There was a time in this American’s story when sports was about events on a playing field. At least that was the perception. And then there’s the current sports story that isn’t about sports at all. It’s a story about society, money, leadership, politics, injustice and protest. And it’s a story that’s provoked a debate about just what constitutes patriotism.
If there’s one thing that the National Football League has a brilliant flair for, its keeping the company brand front and center year round. It’s what the NFL does. NFL all the time. Unless one of it’s players has fallen off the legal wagon during the offseason the league brass usually keeps a positive spin going, 365. So it’s puzzling that right on the cusp of Memorial Day Weekend, months before opening kickoff, Commissioner Roger Goodell and the owners revived a controversy that was dormant and might have been deceased by season’s start in September.
This past week the league announced a national anthem policy that forbids players from publicly protesting on the field during the playing of the anthem. Players may remain in the locker room but any on field act that is deemed to be disrespectful can result in the team being fined. Teams may also take disciplinary action against offending players and they’ve been given a wide berth in what they deem to be appropriate which I guess means anything from a suspension to sending a player to bed without his supper. There is no equity in these cases. A valuable starter gets a finger wagging while a player who spends a lot of time on the bench is given a cigarette and a last meal.
It all started in August of 2016 when Colin Kaepernick sat during the playing of the national anthem. Nobody noticed until a photo of the seated quarterback appeared in a tweet unrelated to his protest. Trump suggested that Kaepernick “Find a country that works better for him.” These protests might have remained isolated and unnoticed but for the fact that the pretender who currently occupies the White House made it a cause célèbre.
Fast forward to 2017 when Trump speaking at a rally decided to serve a platter of red meat to his base suggesting that players should be fired if they “disrespect our Great American Flag (or Country) by refusing to stand for the national anthem.” But that wasn’t enough; nooooo, not by a damn site. Trump followed hp with, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’”
What do you think happens when you get into a pissing contest with a bunch of alpha-males? In this case on the next game day you get protests en-masse; players from teams including the Ravens, Jaguars, Steelers, Bears, Dolphins, Broncos, Bills, Browns, Patriots, Eagles, Falcons, Vikings, Bengals, Packers, Chargers, Chiefs, and Raiders knelt or locked arms during the Star Spangled Banner. Hell, even Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones joined the team in kneeling.
And so a full season and two black balled players (Kaepernick and Eric Reid) later we’re right in the middle of it again. At the risk of pissing off some of the readership, let me make it clear that I’m squarely behind the players on this one.
In announcing the new policy Goodell said, “Clearly our objective as a league and to all 32 clubs, which was unanimous, is that we want people to be respectful of the national anthem.”
To that Mr. Commish, I’m throwing a penalty flag for excessive heaving of bullshit. The National Football League is all about money. It’s not about players; it’s not about fans; and it certainly is not about respect. If this is about respect during the playing of the anthem then the sales of beer and hot dogs would be suspended by league fiat. If this is about respecting the flag then I expect that the league will be enforcing the U.S. Flag Code and prohibit fans from entering the stadium wearing flag apparel. And I imagine that we won’t be seeing those giant flags that are held horizontally during the playing of the anthem since that is also a violation of the Flag Code; The flag should never be carried flat or horizontally, but always aloft and free. I suppose that stadium security will be patrolling the stadium parking lots looking for pregame parties that are using flag festooned plates and napkins (The flag should never be…printed or otherwise impressed on paper napkins or boxes or anything that is designed for temporary use and discarded.).
Respect and patriotism have nothing to do with this. It’s all about the fear of Donald Trump. In an article in Bleacher Report, Mike Freeman writes that one team source told him “Our league, is fucking terrified of Trump.” The NFL is afraid that Trumpiam tweets are going to affect the bottom line and if the NFL is about anything it’s about the bottom line. The league, facing a decrease in fan interest last season is banking on this new rule fluffing up viewership and attendance. Opines Freeman, “Now, because of the NFL’s ineptitude, the anthem controversy will be around a long time, and it will be messy, and ugly, and divisive. The union and the league will likely go to war, and swaths of America will fight over it.”
The latter is certainly true as the vitriol started moments after the NFL’s announcement. One side says that the players are a bunch of coddled, entitled traitors disrespecting America, particularly service members while the other side counters that the players are protesting injustice towards people of color.
For the player’s part they have made it clear, time and time and time again that their protests have not been aimed at service members or America as a whole. The protests are meant to shed light on racial injustice in America.
Most Americans aren’t old enough to remember 1968 when America exploded in protest. It was a year that saw racial injustice similar to what we’ve seen recently along with the assassinations of two human rights champions; Doctor Martin Luther King and presidential candidate Robert Kennedy. It was the year of John Carlos and Tommie Smith raising their fists in a human rights protest while standing on the podium during the playing of the national anthem at the Summer Olympics in Mexico City. I was behind that protest as I am now with the NFL players.
We’re fifty years later and what’s changed? Young black men still get pulled over for nothing or get shot for brandishing a cell phone, Hispanics get detained for speaking Spanish to each other and Muslims get insulted, injured or killed for the “crime” of being Muslim.
And the America love it or leave it crowd can’t get it into their heads that maybe the NFL players might just be protesting the same injustices that we haven’t managed to do away with a half century after Smith and Carlos staged their protest. In fact I would be willing to bet the mortgage that the love it or leave it folks don’t think there is any injustice; just a bunch of whiners.
In 1968, America had a broken president in Lyndon Johnson. In 2018 we have an office of the presidency broken by a swindler who clearly has no basic knowledge of American civics, disdains the Constitution and acts more like a tinhorn dictator than an American President. We have a knave play acting as president who has; insulted a U.S. Senator who was flying missions over Vietnam and later captured while Trump was busy dodging the draft; disparaged law enforcement; praised foreign dictators; praised white supremacists; insulted gold star families; denounced a Federal Judge for being “Mexican,” and has taken a stinking dump on the ideals that America was founded on. And he’s anointed himself as the definer of patriotism.
And so, inexplicably the NFL, caved in to a two bit charlatan and now the ensuing havoc is over the definition of patriotism. This isn’t a new argument to be sure. The love it or leave crowd has been around since I can remember. They cling to a narrow, jingoistic definition of patriotism. Their patriotism is one that demands a lockstep concurrence with their view of America while deeming un-American any criticism of America.
It’s the God, guts and guns crowd, that wants prayer in school, denies any notion that America has fucked up on occasion and refuses to accept the possibility that injustice in America exists.
It’s the America love or leave it bunch that invites those with opposing viewpoints to get the hell out and don’t let the border door hit you in the ass. The love it or leave it brigade has been around for generations but they’ve been emboldened by a president who said players that don’t stand “shouldn’t be in this country.”
I never have liked the word “patriotism.” To me it’s always carried with it the “my country right or wrong,” connotation. But if we do need that word it should describe the good citizen; knowledgeable in American history and politics, loyal to the tenets of justice and right and compassion that since America’s founding have been the national foundation. The patriot realizes that despite our national failings that solid base is always there.
Patriots aren’t only soldiers or politicians. Patriots are individuals like Martin Luther King; journalists like Edward R. Murrow who squared off against Joe McCarthy; Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein who helped expose the corruption of the Nixon Administration; abolitionist Harriet Tubman and labor leader Cesar Chavez. These are the people who root out corruption or work for the betterment of that segment of our society which is often marginalized.
I debated with myself briefly about whether or not to publish this on Memorial Day until I realized that there could be a no more fitting day. My father didn’t go to war in Europe over a song or a pledge of allegiance or a flag. My dad and those of his comrades who lost their lives went to war to help defeat a dictator who demanded allegiance and unwavering loyalty similar to what our current president demands. Those men fought and died in defense of the ideals put forth in the Declaration of Independence, The Constitution and the engraving on the Statue of Liberty. How sad that 73 years after the fall of Hitler, we have a President who has emboldened the nationalist and perverted the ideal of patriotism.
Fifty seven years ago a great American President challenged Americans, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country. John F. Kennedy called for Americans to make their nation a better place. He called on Americans to “struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.” If there is a such thing as patriotism then this is what it is.
We’ve come a long sad way from a President who challenged Americans to serve for the general welfare, to an ignorant pretender who is so out of touch with what American democracy means that he believes protest has no place in America.