by Ralph Scharnau
The issue of patriotism has once again surfaced. Patriotism remains a loaded concept with differing ethnic, cultural, racial, gender, political, and historical meanings. Underlying the divisions, the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution remain the most revered and most contested twin pillars of American patriotism.
This time the controversy surrounds the flag and the national anthem at athletic events. Americans differ sharply on what behavior constitutes disrespecting these iconic national symbols. Last year the National Football League players’ campaign for social justice became the epicenter of a new civil-rights movement.
It started when Colin Kaepernick, then the San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback, an African American, nonviolently and quietly took a knee during the playing of the national anthem to protest racial oppression following several questionable police shootings of unarmed black Americans.
He made no attempt to disrupt the singing of the anthem or prevent anyone from standing. Eric Reid, a teammate and fellow protester, referred to kneeling as “a respectful gesture . . . like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy.” Kaepernick said that respectful kneeling allowed him to also confront racial injustice, and he went on to launch and fund a $1 million dollar non-profit foundation dedicated to fighting oppression of all kinds through education and social activism.
The singular acts of nonviolent gridiron activism and social conscience galvanized people on both sides of the patriotic behavior divide.
Remember that playing professional football amounts to precarious labor with the typical NFL career lasting only three seasons, no guaranteed contracts, and facing cuts at any time. In this uniquely violent game where any play can be their last, African Americans comprise nearly 70% of these NFL players.
President Trump, tweeter-in-chief, inserted himself into the turmoil on September 22 by calling for the firing of any “son of a bitch” who knelt during the anthem. When Kaepernick’s mother heard of the President’s vulgar insult directed at her son, she reportedly responded, “Guess that makes me a proud bitch.”
Two days later, expressions of dissent (kneeling, raising fists, or locking arms) broke out during the national anthem at every NFL game.
When the protests continued among black and some white athletes from a variety of teams, Trump characterized the actions as disrespecting our flag and nation and lamented the NFL’s lack of leadership in stopping the dissent. Trump even tweeted that “nobody should be allowed to play who refuses to stand for the national anthem.”
Meanwhile the league continues to hold meetings with athletes and union officials, owners and managers in an effort to find a mutually agreed to resolution of the matter.
But Trump only seems to favor constitutional protection of free speech that he likes. He also assails the press when they report news that he does not like to hear, using the terms “dishonest media” and “fake news media.”
The flag as a symbol of the nation is not owned by the Trump administration or any other, for that matter. It is the people’s flag. The protest soon spilled over into professional basketball and spread outside the world of sports.
When Colin Kaepernick kneeled, it opened a national dialog about social justice that often only briefly pops up after police shootings and subsequent riots. The protest focuses on racial oppression.
The respectful protest gestures witness to the continuing instances of police misconduct, economic inequality, disparity in education and inequality. The courts have upheld the constitutional right of dissent. But racism continues to pervade our society.