Another football weekend is upon us. Friday night will see high school boys under the lights, while collegiate student-athletes will take the field on Saturday. And Sunday? We’ll have another round of NFL football with its associated acrimony about the national anthem.
This entire controversy is nonsensical; countless words have already been thrown at it. So what’s 740 more? The other topics scoring headlines — the Affordable Care Act, immigration, tax reform — are perennial and will be here for columns to come. With luck, these protests and tweetstorms will fade away, and we can be back to normal.
Unfortunately, “back to normal” isn’t much better when it comes to respect for the flag. Long before Colin Kaepernick took a knee, cameras would pan sidelines, showing players chewing on their mouthguards and pulling on their shoulder pads during the national anthem. They would cut to people in the crowd — still wearing hats — swaying around with a drink in their hand.
It always drove me crazy.
When the first notes of “The Star-Spangled Banner” ring through the air, you are supposed to remove your hat. Then place your hand over your heart — or, if in uniform, present arms — for the duration. It isn’t hard, but the failure to follow it never caused a national uproar.
In a strange way, those protesting during the anthem almost garner more respect than those who blithely ignore the history, heritage, and protocols of the occasion. The former recognize the solemnity of the moment and seek to leverage it. The latter are more focused on whatever comes next, be it kickoff or more beer.
That apathy is probably worse than dissent.
However, that does not mean the means of protest is correct. Just over a year ago, Kaepernick started this controversy by sitting for the anthem, later deciding to kneel. His cause? Police shootings of black men.
Now, people can disagree on the degree of and reasons for that problem. But choosing to utilize the national anthem at an NFL game seems, at best, unrelated to his chosen cause. After all, no one — I hope — believes there is a nationwide, government-directed policy to kill black people. Yet the flag and the anthem represents all of us, one nation, under God.
And while the NFL has plenty of problems, bias against skin color does not seem to be one of them. Nearly 70 percent of players are black; about 13 percent of Americans are. Which is why the original protest never really caught the attention of the nation. What is the connection between “The Star-Spangled Banner” on a stadium sideline and police shootings based on allegations of racism?
Effective movements work with something concrete tied to their objectives. When the British declared a tax regime on salt and prohibited the historical practice of obtaining it from the ocean, Mahatma Gandhi led a march to the sea to collect salt in civil disobedience. When the British declared a tax (noticing a pattern?) and regulations on tea, the Sons of Liberty commenced the Boston Tea Party in a slightly vandalous act of civil disobedience. When unconstitutional segregation was enforced by southern authorities, Freedom Riders and others integrated themselves to force the issue.
These famous protests focused on the real, direct, tangible policies of government, while embodying larger goals — self-governance for the colonies of India and America, civil rights legislation to battle imbued racism — of their movements. They placed activists astride the injustice they saw, facing real repercussions — taxes, imprisonment, attacks — while daring the powerful to enforce the morally wrong choice. And, in those examples, they all won.
So, if Kaepernick finds employment once again, maybe he should stand up for the anthem and refocus his efforts somewhere tied to the wrong he sees. If he truly believes protests are necessary, he could take up residence in a state in which he sees a problem and refuse to pay state income tax funding law enforcement agencies. There can be honor in conviction coupled with sacrifice, earning respect even if your opponents believe it misguided.
And there is honor due our national symbols. We’re far from perfect as a nation and the instant we stop seeking to improve is the moment we begin to fail. But the ideals on which we were founded have led us to do more advancing the twin causes of human freedom and prosperity than any other modern nation. For that, the very least we can do is stand up.
Oh, and remove your hat.