So, how did you like the National Football League owners’ “compromise” on a national anthem policy? They have decided that next year, players who don’t want to stand on the sideline for the national anthem don’t have to. They can avoid having their teams penalized by simply choosing to stay in their locker rooms and then, when the song is over, they can join their teammates. This way, everybody wins. The patriots can show respect for the flag. And the malcontents don’t have to bear the indignity of doing the same. What a swell solution!
The President of the United States sure liked it. “You have to stand proudly for the national anthem and the NFL owners did the right thing if that's what they've done," our President told his friends on Fox. “You have to stand proudly for the national anthem or you shouldn't be playing. You shouldn't be there. Maybe you shouldn't be in the country," he continued. “I don't think people should be staying in locker rooms. But still I think it's good."
The President’s statement reveals why this is being touted as a compromise. The Fox News watchers would have wanted to compel everyone to stand for the anthem, but the ever-compassionate owners care about all their players, even the ones who hate the flag and what it stands for. So they came up with a way to let the protesters evade the responsibility of saluting Old Glory. How considerate, right?
Wrong. The owners know damned well that the new policy isn’t a compromise, it’s a gut punch. The protesters aren’t trying to insult their country, their flag, or their national anthem. They have chosen this particular protest vehicle because it gives them a chance to make a powerful statement in the one and only forum where America is watching them without a helmet on. The statement they want to make is a noble one: to call to our attention the seemingly never-ending scourge of racial injustice. They have supplied us with an indelible image, the same image they frequently take when an injured comrade is seriously injured and carted off the field. They drop to the ground and "take a knee."
The NFL owners, in all their kindness, have chosen to let these players remain in the locker room during the anthem. But what good is that? The players can hardly speak out against injustice if they’re inside that facility, with cameras nowhere to be found, staring at benches and walls. The entire power of their protest -- the indelible image of the gladiator who compassionately drops to his knee -- would be gone. It would be as if, during the Vietnam War, protesters were given a choice –to go to their local VFW or American Legion and celebrate the war, or to sit inside some building and protest in obscurity – but were prevented from demonstrating outside where other people might see them. If that had been our government's policy, I might well have been drafted to go to ‘Nam in 1978.
My suspicion is that more than anything else, these owners are simply worshiping the “bottom line.” You see, a fair number of football fans have, to different degrees, boycotted the league because it has been tolerating these take-a-knee protests. The owners obviously didn’t want to countenance losing any more money to support the players’ right to express themselves. So they came up with this gesture to give their right-wing base what it wants (no more strident visuals), while couching this gift in the form of a “compromise.”
In the book of Luke (16:8), Jesus is said to have claimed that “No servant can be slave of two masters; he will either hate the first and love the second, or treat the first with respect, and the second with scorn. You cannot be the slave both of God and of money.” Indeed. I suspect the owners have made their choice.
But let’s be fair. The owners may be fixated on money, but for those rank and file fans who have fueled the boycott, this is all about patriotism and love of country. Many would find solace in the words of Mike Zimmer, Head Coach of my beloved Minnesota Vikings: "I was proud of my team last year. They stood for the anthem. I think it's important that we stand for the anthem. I think it's important that we represent our country the right way, the flag the right way. I probably shouldn't get on a tangent, right? But a lot of people have died for that flag, and that flag represents our country and what we stand for. I think that's important. I'll stop there."
Please, Coach, continue. In this country, you not only have the right to your opinion, you have the right to express it publicly. But explain this to me first. Have people really died for that flag? Or have they died for what it represents? And doesn’t it represent a love of liberty? Freedom of choice? Freedom of expression? Freedom to dissent? Freedom to create images that are jarring to those of us who are defined by complacency?
After all, when we’re glowing about Old Glory, aren’t we really focusing on the wisdom of Jeffersonian democracy? And by that, we wouldn’t be referencing Jefferson the slave owner, but rather Jefferson the philosopher, whose better angels led him to make statements like: “The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it to be always kept alive. It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not to be exercised at all. I like a little rebellion now and then.”
In my workplace, I occasionally go to official ceremonies in which the national anthem is always played, and not a soul sits or kneels when s/he hears it. But that’s my workplace: a federal facility. The NFL workplace is a privately owned field where grown men blast the living hell out of each other’s bodies and a substantial fraction of these gladiators end up permanently disabled – mentally, physically or both. If ever there were a group of Americans who’ve earned the right to engage in a peaceful and non-disruptive protest to send a message to their fellow citizens about racial justice, this is the group.
Football owners, if you want my opinion, you’ve just fumbled the ball at your own goal line. You’re the ones who have shamed our flag, not the protesters. Here’s hoping those players figure out another way to speak out against injustice and that we fans have the grace to listen when they do. It’s the least we can offer them, given the time we spend watching these young men thoroughly damage their minds and bodies for our own escapist entertainment.