When all this started last football season, I didn’t even pay attention. After all, it was a sidelined quarterback and he didn’t play for my team. Colin Kaepernick’s actions during the national anthem just didn’t affect me.
Since last fall, the rhetoric has ramped up and I now find myself taking sides. I honestly considered both positions.
Are these professional sports figures disrespecting the flag?
Should they be prevented from doing so legally?
They are disrespecting the military.
It seems like this line has been trotted out frequently over the last year. Many pundits would have us believe that by sitting, kneeling or otherwise protesting during the Star Spangled Banner, athletes are demeaning those who have served. I considered this view based on what I know as a military spouse.
Service members swear a solemn oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States of America. Part of that Constitution includes the First Amendment, which protects the right to free speech. By protesting, these professional athletes are exercising the very rights that our troops have sworn to protect and defend.
Our troops are working for an idea, an institution, that affirms our rights as Americans to believe as we choose and to, respectfully, act as we choose.
In many opinion pieces being shared online, veterans are supporting Kaepernick and his protest. Across the generations, active duty service members and veterans are defending the right to publicly protest, even if it means taking a knee during the national anthem.
I understand their reasons for protesting.
The last few years have seen very visible evidence of violence against people of color and other minority groups. It seems as if every week there is another news story about a police traffic stop gone horribly wrong. Or another young child caught in the crossfire. There rarely seems to be justice served.
I’m not here to tell police officers how to do their jobs. I certainly don’t know how and I can’t imagine being caught in those rock-and-a-hard-place scenarios where lives are on the line. I respect and admire anyone who chooses to serve their community and the greater good in law enforcement. But the optics are not great.
I can understand and sympathize with those who feel that there are great injustices happening daily in our country. I understand their desires to bring even greater visibility to these issues.
When it comes down to it, the protesting professional athletes are speaking to something that is affecting their lives and the lives of their loved ones and communities. And they are doing it without violence on a highly visible stage. It’s not very much different than other non-violent protests in the past.
Except that we now live in a time of very heated political rhetoric.
Lines have been drawn everywhere. Family members and close friends now no longer speak. Family reunions and friendly dinners have been turned into divisive debates. When opposing views seem to be held in our society, this is inevitable.
Mostly, I tried to stay out of this particular debate. Until I got to a point where I just couldn’t anymore. For me, that point came this past week.
I firmly agree that free speech does have unintended consequences. Private employers have the right to dismiss individuals who have used their First Amendment rights in a way that is not in keeping with the company’s mission statement. Other individuals have a right to reject words or actions that they disagree with. This, too, is part of the Bill of Rights.
With a series of tweets, our president seemed to call into question the rights of a U.S. citizen to protest peacefully. He called upon NFL team owners to fire any player that follows Kaepernick’s lead.
In short, our president used the power of his office to attempt to influence the actions of private businesses against individuals that he disagrees with.
And this is not OK. This is the line in the sand for me, personally.
As a representative of the U.S. government, our president also swears to protect and defend the Constitution. That includes the First Amendment, which enshrines freedom of speech for every citizen as the law of the land.
Freedom of speech isn’t just for when you agree with it, when it is convenient or when it follows your narrative. It means freedom of speech. Full stop.
This freedom means that the people who marched in Charlottesville, Va., have the same right to non-violent expression as professional athletes when they kneel during the anthem. It means that I can firmly believe that a silent protest to call attention to racial injustice is fine. And it means you can disagree with me about that same point.
If we walk away from protecting and defending this movement, these actions, as part of the First Amendment, what are we saying about America? That one kind of protest is OK, but another kind is not? We seem to be walking back our beliefs and freedoms because it doesn’t fit with our narrative that honoring the flag is directly tied to respecting our troops.
I see it differently.
We got where we are today through protests against injustice. The patriots in Boston showed their disgust at the tea tax by dumping it all in the harbor. Countless Quakers and abolitionists showed their opposition to slavery by assisting people to freedom. Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. and many others all practiced non-violent protests to help move our nation toward racial equality.
More athletes have joined the silent protest over the past year and especially over the last few weeks. Major League Baseball just saw its first player take a knee. Bruce Maxwell, a catcher for the Oakland Athletics, has silently refused to stand during the national anthem. Maxwell has predicted that we shouldn’t be “surprised if you start seeing athletes kneeling in other sports now.”
The right to speak your mind, to exercise your rights, is exactly why my spouse signed up to protect and defend our great country. Not so that everyone would stand and salute the flag. Not to earn unending gratitude. And certainly not to allow our rights to be trampled on.
These professional athletes are exercising their rights.
If you choose not to watch or support professional sports this season, that is your right. But you do not have the right to make professional athletes stop.