felt that was how he could best make a difference. He has also given almost $1 million to organizations fighting for racial justice, which is pretty impressive for someone who is unemployed and whose career may be over because of his actions.

He is not a pampered athlete simply seeking attention; he believes in his cause, and has been willing to sacrifice for it.

Although this issue had faded from the headlines, President Trump, as is his wont, inflamed things when he spoke recently at a rally in Alabama, encouraging the owners to fire anyone who refused to stand for the national anthem. His comments certainly fired up his base, which is unified by his attacks on their enemies, in this case, black players who don’t show the respect their audience demands.

At the same rally, Trump also declared that NFL’s efforts to mitigate the dangers to the players was “ruining the game.” Trump sees nothing wrong with asking players, who are primarily black, to risk brain damage for the entertainment of a primarily white audience, at the same time he derides the players’ efforts to mitigate racial oppression. He thinks players who kneel should be fired for disrespecting the flag, while defending the white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville, Va., who were literally using symbols of two groups, the Nazis and American Confederates, who fought to destroy our nation, as “good people.” Trump is either clueless, a racist or an opportunist who uses racial division for political gain.

Some argue that employees should not express their personal beliefs while on the job. Should owners fire players who point to heaven or take a knee after scoring a touchdown, actions which are pretty clearly an expression of personal religious belief? Should all players be forced to stand during the anthem, as a gesture of respect? If they refuse, should we fire them? Put them in jail?

Democracies are inefficient and messy. People have divergent views, and that can disrupt unity that would allow more effective governance. Authoritarian regimes that don’t tolerate dissent can be very efficient. Giving people the right to agree with you is not a right at all; freedom is expressed in the right to disagree. Players have the right to protest, and if they don’t like it, fans have a right to boycott the players for doing so.

It’s a free country. Let’s make sure it stays that way.

James is an East Washington resident and has a degree in history and policy from Carnegie Mellon University.

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